My children start back at school tomorrow. My youngest is starting top infants, and my eldest is in his penultimate year of junior school (I don’t know what that is in American, but my kids are 9 and 6 if that helps!). Obviously (as says every parent) I can’t believe that they are already at this stage in their education (it’s Handsome’s seventh year in school, counting nursery!) but what really made me stop and think was remembering what I was doing when I was nine.
Twenty two years ago, my parents and I had moved from a heavily populated area just south of London to a tiny village in the wilds of Mid Wales. My original primary school had two classes of up to thirty pupils in each year. My new primary school had twenty nine pupils in total.
I remember feeling huge trepidation about starting in a new school. I think I was quite excited, but at the same time couldn’t envisage such a small school. My new headmistress (and class teacher; there were only two teachers. One for the infant class and one for the juniors) had written to my mother before we moved, telling her a little about each of my four classmates. Actually, they were table mates rather than classmates as each year group had a table within the junior classroom.
We moved about a month before term started. I remember walking to the village shop with my parents from time to time, and peering down towards the village school whenever it was within sight. I met a few local people before starting school, but I don’t think I met many kids of primary age, and certainly none of the four others of my age.
We walked the half mile to school on my first day, and indeed most of the others which followed. I remember standing on the road side of the old grey stone wall which separated the school playground from the outside wall and peering hesitantly through the gate. A group of children were playing dodgeball in the playground, and I was quickly brought into the game by the headteacher, Mrs Morgan.
I don’t remember much about my first days in the primary school, other than being amazed that everything was in Welsh. I do remember going home, about three days after I’d started and telling my dad that I’d learned a song in Welsh. He asked me to sing it, and I have very clear memories of singing absolute gobbledegook to the tune of ‘Rupert the bear’! I was a quick learner back then, but even so, there was no way that I was going to have assimilated enough of the language to be able to sing a song after three days!
The toilets were still outside for the first year I was there, until the extension on the back of the school was completed. We juniors had the bigger classroom and so it was always used for school assembly. Concerts were held in the local chapel, to give room for parents to attend. School dinners were cooked on site, back then, and served in our classrooms. ‘Dinners’ ate in the junior classroom, and ‘sandwiches’ ate in the infants. The original school bell sat on the windowsill of the junior classroom; I remember feeling quite sad that it had been replaced by a handbell to call us into school. I read a lot of school stories (actually, I just read a lot in general!) at the time, and I loved the idea of the school bell pealing over the fields in the mornings and afternoons like something out of the Chalet School, or Anne of Green Gables!
After two years, I came out of that school almost bilingual. High school wasn’t a shock to me, as I’d been used to a bigger school when we lived in London. My primary school stayed open until just a couple of years ago when it was forced to shut as the pupil numbers declined to just two. Really, they should have combined resources with another local school much earlier, rather than basically becoming a publically funded private tutor in a school building.
I often wondered what it would have been like to have been there back when there were sixty, seventy or more pupils. I’m glad now that we didn’t move back to bring up our children. I think that my children get more opportunities and a better education than that which would have been available there, even had the school remained open. Of course smaller schools can provide a decent education, but I think that the teacher needs to be incredibly focussed and enthusiastic about making the most of every child’s potential.