‘Kindred to its soil’: educating Welsh children in post-war Wales

‘Kindred to its soil’: educating Welsh children in post-war Wales

Dr Laura Tisdall (Oxford) considers the impact of ‘child-centred education’ on the emergence and delivery of a ‘Welsh’ education.

In 2015, Gareth Elwyn Jones argued that the history of education in Wales is ‘on the brink of extinction’. [1] While there has been some work on the history of teaching the Welsh language, this research rarely considers what a truly Welsh history of education might mean in practice. As the headteacher of the first Welsh-speaking school, founded in Aberystwyth in 1939, put it in 1943:

‘When I think of the term “Welsh Education”, I mean something infinitely more fundamental than using Welsh as a medium of instruction. The education must draw on the native material and penetrate deeper than the matter of language… The education provided should be kindred to its soil’. [2]

School inspectors agreed in 1948 that she was achieving her goal: ‘the teachers help the children to live the Welsh life joyously through lively and varied activities with plenty of exercise for imagination and for creative work in language, in movement and in art’.[3]

The language used here is very familiar; it is the language of child-centred education. Child-centred methods began to dominate English and Welsh primary schools after the Second World War. They aimed to ‘suit education to the child, not the child to education’ by providing an education focused on the child’s ‘natural interests’, rather than on teaching a set curriculum. Child-centered educationalists defined themselves against a stereotyped ‘traditional’ education, based on drill, discipline and rote learning. Modern education would treat each child as an individual, reflecting post-war progress. However, it was adults, not children, who decided what ‘naturally interested’ pupils. In this way, child-centred practice often simply reproduced older assumptions about class and gender using a modern language of ‘interest’, which claimed scientific status by drawing from developmental psychology.

For example, it was assumed that working-class pupils would not enjoy academic subjects, and would be drawn towards practical, vocational work, especially once they reached adolescence. As H.C. Dent, a professor of education at the University of Sheffield and an influential educationalist, wrote in 1958, such children’s ‘interest in learning can only be evoked and retained when they see before them immediately obvious, readily attainable, and personally relevant goals’. Similarly, girls’ ‘natural’ interests were seen to centre on the home, boys’ on the workplace. Dent suggested that an appropriate cross-curricular project for girls would be ‘Ourselves and Our Homes’, whereas boys might pursue ‘Everyday Jobs’.[4]

Despite the increasing use of Welsh in schools from the 1940s onwards, a truly Welsh education did not emerge from 1945 to 1970. Child-centred education only made things worse. Rather than engaging with the everyday lives of Welsh children, child-centred schools promoted an idealised image of childhood that was linked with a rural – and arguably, an English rural – landscape. As Dent wrote after the Second World War, there was a need to ‘arrest the decay of our rural civilisation in England’ through school policy and design. [5] Despite the separate organisation of Welsh education and the distinct Welsh inspectorate, the individuality of Welsh childhood was lost in educational practice.

Two surveys of Monmouthshire primary schooling, carried out in 1968 and 1969, urged the need to devote even more time to traditional craftwork and practical activity. [6] But the focus on crafts and nature study did not always reflect the reality of the pupils’ lives – especially those who lived in urban areas such as Newport. Such schools were encouraged to replicate the rural experience as best they could – with urban children seen as inherently disadvantaged because they lacked a direct connection to nature. As an inspector’s report from Clytha Mixed School in Newport from 1959 complained, ‘nature study in town schools suffers from being bookish rather than real’. [7] There was no suggestion that the urban environment, with which these pupils would have been familiar, was worth studying. Instead, children were being forced to live out an adult ideal of unspoilt, bucolic childhood.

Despite the child-centred focus on linking pupils’ education to the place in which they lived, therefore, there was little effort in practice to provide a truly local education. Instead, children were tied into a time warp that idealised the craftwork of the English rural labourer, and lamented the fate of urban children who could not encounter nature directly. Elwyn Jones has argued that it was impossible for a Welsh education to emerge in this period, because ‘education policy was determined in London rather than Cardiff’. [8] However, given how much control local authorities in England and Wales had over education in this period, this should not have been the end of the matter.

Child-centred educational practice shaped an unofficial curriculum in this period throughout both countries, but the consequences for Wales were especially significant. While child-centred education promised to foreground the individuality of the child, its consequences were often to suppress difference, rather than to respect it.

[1] Gareth Elwyn Jones, ‘Perspectives from the brink of extinction: the fate of history of education study in Wales,’ History of Education, 42, 3 (2013), 381-95.

[2] Cited in Prydwen Elfed-Owens, ‘The Implementation of the National Curriculum in Wales’, unpub. PhD thesis, UCL Institute of Education (1996), http://eprints.ioe.ac.uk/20272/1/Elfed-Owens,%20P%20Vol.1.pdf, 17.

[3] ibid, 23.

[4] H.C. Dent, Secondary Modern Schools: an interim report (London, 1958), 105, 108, 171.

[5] Cited in David Matless, Landscape and Englishness (London, 1998), 239.

[6] ‘Survey of Primary Education in the Rhymney Valley’, October 1968; ‘A Survey of Rural Primary S7

[7] Clytha Mixed School, Newport: Log Book; Gwent Archives, CEA.262.1/CEA.262.2.

[8] Gareth Elwyn Jones, ‘Which nation’s curriculum? The case of Wales’, The Curriculum Journal, 5, 1 (1994), 7.

Laura Tisdall is an historian of childhood, youth and ageing in twentieth-century Britain. She is a lecturer in history at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford, and is currently working on a monograph provisionally entitled A Progressive Education? How Childhood Changed in Mid-Twentieth-Century English and Welsh Schools.
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