Mary Killin (Henderson), Brian Rose-Smith and Jim Mitchell of the P7 class of 1958-59 have the following memories of their time at Heathfield Primary School in the 1950s. Education in those days was different in many ways from that of today. Most children had never even seen a television, there were no calculators and most houses did not even have phones. Discipline was strict as class sizes were large by today’s standards and much of the education was by “rote”. Yet these were happy days, simpler in many ways. We all survived and thrived and the class of 58-59 went on to have careers as engineers, lawyers, doctors, educationalists, scientists, mothers, fathers and so on.
SCHOOLDAYS IN THE FIFTIES
By Brian Rose-Smith
I started school at the age of five in 1952. My mother took me to Heathfield Primary School on my first day and left me in the care of Miss Wilson (no Ms in those days) together with around 30 or so other new school pupils. I believe that my mother came to collect me and take me home at the end of that school day, 12:30, but thereafter I made my own way to and from school, about half a mile, in the company of my new school friends and later, with my younger brother and sister when they started. This was accepted practise in the fifties. There was no throng of parents at the school gates at the end of lessons, waiting to escort their young offspring home.
Heathfield School, then, was the original large red brick building on two floors. There were extensive grounds including a large playing field that accommodated two football pitches as well as a hard bare earth area where we played games of marbles. In the playground the boys played such games as chipped, cracked and broken, kingball and chase or threw a tennis ball against the wall to catch it on the return.Whenever a break was called for in a game then the cry of “keys” went up although the opponents did not always observe the call.
The girls formed skipping competitions with long ropes and we all enjoyed playing hopscotch or peevers as we termed it. A broken glazed tile was much favoured as a puck.
Some lived in their own world of play. One boy for instance, was fixated with trucks and buses and spent each playtime pretending to be one such, shuffling round the perimeter of the playground, moving his arms to and fro across his torso and issuing sounds that he imagined replicated a truck or a bus engaged in various driving manoeuvres.
Come the autumn we played conkers and everyone had their secret recipe for hardening them and preparing them for competition. The contests were always fierce and the occasional rapped knuckle was an accepted part of the game. In winter, when it was frosty, we made ice slides that seemed to go on for ever and whilst, inevitably there were falls, I don’t recall anyone suffering a serious injury. In the nearby Newton Park there was, and still is a boating pond which is about two feet deep. When it froze over sufficiently we brought our skates to school and went skating at the end of the day. From time to time someone went through the ice but apart from a soaking, no harm was done. By the way, no boy came to school in long trousers in those days. Short trousers were the order of the day, no matter how wet or cold. When worn on snowy days with wellingtons, invariably you ended up with snow down your boots and chap marks where the wellingtons chafed against your legs. Very uncomfortable it was.
In the playground where it abutted Heathfield Road there was an arrangement of four large flower beds around which we used to hold races. I recall that Peter McRorie and I vied for the fastest time. I think he won. The flower beds have long since been ripped up.
In the morning break, we each received a third of a pint of milk. This was delivered to the school each day in crates by a local dairy. It was best in winter when the milk was often ice cold, unless the crate had been left next to a radiator when it could become unpleasantly warm.
In the classrooms we sat at wooden desks that were set out in rows, all facing the teacher who stood in front of the class with the blackboard behind. We used simple pens with a split nib which you dipped into an ink pot to keep it loaded with ink. They were one up from a quill pen. Each desk had a built-in ink well which was filled up with ink from time to time from a large bottle kept in the classroom cupboard. Invariably, the pupil who got lumbered with the task spilt much of it over him/herself. The floor was of wooden boards and the room was illuminated by large sash windows, each sash made up of nine squares, a total of 18 for each window. To open the window one used a long wooden window pole which had a brass hook at the end which caught onto a brass ring at the top of the window and so enabled one to pull it down. The room was heated by large, cast iron radiators, which threw out quite a lot of heat.
Lessons were centred on the three Rs, reading, writing and arithmetic. We were schooled by rote in learning the times tables and the idiocincrasies of the rules of spelling in the English language. We had regular mental arithmetic tests which involved such examples as working out how many apples little Johnny had before he divided them between his three siblings, at least two of whom had since eaten some and given away the rest; or calculating the cost of 2.5 lbs of butter when given the cost of a quarter of a pound. All measurements of course, were imperial, 12 pence to the shilling, 20 shillings to the pound; 16 ounces to a pound, 14 pounds to a stone, so calculations could get quite complicated.
