Primary School Learning in the 1950s and early 1960s.

The school I attended from four years old until eleven was a very small primary school in a remote rural village. The year I left to go to the high school there were 28 pupils in the school which gives you an idea how small it was. Because it was such a rural area, some of the children from outlying farms came from a mile or two away. I was mostly happy in school, I liked the teachers and I worked hard. Many years later, in my early forties I trained for a second career as a primary school teacher. The differences between learning in the 1950s and decades later when I was teaching are many! I thought I’d look at some of the subjects, how they were taught and what we learned. I’m not criticising my teachers. That was just the way it was then and we were not at all disadvantaged by the education we received.

History

I have no memory of finding out about any world history in primary school. As a teacher I loved teaching children about Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, The Vikings, World War II and so on. Our history in the 1950s was very Britain centred and consisted of learning about famous people and heroes like Scott of the Antarctic, Florence Nightingale, Nelson etc. There were no opportunities for finding things out for ourselves by looking in history books or encyclopedias. We were told their stories and we copied out passages from text books.

BBC - History - Scott of the Antarctic
Florence Nightingale - Wikipedia
Scott of the Antarctic and Florence Nightingale. Two of the historical figures I remember from primary school lessons.

Maths

I didn’t come across geometry or algebra until high school. Our maths from four to eleven was strictly arithmetic. Times tables were learned off by heart. This was done by the whole class reciting them together first thing every morning. Other tables which were recited were the weights and measures ones such as ‘Twelve inches to a foot, three feet to a yard, one thousand seven hundred and sixty yards to a mile, eight eighty yards to half a mile, four forty yards to a quarter of a mile . . .’ and so on. This was repeated for weight and time. In our final year we had to sit a test called the ‘Eleven-Plus’ to decide on where you went for your secondary education. The maths we did was all geared towards this test. We had to solve written problems, work out fractions and percentages and even learn how to calculate simple and compound interest.

Exercise book
All our school exercise books had these tables on the back cover.

English

My main memories of this subject are of handwriting practice, comprehension exercises, spelling tests, writing ‘compositions’ (stories, we’d say now) and learning very serious, old-fashioned poems off by heart then reciting them. In readiness for the eleven plus we also had to learn proverbs off by heart. ‘All that glitters is not gold’, ‘A stitch in time saves nine’, etc. were learned and we were tested on them.

Music

Like our history lessons, the music we did in school was very traditional and serious. We learned to play the recorder which I loved. The songs we learned and sang – or played on the recorder – were hymns, in both Welsh and English, and songs like ‘Over the Sea to Skye’ and ‘Hearts of Oak’.

Vintage Recorders for sale | eBay
My recorder was exactly like this one. My granddaughter now has it.

Science

The only science-related activity I can recall doing is when, on a fine day in spring and summer, the teachers would sometimes take us all out for what they called a ‘nature ramble’. They pointed out various flowers, trees and birds and we picked flowers and leaves to take back to school. But I mainly remember how lovely it was to be out of school, enjoying the weather and walking along the lanes around the village. There was hardly any traffic around so road safety wasn’t an issue.

Art and Craft

We did sometimes have art sessions but the only medium I remember using was powder paints. I don’t recall any lessons on colour mixing or technique but the painting was fun. I learned about colours at home from those lovely tins of water colours we used to have back then with the names of the colours written under every little square of paint. I loved the wonderful names they had like ultramarine and burnt umber. Oh, the joy of getting a brand new paint tin for Christmas! I also enjoyed the knitting and embroidery lessons in school.

Vintage Paint Set Divers Design 1960s Children's Paint image 5
I never see paint boxes for children now with the names of the colours written under each block – and I have looked!

P.E.

We very rarely did PE although there in a storage area there were a few boxes of coloured bean bags, balls and quoits. We used to look at them longingly! A few years into my time at the school we acquired a new school radio. Once a week one of our two teachers would tune into a BBC programme called Music and Movement. For fifteen minutes we would follow the instructions on the radio and move around the classroom in different ways. Sometimes we were asked to imagine we were different creatures or to stand still and look like a tree. We absolutely loved it!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image.jpeg
How we would have looked when listening to the BBC’s Music and Movement programme on the school radio.

R.E.

Religious Education consisted of singing hymns first thing in the morning while a teacher played the piano and saying prayers . Being a Welsh school we also learned the story of our patron saint, St David. We all went to church and Sunday School and learned more about the stories in the Bible there. We were completely unaware of any of the other faiths in the world such as Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism etc.

Saint David Biography - Childhood, Life Achievements & Timeline
St David, the patron Saint of Wales.

