Education, Education, Education…Georgina Marshall in conversation with Anne Balfour

Reminiscences

It would be hard to find anyone who has a longer association with education in Strathblane than “Mrs Marshall”, as she is known to generations of pupils. As butcher’s daughter Georgina Campbell, she started at Strathblane School aged four and a half in June 1949 and retired 47 years later in 1996 as the school’s longest serving teacher. From a wee soul in Clark’s sandals with a shy smile and a big bow in her hair to seasoned veteran, her story is one of both continuity and change; hardship and happiness.

“I wasn’t meant to start school until the autumn but when my mother took me along to register, Mr McAllister, the headmaster, suggested that I begin right away. I joined a composite class that included my older sister and he believed that would help me. I can’t imagine what Miss Higgins thought about this as she already had more than 30 children in her class! But she was kind and an excellent teacher and I soon settled in. It was very quiet in class because in those days children behaved better.”

Georgina, aged four and a half
Composite Class (P1-3) Strathblane School 1949 with teacher Miss Higgins. Georgina is in the front row, fifth from the right. Her sister is in the back row, third from left.

Georgina must be one of only a handful of Strathblane’s senior citizens who today lives in the same home that she was born into. Her parents converted Netherton Cottage into their home in the early 1940s from premises used by a coal merchant. The oldest surviving house in Blanefield, it is thought to have been built around 1745 and was originally part of Netherton Farm. “It’s made of whinstone and the walls are incredibly thick. The garage was the coal merchant’s stables.”

The dining room table where we talk about Georgina’s life occupies the old bed recess. Tardis-like, the cottage seems much bigger inside than out. Though the distance from the front door to the old school was barely a hundred yards, her route to get there was far from straightforward.

The Old School

“In those days there was no pavement down the north side of Glasgow Road and so we would have had to cross over and then back to get to school, which our mother considered dangerous. So we were made to go round the field behind the church. We were meant to go over the Bridge on Campsie Dene but usually we just waded across Jenny’s Burn and hopped over the school fence.”“The school was very basic. The classes were roughly P1 to P3, P3 to P5 and P5 to P7 in three classrooms with rough wooden floors. If you took your shoes off, you’d get skelfs in your feet. And the toilets were outside across the playground. In winter they were freezing. You didn’t go unless you had to!”“Gym was pretty basic too. Either outside in the playground or in the lunchroom, with the chairs cleared to the sides. Beanbags and hoops. That was about it. Space was at a premium as this was the beginning of the post-war baby boom and new houses were going up in the village. So the school just got more crowded.”“In the morning the emphasis was on the basics, with lots of spelling tests and learning tables by rote. I wish they still did that. It served my generation very well. In the afternoons, that’s when there was more time for music, art and gym.”“Throughout Scotland the syllabus was very rigid and so every school taught the same things. Lots of families were moving around and so that was an advantage when children arrived at a new school. The work would be the same as what they had left behind. It’s not like that now.”“I was glad I could go home for lunch as the school lunches came pre-made from Lennoxtown and there were always lots of smelly slops because nobody liked them.”

There were limited privileges for the P7 children. A great favourite was getting to ring the bell to bring the children in from the playground.

“Occasionally, the clanger would get detached and you had to chase it to stop it rolling on to the road.

The Belt, abolished as a form of punishment in Scotish schools in 1987

“There was a lot of emphasis on discipline. You could get the belt for anything. I got it once for looking out of the window during a spelling test, even though you could only see the sky because the sills were so high.”

1949 P7 with Mr McAllister

“When Mr McAllister was the head, from P5 onwards you had to learn by heart about half a page of the Bible every week. You’d get the passage on Friday and got tested on the following Monday. If you got it right, you could sit down. On Tuesday the ones who’d been left standing had another go and so on right up to Friday when the ones still left standing got the belt. It was the same children every week. I was lucky because I had a good memory. And my parents would make sure I learned my verses. “

Did it turn children into good Christians? “No, the opposite. I think it put them off.”

The practice ceased when Mr McAllister was replaced by George Allan. Not that the belt disappeared. In fact, on his very first day he said that the first child to speak in class would get the belt. And when Georgina forgot this stricture and attempted to retrieve her rubber from a classmate, guess who got belted, for only the second time in her life?

When she returned to her old school as a 20-year-old teacher in 1965 only nine years after leaving, George Allan greeted her warmly. He had forgotten the incident. She hadn’t!