Discipline was maintained essentially through the fear of physical violence being meted out by the teacher for a perceived transgression, misbehaving or not knowing one’s lessons sufficiently well. This could take the form of a rap over the knuckles with a ruler or a bif round the back of the head with a jotter, whilst Mr Muirhead kept order by throwing a blackboard duster at the offending pupil. In later years, P6 and P7, three or four blows on the outstreched palm of the hand with the strap or tawse was the punishment for bad behaviour in class or behind the bike sheds.
History was heavily slanted to the birth of the Scottish nation and the struggle for independence from England during the 13th and 14th centuries. We were taught to revere William Wallace and Robert the Bruce and learned of the battles that they fought against the English and how Wallace was eventually betrayed and captured and suffered a horrendous death at the hands of Edward “Longshanks,” king of England.
At Christmas and Easter we all made our way to Kingcase Parish Church for a service to close the term. God, of course was a Scottish presbyterian and John Knox had been made in his image, so I think those who were of the Latin persuasion were excused attendance. Nor did we celebrate eid or diwali. Indeed we were taught nothing of any other religion.
Eventually, we each had to face the rigour of the 11+ and depending upon how well you did, this would determine the level you would be streamed into once you went to secondary school. Those who did well could expect to be in a class where Latin would be one of the subjects being taught. Those who were deemed to have failed would find themselves in perpetual woodwork classes, being groomed for a world of work that required a constant supply of labourers and semi skilled artisans although there was always held out the promise of better things through an apprenticeship. That this system failed many young people is now recognised and through my own experience I am aware of many who “failed” the 11+ but who went on to carve out successful careers and who turned out to have first class minds.
by Jim Mitchell
Indeed, in the winter months we would walk to school in the dark, all the children from the local catchment area just finding their way from an early age. I never saw a parent at Heathfield the whole time I was there from 1952 until moving on to what was then Prestwick High in 1959. In fact, all the children’s activities outside the classroom were completely unsupervised. The children just made up their own play games. Rules and fairness were more of a consensus thing.
There was a great map of the world above the blackboard in each classroom, many of the countries were colored pink, to symbolize the extent of the British Empire. Class would start at 9.00 am with the Lord’s Prayer. However, the Presbyterian underpinnings of that educational system never seemed to indoctrinate us. Of course there was a strong moral code, and indeed the teachers would often teach us how to behave properly. To this day, I still get up to offer older people my seat on a bus, something that was drummed into us at Heathfield. Although strict discipline was maintained in the school, it was never really a threatening environment. Of course, in those days, children tended not to “talk back” to adults either in school or at home. We were never the center of attention, but rather in the background.
Playtime lasted about 20 mins, during which the swarm of pupils ran around like bees, all were lean as the diet of the day was quite different, much more locally grown food and almost no sweets. At the end of playtime, a teacher would ring a hand bell and suddenly silence fell upon the playground as all the children lined up, often holding hands in their respective class positions. Then the march into the classrooms in total silence. One teacher, maybe P5 would have a weekly competition for the best behaved row of pupils. The winning row received a 1d (old penny) dainty.
We all sat the 11+ exam, with a wide variety of outcomes. Much criticism has been leveled at this system of streaming children too early. But it must be said that in those days there was a large need for an “artisan class” of skilled and unskilled workers. Britain had a strong manufacturing heritage in those days and a steady stream of tradesmen and manual workers was required. So children who did not “pass” the 11+ were headed to secondary school with a trades bias and graduation at 16, then off into the workplace. There was no concept of a gap-year.
The few who did well in the 11+ were streamed into more academic secondary education in preparation for university and the professional class if they continued diligently.
Transcripts of these old 11+ exams exist. Can the primary 7 children of today’s educational system “pass” these old exams? Or has the world moved on too far?
On Saturday mornings we would go to the Regal Cinema on Prestwick Road to watch Flash Gordon or a cowboy movie. We would all stamp our feet and cheer when the “good guys” came to the rescue! On the way home from we would all play act the parts from the movies.
Anyway, I never remember any bullying nor fear during my seven years at Heathfield. The school had a strong name in the area for education and discipline, it was the culture of the teachers and administration which made it so. It was a happy time, and a simpler time.