As always, credit to Wikipedia and Google Images. I make every effort to ensure that I do not infringe copyright but if anyone objects to my use of an image please contact me and I will remove it.

10 thoughts on “Primary School Learning in the 1950s and early 1960s.

  1. My memories of Primary School surround Arithmetic, Art and English. The times tables, as you note, were repeated ad nauseum until they became entrenched forever – and it worked.
    English, for me, was wonderful, and I enjoyed the books we were given to read and discuss in class. If memory serves, they were from a series called The Golden Reader (or similar.)

    Art was even better as we were able to give free reign to our creativity, using paint boxes or crayons. One admonition I recall was to ensure to keep the colour inside the lines. Of course, paint boxes were a big part of a child’s home play materials, too, perhaps more for the silence than for the mess that sometimes accompanied them.

    There was also a non-educational part of the daily curriculum – cod liver oil and malt. A spoonful of this glutinous and entirely unappetizing substance had to be taken every morning during winter, using a dessert spoon brought from one’s home.

    Above all, what I remember most was an interest in learning and finding out about the world around us.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t remember learning any history at all, at primary school. But I had history books that someone gave me (I still have them) meant for small children. At eight or so I became fascinated by the Middle Ages and off my own bat copied part of the Bayeux tapestry (primitively, of course) in coloured pencil on a roll of paper that my dad put up above the picture rail in my bedroom when I’d done enough. It went most of the way round the room!

    I was hopeless at maths, and failed that part of the 11-plus. Much later – in my 20s or 30s I think – I discoved I have dyscalculia, which explained a lot. But whereas you didn’t have algebra in your primary school, we did in ours. And in fact, we were taught it in a very clever way by the teacher splitting the class up into groups of three children and got the brighter of each group to teach the others. So we learned from our friends. I seem to remember I did it okay for a bit, but couldn’t keep it up.

    I hated the times-tables. I can remember one or two still, but never grasped some of them.

    I remember a lot of comprehension exercises in my secondary school, but not in primary. Lots of spelling tests, yes, and fairly typical compositions (such as ‘what I did on my holidays’!) I seem to also remember we were taught how to write letters. Oh and the traditional poems. The first verse or two of Lochinvar will probably never leave my head!

    There was a school band. My form mistress tried to teach me piano. When that failed, she tried to teach me triangle. When that failed, expasperated, she handed me the baton and taught me a one-two-three (I still remember it: down, out to the right, swerve up to the left again) pattern, which I did… after a fashion! That band must’ve sounded dreadful (not just because of my conducting, either!)

    Art… well, if the only time I’d done it had been at school, I’d never have done it again. Yes, the powder paint, and no guidance as to how to paint. At home, my mum would mix the paint with flour and water, and we’d create raised paintings with the coloured-gluey mix, now that was fun! Oh and those paints? I don’t know about other makes, but Daley-Rowney still make them. The names are now usually on a separate piece of paper, but the tins containing the pans are pretty much as they were.

    I’ll stop here or I’ll be writing this comment all night! Thanks for this and your other posts.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Good morning Val. What a treat it was to wake up this morning and find a load of lovely comments in my inbox! I’m really glad you’re still following, and still enjoying my blog. I love writing it and even enjoy researching and double-checking my facts. Old ladies can’t rely 100% on their memories! I’ve had a slight pause for a few weeks as we lost a very dear friend and that has taken away my concentration. However, I have a few drafts to work on and will soon be back on the task. I hope you’re doing OK. The two pandemic years took a toll on most of us. At my age I really resent having two years taken out of my normal life. All the best, Meryl

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My memories of Primary school (late 40s and early 50s) mostly surround English, Arithmetic and Art. Times tables were drummed into you ad nauseam and, once learned, were never forgotten. English, for me, was an exciting subject since the stories we read were absorbing and enjoyable. And the poems we learned were often of the heroic kind, of which the following stand out: “The Roman Road”, “The Minstrel Boy (To The Wars Has Gone)” and William Blake’s “Jerusalem”.

    Art was great fun and included paint boxes, crayons and charcoal and we were frequently reminded to “colour inside the lines”.

    We also learned about other parts of the Empire and how we were all somehow part of a large, inter-connected family. This might be laughed at, or even sneered at, today but that’s how it was and it created a lasting impression. We also learned about nations and cultures not connected to Britain and one book in particular that I enjoyed was about children in Lapland.

    Happy days overall but that was to change in grammar school.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing your memories. A lot of them are so similar to mine – times tables by rote, heroic songs and poems etc – but how I’d have enjoyed being taught about life in other countries like Lapland!

      Like

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