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Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

All the must-see/hear pro­grammes

Thurs­days from 3 Jan­uary, 8pm BBC Two

It’s all too easy to take the idea of uni­ver­sal ed­u­ca­tion for granted. How­ever, the lat­est in­stal­ment of the ‘liv­ing his­tory’ strand Back In Time, from Who Do You Think You Are? pro­duc­ers Wall to Wall, re­minds us that it wasn’t al­ways so, by send­ing 15 pupils and three teach­ers back to pre­vi­ous eras, start­ing with 1895. “To be ed­u­cated was a huge priv­i­lege,” Polly Rus­sell, so­cial his­to­rian and the show’s co-pre­sen­ter with Sara Cox, tells WDYTYA? Mag­a­zine. “This was your chance – with­out ed­u­ca­tion, peo­ple’s lives were in­cred­i­bly bleak. I think the mod­ern teens got a real sense of this, and un­der­stood that the chil­dren who were al­lowed to go to school, got in and stayed in school, were re­ally lucky.”

The first pro­gramme recre­ates life in a higher-grade school, where the aim was, in Polly’s words, to “ed­u­cate a gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents to be in­dus­trial work­ers”. If that doesn’t sound much fun or a par­tic­u­larly lucky fate, it helps to re­mem­ber that this was an era when just 4 per cent of chil­dren re­ceived a sec­ondary-school ed­u­ca­tion.

Mov­ing for­ward in time, much of the ed­u­ca­tion our fore­bears re­ceived now seems ap­pallingly sex­ist. In the in­ter­war pe­riod, while gram­mar-school boys ap­plied them­selves to science, girls were of­fered les­sons in moth­er­craft: learn­ing how to look after a baby. Need­less to say, 21st-cen­tury girls don’t think much of such gen­der stereo­typ­ing. “To be fair, the boys in the se­ries were very aware of the in­equal­ity, and un­com­fort­able with it as well,” says Polly.

In con­trast, the episode that takes place in the 1970s delves into pro­gres­sive ideas about ed­u­ca­tion, such as the decade’s ‘free school’ ethos, which said that pupils shouldn’t be forced to at­tend les­sons. While the time-trav­el­ling teach­ers ap­pre­ci­ated the imag­i­na­tive think­ing about ed­u­ca­tion here, they also had cer­tain reser­va­tions.

“They pretty much felt like the lu­natics had taken over the asy­lum, and that they needed to rein in some con­trol,” Polly re­veals. “When the chil­dren were loung­ing about on bean­bags lis­ten­ing to Pink Floyd, I think the teach­ers were think­ing, ‘Come on, they’re not learn­ing any­thing!’”

Nev­er­the­less, even in the 21st cen­tury when ex­ams and aca­demic rigour are back in fash­ion, we haven’t aban­doned ev­ery idea from the 1970s. “A lot of the ide­ol­ogy about chil­dren and par­ents hav­ing a voice, which was first mooted in the 1970s, we al­most take for granted now,” Polly says.

Sara Cox (cen­tre) and Polly Rus­sell with the se­ries’ teach­ers and pupils

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