Education Quandary

Wartime evacuees seem to remember their teachers with great respect. Is this just indulging in nostalgia? Or was teaching really better then?
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The Independent Online

Hilary's advice

Nostalgia is "a sentimental yearning for a period of the past", according to the Oxford Concise Dictionary, and as such it must be viewed with suspicion.

Wartime impressions are bound to be vivid, and of course young evacuees, catapulted into the alien life of the countryside, will have retained glowing memories of adults who treated them well. Add in the pulling-together spirit of wartime, with everyone giving of their best, whether in the cockpit of a Hurricane or the classroom of a rural primary school, and you have a classic recipe for reminiscences of the "fings ain't wot they used ter be" kind.

But education then was very different. Teachers were thinner on the ground, and were accorded automatic respect for being better educated than those around them. Their job was simpler, expectations were lower, children's behaviour was better, and society at large more meek and hierarchical.

Today's teachers are expected not only to teach, but also to be IT wizards and family therapists. They must be entertainers, spicing up their lessons with role-playing and video clips. They must teach pupils not only straightforward academic subjects such as history and chemistry, but also about drugs, citizenship, personal finance and globalisation.

Parents are no longer in awe of teachers' learning, and children don't look up to them because they no longer look up to anyone. Under such circumstances, teaching is an uphill battle and teachers have to work much harder to gain the respect of their pupils than their predecessors during the dark days of the War.

But many do, and their achievements should be acknowledged, not knocked aside by sweeping statements about how much better things were in the past.

Readers' advice

As an evacuee, I attended a school in Devon where standards were so much lower than at home in Essex that the school was a year behind.

Some teachers were excellent, some appalling. My English teacher could not speak a sentence without umming and erring, which made me rather naughty. Eventually she told me to get out. So I went. It was lovely weather, and the adjacent hockey pitch had not been mown (not a priority in wartime), so I made myself a hay den and with my English books worked really hard for my impending School Certificate exam - for six weeks! A few years later, when returning to Devon, I decided to call on this teacher to see how she seemed in a more objective situation. She was still appalling.

We had good teachers for Latin and biology, and a maths teacher who was satisfactory. The geography teacher could only keep order by making us copy her notes all the time. The PE teacher was excellent. All this is very clear to me after 65 years.
Janet Whettam, Gloucestershire

In See You After the Duration, a book about British children who were evacuated to North America during the war, the author Michael Henderson shows that, while many children had good memories of their US wartime schools, some had a struggle to catch up when they returned home. Good memories and good learning are not always the same thing.
Anne Coombs, Winchester

My father taught in Bedfordshire in the 1950s. He is scathing about any nostalgia for the days when the cane was still in use in schools and 80 per cent of children were written off at the age of 11.
Tania Stephenson, Berkshire

Next week's quandary

My daughter and my nephew are applying for university next year. My nephew was sent by his school on a summer camp for pupils who might be thinking about university, and came back full of confidence. My daughter's school didn't even mentioned such events. How do you get on them? Don't they give students who attend an unfair advantage?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, by next Monday, 1 August, at 'The Independent', Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or e-mail to Please include your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi pen pack