Log books and protest

As part of an unenthusiastic effort to flesh out a paper that I gave at a conference last fall, I have been doing some research. I ordered a book titled “Teaching Britain” by Christopher Bischof through our Interlibrary Loan service. I sat down to start reading it, and the introduction sounded eerily familiar. Then I remembered — I’d heard Bischof give a presentation on his book at the conference!

In one chapter he discusses one of the sources he used, a type of source that’s neglected. I’m a huge fan of neglected sources: that treasure trove of diaries found in the attic, the sketches from the police journal nobody’s looked at, the stockpile of manuscripts left in an obscure archive. On my next trip to London, I’ll be looking at menus for the restaurants in the South Kensington Museum. Love this stuff.

His seldom-consulted items are log books. How could I not have known that the Revised Code of 1862 forced headmasters to keep daily logs of their school, reporting anything that might be a challenge to educating the children according to the code? According to Bischof, these schoolmasters immediately began using the books to not only record events, but opine about their educational woes. The officials tried to ban such personal opinions, but to no avail. The log books are thus a rich source of information, and not just that Mrs Smith was out ill for a whole week. Masters wrote about the rules they didn’t like, and how they were hampering education.

One of the things they were unhappy about, Bischof considers in a separate chapter: “over-pressure”. The Revised Code introduced “payment-by-results”, where schools earned grants based on their pupils’ performance on the big examination. Some children felt so much pressure they had emotional problems. One young lady committed suicide by jumping off a bridge.

I know a bit about the exams: H. G. Wells passed many of them, and was glad to do it. Not only did he earn grant money for the school, but he got himself a scholarship. The purpose of the exams was not only to exert pressure on schoolmasters to do better. It was to allow those capable of good scholarship, even at the poorest schools, to earn places at advanced secondary schools and colleges. This was a ticket to a better future. Wells’s scholarship took him to the Normal School of Science, where he studied under T. H. Huxley. Such an opportunity would never have been presented to a lower-middle class boy without the examination system.

There are obvious parallels to today’s arguments about student pressure and standardized testing. But Bischof also argues that the log books show a self-identification of teachers as professionals. They felt they had a right to complain, that they were the arbiters of what made for good education. This is also a parallel. While professors at big universities may get social respect, school teachers, and those of us at community colleges, do not. We are often not treated like professionals. So I feel a certain kinship with the schoolmasters using the logs to protest. I’ve done as much myself in program reviews and other forms I’ve been forced to complete. At least the Inspectors in 1862 were required to read them.

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