Maybe it was the lovely Miss Higgins that decided her but Georgina was determined from early on that she was going to become a teacher

“At home I had a set of skittles with faces on them. I used to line them up and teach them their lessons.”

So she went straight from Balfron High School on to a three-year teaching course at Jordanhill, including a unit on rural teaching, that focused on teaching composite classes. Having experienced them, she was already something of a convert.

 “If the mix of children is right, it can work well, with brighter children helping others, and slower ones going over what they had been taught already. In those days there were no teaching assistants and so there was an art to getting different groups working at things by themselves while you listened to one child reading.”

Teaching practice in Glasgow was a bit of an eye opener. “News time could be perilous. You had small children saying things like: ‘My Mum went to bed with another man last night’ and you had to close down the conversation smartly.”

Georgina arrived back at Strathblane School just short of her 21st birthday and faced an infant class of more than 20, squashed into “half of a small classroom”, she says, indicating the size of her living room. By now new houses were springing up all over the area and the school was BURSTING.

“You could barely squeeze between the desks. There was one piano that was pushed between the classrooms every day. I laughed when an inspector said there should be a nature table. There was literally nowhere to put it.”

There were other problems too. The headmaster doubled as the local Registrar of births, marriages and deaths. Because serious head injuries cases not infrequently died en route to Killearn Hospital and deaths had to be registered locally, George Allan was often called away to this job under distressing circumstances, taking the details down on a telephone outside the classroom, while trying to keep an eye on a class. At this time there were also no school janitors in Stirling schools and the headteacher was expected also to empty the bins and sweep up.

However, by the time Georgina returned to Strathblane, plans for a new school were already well-advanced. “We were lucky because we got our school in 1966, while Killearn had to settle for huts to accommodate its bursting roll.”

When the teachers visited the new building (which initially had only five classrooms), they couldn’t believe their eyes. Big bright rooms, a proper hall, a general purposes room for various activities and what seemed like a vast number of toilets!

The “New” School, 1966

Friday 21 October 1966 should have been a very happy day as locals came out to watch the long crocodile of Strathblane children carrying their schoolbooks from the old school to the new but it was overshadowed by terrible terrible news from another primary school nearly 400 miles away in the Welsh coalfield. A colliery spoil tip above the village of Aberfan collapsed, engulfing the local school and killing 116 children.

“It’s impossible to think of that day without remembering that catastrophe. We had such heavy hearts.”

On Monday 24 October the school opened officially when the parish minister Rev George Lugton cut a ribbon and declared the place open for business. In the same year “Miss Campbell” became “Mrs Marshall”, when Georgina married James, whom she had met at an activities night at the Village Club. And, while she took seven years away from the classroom while their two sons were small, she went on to teach in every year group except one. This was partly so that she and other teachers with children at the school could avoid teaching their own, though she is best known as a P1 teacher. “That’s what I loved most.”

Mrs Marshall & her P1 Class 1987
Mrs Marshall with her P1 Class 1991

She experienced many changes. “There was so much more scope for activities after the move. Plenty of room for gym and the ability to put on pantomimes, for instance.”

She saw many improvements such as the arrival of speech therapists, classroom assistants and, a little later, janitors. She was happy when the parents voted in favour of school uniforms as it made the differences in children’s backgrounds less obvious. And she welcomed the better appreciation of conditions such as dyslexia and dyspraxia.

Other changes she laments, such as less emphasis on learning times tables by rote and, latterly, the decline of teaching phonics. “One inspector told me to take my phonics posters down off the wall. (You nodded and then ignored what they said.) It was the only way some children could learn to read.”

She also had mixed feelings about the ban on the belt in state schools, even though she only ever used the punishment twice: for children who persisted in throwing stones at other pupils after being told to stop.

 “I don’t believe in battering children but it was useful as a deterrent. I always found that just taking it out of the drawer and putting it on the desk was enough to achieve the desired result.”

By 1996 Georgina had been part of Strathblane School going back almost half a century. She was already teaching the children of the children who had been in her classes in the 1960s. “I thought that if I stayed much longer, I’d be teaching their grandchildren!”

Georgina’s retirement party, 1996

Happy to take early retirement, Georgina was able to move from Dumbrock Road back into Netherton Cottage in the year 2000, though sadly her husband James died only four years later.  Today she is content to be back in the cottage from which she had set off one morning in June 1949 in her Clark’s sandals, with that shy smile and big white hair ribbon for a life in education.  

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