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

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
News
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
News
i100
Sport
Adel Taraabt in action for QPR against West Ham earlier this month
footballQPR boss says midfielder is 'not fit to play football'
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

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

** Female PE Teacher Urgently Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

** Cover Supervisors Urgently Required In Knowsley **

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

Java developer - (Intershop Enfinity)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Java Developer...

School Office/ Finance Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Ilford: School Office/ Finance Assistant Long t...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album