How Much Has School Really Changed In The Last 100 Years?

Introduction

Adults often say “you have school far easier these days” to young people like myself. Making me wonder, how much has school really changed in the last 100 years? How does my modern experience of school compare to the general experience of a child in the early 20th Century? Using the Thorpe St Andrew Church of England (formerly National) School Infants’ school logbook from 1904 to 1918 (Norfolk Record Office C/ED 162/1), I have compared lessons, attendance records and school trips in the early 20th Century to those of modern schools.

Lessons

Many lessons from the early 20th Century are still taught 100 years later. For example, geography, history, reading and scripture (better known as literacy) form integral parts of the curriculum today. Photographed below is a timetable of lessons, all of which still form a vital part of primary education – although recitation (repeating something aloud from memory) is usually conducted within lessons. Yet some lessons are no longer taught in schools – for example varied occupation and criticism lessons were given on a range of topics including coal, the moon, and laying a fire; not lessons you will find in a typical school today! Nowadays, these would either be taught as a project during a lesson, discovered in a club such as Scouts or wouldn’t be taught at all, instead being discovered through individual research/passion. Moreover, advancing technology has allowed for a multitude of new lessons including computing and T levels (a new course available instead of A levels). These lessons couldn’t have existed in the early 20th Century as computers weren’t invented yet!

The timetable of a candidate. NRO, C/ED 162/1, page 20.

Another key difference between lessons in the early 20th Century and modern schools is their timetables. Between 1904 and 1918, the school timetable was constantly changing with extra-curricular activities and other events often cutting lessons short. For example, lesson times were changed to “enable the teachers to attend a garden party” on 18th July 1907. In the photograph below, an entry on 4th May 1911 details that “afternoon school began at 2.15 this afternoon to enable the choir boys to attend a Wedding”. In modern schools, timetables are fixed – lessons aren’t cut short for events unless pre-arranged and school related. Lessons start and finish at consistent times established from the beginning of the year and aren’t moved for social events such as Weddings or Garden Parties. Additionally, the school year ends in July in modern schools whereas in the early 20th Century, the school year ended on 31st January.

An extract from May 4th 1911. NRO, C/ED 162/1, page 112.

Attendance

However, lessons and timetables aren’t the only parts of school to have changed in the past 100 years – acceptable reasons for poor attendance have also changed. Between 1904 and 1918, wet weather was an acceptable reason for poor attendance. Children were often absent due to the “threatening state of the weather” or “general bad conditions of the weather”. Nowadays, school is only closed due to weather if it is unsafe to travel or the site is unsafe.

Furthermore, whilst illness has always been an acceptable reason for poor attendance, the illnesses themselves have changed over the past 100 years. Whilst colds, chicken pox and fever are still common childhood illnesses, other illnesses such as diphtheria, whooping cough and ringworms are not as prevalent as they were in the early 20th Century.

Yet attitudes to attendances haven’t only changed regarding absence – rewards congratulating good attendance have drastically changed since the early 20th Century. The logbook records half-holidays given at the beginning of some months for good attendance. In a modern school, certificates are awarded at the end of each term to congratulate only those with 100% attendance. This is a stark contrast to the half-holidays awarded to any child with good attendance 100 years ago; it was accepted that children wouldn’t be in school daily in the early 20th Century. The number on the books, attendance and percentage were taken weekly – the photograph below shows two examples of the attendance records being taken – not once between 1904 and 1918 was the percentage at 100%. Sometimes, if very few children have 100% attendance for the year in a modern school, book tokens are gifted as a special reward to children with perfect attendance at the end of the year.

Example of attendance records. NRO, C/ED 162/1, page 126.

School trips and special events

Not all has changed since the early 20th Century, one core element that has remained much the same are school trips. Between 1904 and 1918, the logbook details visits to museums and nature walks, it also recorded the annual outing to Cromer. In modern schools, nature walks and museum trips still form an integral part of the curriculum. Whilst the destination may have changed, an annual outing is still commonplace today. Residentials also form a key part of the calendar in many modern schools – usually weeklong, it’s a time for the children to bond and have fun. Residentials weren’t part of school life 100 years ago; there are no records of overnight trips in the logbook from 1904 to 1918.

Whilst school trips form exciting opportunities away from the classroom, there some special events are celebrated inside the classroom. For example, in the photograph below, November 30th 1904 was St Andrew’s Day, Miss Birkbeck visited the school during the morning and “gave to each child a gingerbread cake and orange”. Whilst cake and fruit are no longer gifted to each child by a visitor, each school has its own way to mark days of importance.

The final verdict – has school really changed?

School has changed a lot over the last 100 years. Thanks to advancing technology, new lessons now exist and lesson times alongside acceptable reasons for absence have changed significantly too. Yet in many ways, school has remained the same to its core. School is a place where children come to learn both inside and outside the classroom, make new friends and have fun. Perhaps not much has changed after all. 

A good example of a typical page in the logbook. NRO, C/ED 162/1, page 79.

Written by Kendra Payne

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