Victorian School Life: Some things never change!

on Friday, 08 March 2013. Posted in Schools

School today seems so different to the experience of Victorian pupils. Computers, interactive white boards and televisions would certainly seem as foreign to those children as slates and dipping pens would to today’s students. However, a recent trawl through the delightful school log book collection for extracts to show teachers also found some things in common.  All the teachers agreed that whether it was bad weather, uniform, behaviour in class or the challenges of teaching maths and English, parts of school life from 140 years ago seemed very familiar.

A recent survey that was critical of maths teaching was uppermost in Swindon teacher’s minds when we came across the following extracts from Cricklade National School showing that it was a subject Victorian pupils struggled with:

Feb 16th 1866 “Find that many in the 2nd class failed in subtraction – several of whom seem utterly at a loss to comprehend the working of it”.
March 1st “Kept greater part of 1st class in this morning for insolence in the arithmetic lesson”
For one pupil the subject proved too much altogether: March 12th “Maria Stone who lives with her grandmother doesn’t feel inclined to come, having such a distaste to arithmetic.”

Mathematics wasn’t the only subject to test Victorian pupils. The poor literacy skills of students are a common theme in the head’s log books. The head at Yatton Keynell wrote: 7 October 1867 “Admitted four children – Elizabeth, Fanny and Henry Hillier and George Whiting to school. The 1st of these though 12 years old is unable to read words of 2 letters and the rest although each over 5 do not know their letters”. From Margaret Stancombe infant school the same story emerges: Feb 6th 1895 “Admitted a boy Charles Andrews, he will be six years old on March 25/95 he cannot even say the alphabet or point out a letter or figure, nor can he write at all”.


The new head of infants at Lacock school wrote this entry on her first day: Monday Oct 5th 1874 “This morning I took charge of the Infant Department, I find the children very rude and disorderly, and above 30 who do not know their letters. Was taken very ill the same evening and was not able to attend my duties during the week”. We don’t know if the new head’s illness was caused by the shock of such a rude and disorderly school, but she continued to suffer illness throughout her time in charge. The next head wrote a very similar report on her first day in charge 5 years later in 1879 “On Monday morning Feb 3rd after 29 years service in Lacock mixed school, I took charge of the infant Department” Friday 7th “More like a noisy playground than a school”.

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