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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Sport
Rio Ferdinand returns for QPR
sportRio Ferdinand returns from his three-game suspension today
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
News
people

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
Sport
Billy Twelvetrees will start for England against Australia tomorrow with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench
rugbyEngland need a victory against Australia today
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
books
Sport
Tyson Fury poses outside the Imperial War Museum in south London ahead of his fight against Dereck Chisora
boxingAll British heavyweight clash gets underway on Saturday night
News
i100 Charity collates series of videos that show acts of kindness to animals
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game