Harry began his schooling at the age of four and ended at thirteen. Due to the reclamation of their house in Stoke Newington, Harry and family spent many years moving around London as his father looked for various work. As a result, by the age of thirteen ‘When i finally vacated the last “seat of learning”‘, he had attended approximately 9 different schools.
Around the age of 8 or 9, he eventually settled into Westbourne Park school in Islington where he was regularly late for classes! It was around this age where he developed a love of reading and books, passed on from his father who acquired this appreciation from his own educators. His love of literature is further explored within the ‘Reading & Writing’ post.
He describes his classroom filled with 40-50 boys at any one time, with partitions to rooms allowing two classes to join together ‘Then the unfortunate teacher had to cope with 90 or even 100 children’. Rather oddly, he describes the boys at the back rows of these huge classrooms who masturbated ‘or in modern parlance “wankers”.’ It’s rather shocking that he remembers this happening and to such an extent that it requires a place in his memoirs! Yet he writes that ‘I didn’t know then that this was the normal reaction of caged, segregated higher animals.’ so perhaps he is commenting on the state of education in his school being disengaging, unstimulating and, essentially, boring. I found it interesting that he writes ‘I am sure now, that the teachers were well aware of it, but it was an easy and convenient way to keep the boys occupied and especially, quiet.’ To get away with such a thing en-masse would be impossible nowadays and shocking, especially in such close quarters of 30 or so children, yet in classes of 50-100 quite obviously teachers were desperate for some form of control (or the illusion of control in classroom silence) and they obviously must’ve felt unable to regulate such behaviour, or perhaps they were simply too embarrassed to address the behaviour.
The speculation about classroom control leads Harry to describe a tragedy that occured at his school as a student teacher committed suicide. Many of the boys were shaken and upset as the teacher was a favourite among the pupils. He writes ‘I never understood this until some thirty years later when I became a teacher myself. I then understood the pressures and problems. Young Mr. W had probably been warned that he was not a “disciplinarian”, he didn’t cane ruthlessly enough, and threatened with dismissal, faced disgrace.’ Quite obviously there was much pressure upon educators to be ruthless and to maintain control at all times, to the point where such pressure lead to this tragic incident.
Aside from this tragedy, Harry continued to do well in school (despite his bad arithmetic) and became the Headmaster’s monitor. He was entered for scholarship by the school alongside two other boys, and despite having the ability to continue his education, his working class circumstances held him back as his father warned that whatever happened with the scholarship, he would not be attending any further education. Instead, his father demanded a ‘Leaving certificate’ from the headmaster, which showed he had achieved a certain level of education, removing Harry from education and thus beginning his working life.
Burnett, John, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography vol. 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987. YOUNG, Harry 2-858