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August 2008

Most of us will remember at least one first day back at school that involved the inevitable essay on “What I did during my summer holidays’. Some things never change!

Speculation about changes to the education system in Northern Ireland are rarely out of the news pages, but our chat with two local senior citizens reveals that our schooling system has actually undergone huge change over the course of the last century. From the introduction of school dinners and milk in 1947, to the abolishment of corporal punishment in schools in 1986, it’s fascinating to learn of schooldays as they were experienced by previous generations.

Jim Cochrane, now 75-years-old, attended Mersey Street Public Elementary School in Belfast. He says that when he was at the school more than 60 years ago, children didn’t wear a uniform: they just wore ordinary clothes. He remembers wearing short trousers and a jersey:

“I only had one pair of shoes; times were a lot tighter then and the scarcity was amazing. If you went to secondary or grammar school, you wore a uniform.

“We had leather schoolbags, which we wore on our backs. They were quite light, not like the schoolbags children have to carry today. We did have text books, but not very many. I remember writing down most things from the blackboard, which was set up on an easel. We learned by rote, and it’s still all in there now: I can tell you all the times tables, poetry and passages from Shakespeare that I had to memorise,” he recalls.

In those days, corporal punishment was still legal, but in Jim’s school, only the headmaster was allowed to use the cane. The other teachers would drag boys (but not girls) up to the front of the room by their hair if they weren’t concentrating, he says.

“As a young boy I was quite timid so I always made sure to pay attention so that didn’t happen to me!”

Most children lived close to their school, so they walked. For the few who lived a greater distance from their place of education, public transport such as trams or buses were used. These were accessible for everyone, as public transport cost just one old penny.

Jim continues: “When I went to school, the school leaving age was 14, except for those who were lucky enough to pass the exam to allow them to go to grammar or secondary school.

“But, even those that did pass didn’t necessarily continue their schooling, because their parents needed them to go to work to bring another wage into the house; lots of my school friends passed, but only about half-a-dozen were able to go to the technical college. I would have been quite happy to leave school, but I was fortunate enough to have parents who insisted that I stay and complete my education.”

After just a short time speaking to Jim, it’s evident that poverty played a big part in both children’s home and school lives in the Northern Ireland of the early 20th century. Eighty-two-year old George McCartney also experienced the same scarcity.

George, who now lives in Carrickfergus, attended St Joseph’s School just off the York Road in Belfast.

“I was two when my older sisters went to St Joseph’s, and I had to go too because there was no one to look after me as my mother worked in Jennymount Mill. I can’t remember much about it because I was so young, but I do remember wetting myself one day and running home in tears! I must have been a skinny wee mite because I remember one of the lady teachers giving me the milk to drink after she’d taken some for her cup of tea every morning,” he laughs.

George remembers that in St Joseph’s, the boys and girls were taught separately. The girls went up a flight of stairs that were on the outside of the building, while the boys were educated downstairs.

Like today, children didn’t sit in one big classroom – they were split into separate rooms according to age, from ‘baby infants’ (P1) to ‘seventh standard’ (P7). George says there were about 40 children in each class, so the teacher didn’t have time to deal with everybody individually.

“Discipline was very strict, with teachers using the cane. If you stepped out of line, you could have got it on both hands. I remember one teacher that hit you on the backside with the cane. If the headmaster happened to be in the room and he noticed anyone misbehaving, he would’ve hit you on the fingertips with the cane.

“You could also get kept after school to do up to 100 lines. You didn’t tell your parents if you were punished in school, because they’d be annoyed at you for misbehaving and you’d more than likely get smacked again!”

The family moved house when George was seven and he started attending Seaview Primary School in Fortwilliam, Belfast. He was there until the age of 14, when he did the leaving certificate examination. A few of my friends moved onto grammar school, but most of them got apprenticeships, George says.

“If your parents had money, or if you got a scholarship and your parents could make do without the extra income you could’ve continued education, otherwise you went to work,” he recalls.

Like Jim, George learned by repetition. This has fallen out of favour in recent years, but both men can still remember multiplication tables, poems and passages from plays more than half a century later.

But, teachers still used the ‘What I did on my summer holidays’ method to get pupils thinking and writing again after the long summer break. George’s compositions were mostly about playing football with friends, but when he was a bit older, he and his family went to stay with relatives in England and also rented a holiday house in Kilroot, so he was able to add some variety to the essays.

It may not have been quite the same as holidays to exotic, far-flung destinations that our own children write about on the first day back to school, but to a young boy, these holidays were packed with fun and he has a lot of fond memories.

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