Sybil Marshall

Educationist and chronicler of Fenland life

Schoolteacher, academic, novelist, social historian, broadcaster, folklorist, story-teller and quilt-maker, Sybil Marshall excelled at everything she did. Her writings played a vital role in the liberalising of the primary school curriculum during the 1960s and beyond. If her message about children's inherent creativity is somewhat buried today under an overload of educational tests and targets, its time will surely come again when teachers are allowed once more the space to bring out the astonishing best that too often lies hidden in the pupils they teach.

Born and brought up in the depths of the Fens, Marshall was the daughter of a smallholder who had left school at the age of nine, when he was considered quite big and strong enough to start working in the fields. Largely self-educated, he read Dickens and Mark Twain to his bright, pretty daughter, proudly seeing her through to Ramsey Grammar School.

Her close-knit family, still largely isolated, like other "Fen-Tigers", from the rest of the world, was always an enormous influence on Sybil Marshall, who later poured story after story about it into her autobiography A Pride of Tigers (1992). Food was sometimes scarce, disease brought on by Fenland dampness was rife, sanitation was minimal and work extremely hard. But the grandparents, uncles and aunts surrounding the young Sybil were a defiant breed, long resisting control from outside as they led their own intensely private and sometimes highly eccentric lives. Sybil's formidable mother was a particular influence, combining a strong sense of duty with fierce resentment against the harshness of her life which she visited regularly upon her own family and in particular on her increasingly feisty daughter.

Denied a place at university because no scholarship was available, Sybil Marshall started work in 1933 as an untrained teacher, first in Essex and then in Huntingdon. But it was as the still unqualified, uncertificated head teacher at Kingston Primary School in Cambridgeshire in 1942 that she finally made her mark. Working on her own, in one room containing 26 pupils aged between four and 11, she developed what she later referred to as a "symphonic method" whereby school subjects were integrated rather than taught separately. If pupils were going to learn about Stone Age man, then it made sense for them to experiment in more practical terms with how he built, what he ate, how he dressed and how he might have drawn or painted. Appreciating great music, painting and literature also involved an individual reaction from pupils through their own music-making, artistic or literary skills.

East Anglia, with its still surviving semi-feudal attitudes, was an unlikely setting for such innovation, and Marshall did not always have an easy time at a local level. Yet her results were so good, and her pupils at times so transformed, that she largely managed to get things her own way until her one-teacher school closed in 1960.

Going off to read English at New Hall, Cambridge, she went on to become a lecturer in Primary Education at Sheffield University. It was there that she wrote her famous book An Experiment in Education (1963). Still sometimes referred to as "the teachers' Bible", its descriptions of the various ways in which she brought out her small pupils' inherent creativity was exactly what the optimistic 1960s wanted to hear. When the hugely influential Plowden Report, Children and their Primary Schools, was published in 1967, Marshall's overall influence upon its main conclusions was clearly evident.

Nineteen sixty-three also saw the publication of her intimate and beautifully written Fenland Chronicle, centred around family memories and one of the most readable accounts of a particular geographical area ever written. This was followed up years later by Once Upon a Village (1979) and The Silver New Nothing (1987). On the academic front, her Adventure in Creative Education (1968), described often very amusingly some of her creative methods for retraining head teachers.

There was also, from 1965 onwards, her work as Educational Adviser to Granada Television. This involved the masterminding of the celebrated series Picture Box, which ran for 23 years. From 1967, she was also running the Primary Education course at Sussex University, where she stayed until retiring in 1976.

Marshall was briefly married before the Second World War to a local farmer, who found it hard to keep up with such an independently minded, brilliant wife. Her much loved daughter Prue was born during this time, later to become a distinguished headmistress herself. But the great love of Marshall's life came in the dapper, diminutive shape of Ewart Oakeshott, whom she met at a dance in 1963. An accomplished artist and an international authority on the history and development of the sword, Oakeshott was to be her beloved companion until his death in 2002. They eventually married in 1995, after the death of Oakeshott's first wife.

It was during this time that Marshall settled into her final role as a briskly selling novelist. Starting with A Nest of Magpies (1993), she went on to write five more semi-autobiographical stories, all concerned with community as well as with private passions. This sequence ended with Ring the Bell Backwards (2000), which took its plot from Marshall's father's conviction that during the famous "lost week" between 27 April and 5 May 1646, Charles I was in fact hiding in the Fens.

Nicholas Tucker

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