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

Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
News
peopleOrlando Bloom the pin-up hero is making a fresh start
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on TV
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Life & Style
The exterior of a central London Angus Steakhouse
food + drink
Sport
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain drives in the rain during the qualifying session of the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix in Shanghai
sport
Extras
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Arts & Entertainment
filmLife for Leslie Mann's can be challenging sometimes
Voices
For music lovers: John Cusack with his vinyl collection in 'High Fidelity'
voices...but don't forget rest of the year
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Environment
People are buying increasing numbers of plants such as lavender to aid the insects
environment
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit