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

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
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
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

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn