Think forward to the 1940s

Alison Prince unearths a lesson from wartime Birmingham that could teach us a thing or two about the marginalisation of creativity in the curriculum today

Tuesday March 2, 2004
The Guardian

I came across something extraordinary the other day: a yellowed pamphlet published by the ministry of education in 1949, with a child's picture of horses on the front in green and black. Nothing odd about it to look at, but the contents have a striking relevance to the current debate about testing v creativity in schools.

The pamphlet, Story of a School, was put out by a government that was strongly in favour of creativity. Written by a Mr A L Stone, headmaster of the Stewart Street junior school in Birmingham from 1940 to 1948, it records how he revolutionised the place.

It was wartime, and most of the Stewart Street children lived in blitz-damaged back-to-back slums with no bathrooms and often no glass in the windows. A photo shows the school as a grim place shadowed on all sides by factories. Stone, struck by the relentless ugliness of his children's surroundings, "turned to the arts as the basis of the education which should pervade this school". The three Rs, he said firmly, "should become a secondary consideration, for... there are things of much greater importance; the development of the personality of a child, his growth as a whole."

Revolutionary stuff, at a time when children sat down and shut up, for fear of the belt. The ministry was thrilled. In the foreword to the pamphlet, an unnamed spokesperson urges other schools to experiment along similar lines, and quotes with approval the white paper of 1931: "Instead of the junior schools performing their proper and highly important function of fostering the potentialities of children at an age when their minds are nimble and receptive, their curiosity strong, their imagination fertile and their spirits high, the curriculum is too often cramped and distorted by over-emphasis on examination subjects and on ways and means of defeating the examiners. The blame for this rests not with the teachers, but with the system."

Philip Pullman could hardly have put it more forcefully. This official voice from the past echoes what is being said now. It also sets the current debate in historical perspective. In the prewar years, the ideas of Montessori and Froebel were widely discussed, and the state system was perhaps aware of being left behind in the push towards something new and fascinating. The government encouraged change, but had no idea how to implement it. Teachers like Stone were on their own.

For many teachers, the creative approach seemed a dangerous freedom. George Friel, in his novel of the time, Mr Arthur MA, described a Glasgow schoolmaster's inability to cope with the new approach, which he describes as "anarchy". "The child is master. All natural piety gone." Corporal punishment was about to be outlawed, and he could not imagine how to control children without the silent men ace of the "tawse". He has contempt for Miss Seymour, a devotee of the new wave. "What you see there is what the inspectors want. This is the day of the child-dominated classroom." He, along with many others, hated it.

Admittedly, the birth of a creative approach to education had some inept midwives. Some teachers relaxed into a sloppy liberty that gave the whole movement a bad name. Stone recognised the danger from the start. "If we allowed the child to do exactly what he wanted to do, we were giving him a licence the results of which I was not prepared to face". The admission did not deflect him from his central purpose.

The photos in the booklet show the skinny children of Stewart Street absorbed in painting, most of them using the floor in the absence of tables, and taking a dynamic part in drama and dance. Stone saw quickly that some of them reached "saturation point" earlier than others. The more capable found a pleasure in organising their materials and thoughts, and would work almost endlessly, while others quickly disintegrated into anarchy. "The child who has been dogged and threatened and hit, and metaphorically kicked from pillar to post, has developed a very great fear. He hides it in all sorts of ways; he becomes surly or over-boisterous," said Stone.

It was not only the children who feared freedom. Stone "found some difficulty in convincing the staff at our frequent staff meetings that teaching facts was of secondary rather than first importance", and failed utterly to wean his music teacher from her mechanical imposition of scales and exercises. He stuck to his guns, declaring that "teachers in general should allow their teaching to be based on the immediate requirements of the class and not on a superimposed plan". He added a telling remark that many might echo today: "It is always impossible to judge the progress of an individual by tangible results."

In fact, the Stewart Street children were doing well. External assessment proved them to be as competent in maths as any others, though they now devoted only half as much time to it. The ministry was impressed. Its spokesperson hoped it would "encourage other teachers to experiment on this and other lines". In the desperation of the postwar period, with a shortage of schools that resulted in classes of 50 or more, the old rigidities were crumbling. Teachers had to find their own way, because they worked in a constant state of emergency. For some, it was a time of joyous challenge. The difficulties were surreal, but the sense of theatrical improvisation was heady stuff.

But later on, as the euphoria of the 60s ebbed and the faults became evident, the pendulum swung as far as it could towards the old rigidities. The Stones of this generation are itching to release their pupils and themselves from a yoke of accountability that is becoming intolerable.

This time, we start with advantages the early pioneers could not dream of. Information and worldwide communication await us on any screen. Education no longer has to sweat over the imparting of facts. We are, however, in desperate need of the creative skills that will enable us to make well-judged use of these freedoms.

Alison Prince was head of art in a comprehensive in the 1960s and was joint winner of the Guardian Children's Fiction Award in 1996 for The Sherwood Hero