at the education offices they showed me a map, and pointed out the schools where there were vacancies. That was the first time I’d heard of Abbeyford. I liked the idea at once: a small fenland village with only a hundred children at the school. Not that the officials at County Hall approved of my choice: they didn’t. “What about a secondary school?” they said; “We need men there, and if you’ve got any qualifications you’ll have a graded post and allowance in no time—in some of these primary schools you might just disappear.” But no, in a rather unclear way, I had come for a primary school post, and nothing else. “Very well then, what about Hixton school? You could probably have the top A stream next year if Mr. Ashby leaves, and you’d certainly get the first XI for either cricket or football.” Again I demurred: that wasn’t what I was attracted by in the primary school at all. Some further talk of “the first XI” (small 10 year old boys being coached in the rudiments and proprieties of cricket) seemed of relevance to everyone there except me. Of course that was merely my innocence—a couple of later interviews with education officers who ruthlessly questioned me on my Army record and my ability to play rugger, as prime qualifications for teaching seven year old children, have now left me a little wiser. Well, I don’t remember these conversations verbatim, but odd phrases stick in the mind, and this was the kind of reception I met. I expect it goes on all the time. I imagine that graduates in particular can have a genuinely hard time getting into primary schools.
Anyway, they abandoned me to the Abbeyford job, and I was glad to have it. I was glad to be away from “O” level, “A” level, school corps and first elevens. I was starry-eyed and excited about education, very contemptuous of its merely social glamours; and my head was full of Mill and Arnold and Newman and Lawrence—a whirl of unsorted, indeed disparate insights that I hoped would clarify and precipitate as I learned to work with children. As it happened I was lucky: Abbeyford turned out to be a very good school, though the authorities didn’t know it. It didn’t gain more than the odd one or two 11 plus places, it didn’t have a gilt Honours Board, or a first eleven, or a Speech Day at which All Who Should were invited to sit on the platform. It didn’t even have printed Reports, to be signed and counter-signed and filled with a vast amount of arithmetical data. Abbeyford was a school of no importance. It concerned itself with education in a delightfully furtive way all of its own, and began teaching me from my very first week. For instance; instead of those Reports headed by the school telephone number and followed by a long list of subjects, each with a big box for the score and a little line for a three word comment (“Vocabulary—77.8 per cent—Fairly Good”), we gave some basic information about progress in English and number work, followed by a page or two of comment explaining what it all meant. This was highly inconvenient, very time-consuming, quite untranslatable into graph form, and extremely helpful.
Naturally enough we were found out now and again. School hours, for example, were from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., but the headmistress looked on this as intelligent suggestion rather than bureaucratic dogma. On warm sunny afternoons the school would break up, class by class (“nature walks”), and wander off to watch Michael Potter catch grass snakes in his father’s field, or Tommy Crowther fish for sticklebacks in the shadowed pools where the tree roots reached, slender and green, far out into the water. If it got really hot—one of those July days when the children no longer gaze longingly out of the windows, but merely gasp upon the desks—then she’d close school soon after lunch-time. Once, unfortunately,
But Abbeyford was out of that mainstream of academic life; and it was a sufficiently secluded and stimulating school to prevent me from going back and teaching others the way I had always been taught—becoming one of the new spare parts that the educational machine generously manufactures for itself. I was very soon drawn into a kind of teaching that as a boy I had never experienced. It was teaching which was not obsessed with the drills designed to extend the cognitive surface of the mind: grammar, very mechanical arithmetic, put in the missing word here, add another to this list there. I began to discover for myself what was gained if I cut out the speed tests in mental arithmetic and instead let the children paint freely to music. Or if they relaxed in the cleared room whilst we had more music, and then gingerly, experimentally, built up a danced mime to it. I began to learn what a classroom was, and to discover that it was sometimes better to transfer altogether to the surrounding fields and woods. I began to explore modes of physical education that were completely alien to Swedish drill, and to follow others in techniques of free writing that accomplished the most strange and rewarding release of creative prose. And then there were new ways with numbers, a concern with concepts and relationships rather than that mere accountancy which had almost choked my own mathematical interest at school. All this was new to me, and very exciting; and even now when I find myself working in more troubling areas of education, concerning myself with the analysis of waste rather than the impetus of growth, memories of Abbeyford come back as refreshing positives.
Odd scenes stick in the mind: a morning service in the largest classroom with the children singing George Herbert’s King of Glorie, King of Peace, and ending on that third verse:
Wherefore with my utmost art
I will sing thee,
And the cream of all my heart
I will bring thee.