Sunday, 19 August 2012

Walworth early 50s -- new evidence

Pat and I recently interviewed someone with a good memory of the school from 1948 to 1955, though her memories relate more to the school and teachers in general than to English and what went on in the lessons.

She was taught English by Arthur Harvey for her entire time at the school. She confirms what others have told us, that Harvey had his favourites -- of which she was one in that class -- though this didn’t lead to any unfairness in marking. Some of the favourites joined Harvey in the Quick Service Cafe after school but not our informant: she belonged to an alternative group that met in another cafe, on the other side of the Old Kent Road, around the biology teacher, Eric Palmer.

Palmer was a quite different kettle of fish and he and Harvey didn’t like each other. Alex McLeod was associated with his group. Palmer taught frankly about sex and is said to have favoured free love (though his relationships were entirely ‘appropriate’, as we say now). But his main educational concern was teaching pupils about life. He was devoted to open air activities on the lines of the 1930s German hiking and health movement. He was associated with the Woodcraft Folk, took his group camping at their site and called them each by their Woodcraft name -- he himself was Fox. By all accounts Palmer was a thoroughly good thing and pupils benefited by his teaching and personal attention. Our informant regards him as one of the teachers at Walworth who had a lifelong influence on her (Harvey was without doubt another).

Another set of impressions from the same source supports what we’ve been hearing often, that Miss O'Reilly, the school’s first real head, was an ‘authoritarian’ who ruled pupils and staff alike ‘with a rod of iron’. What puzzles us, however, is that she was certainly a progressive in her principles: she believed in a school giving a social education as well as an academic one, through the practice of friendly and respectful relations; she stressed constantly that all pupils were equally valuable; she enthusiastically embraced the concept of an experimental comprehensive school; she introduced form meetings and a school council, and an innovative social studies curriculum that involved individual project work (not a great success, it seems) and a great deal of choice. She made unconventional appointments like Harvey and Palmer, and also Sean O’Regan the art teacher.

What’s the explanation? we suspect that her principles were more liberal than her personality could tolerate and that there was a real conflict between the two. But what sort of evidence would help us find out?

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