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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