Once again from the pen of my former primary school teacher Ken Noakes has issued forth a gem to keep alive the most precious of memories – those earliest years spent at primary school, in my case the eponymous Worple Road School in Isleworth.
Hot on the heels of his well-received Crowlink, a Magical Location for School Journeys: an Appreciation, a tribute to the serene South Downs hamlet at which most of us ex-pupils spent the first days of our lives away from the family home, Working At Worple provides a rich source of information both for the edification of those who were there or who knew us, and for the not unimportant purposes of historical record. Inconsequential though they may appear alongside two world wars and Brexit as historical events, my gratuitous sinking of a moored rowing boat along the banks of the Thames and my summoning of the fire brigade to my home under a false premise should surely not be allowed to simply fade into obscurity with the passing of their respective witnesses – and now, thanks to Ken and his diligent research and painstaking chronicling of events, they won't be.
Working At Worple is a significantly longer work than the Crowlink booklet, necessarily so as it covers a much longer period in time. Essentially it is divided into two parts, the first delving into the history of the school dating back to 1928 for which the author obviously had to depend largely upon logs and records, and the second relating his own experiences as a teacher at the school between 1969 and 1972. During his three-and-a-bit years at Worple, Ken had the misfortune of having me in his class for two of them.
The story begins in 1928, which was the year that Worple truly became a junior school. Before that it had received children up to the age of fourteen whilst in 1927, for one year only, infant-aged pupils had been taken. The junior school at Worple Road was separate from the infant school, although they co-existed on the same development and pupils progressed automatically from one to the other.
All head teachers were required to keep a log book in which all events considered to be of significance were recorded for posterity, including "the introduction of new books, apparatus or courses of instruction, any plan of lessons approved by the Board, the visits of managers, absence, illness, or failure of duty on part of the school staff, or any special circumstances, affecting the school that may, for the sake of future reference or for any other reason, deserve to be recorded."
One aspect of Worple life which did require to be logged was the meting out of corporal punishment, a.k.a. "the cane". It is difficult to envision in this modern age an environment in which children sometimes as young as seven would be disciplined by means of a painful, if measured, physical beating with a stick, but it was once accepted practice throughout the land and there is no evidence to suggest that Worple Road was any better or worse in this regard than any other school. Different head teachers would appear to have wielded the cane with varying degrees of enthusiasm, although towards the later years of its deployment it would seem from the personal testimony of survivors that not every incidence of its use found its way into the annals.
The author records these incidents, as with others which demonstrate an approach inconsistent with modern standards and expectations, in a pleasingly dispassionate manner, not admonitory or judgmental but certainly not approving. He appears, as I do, to take the view that the ways of the past belong to the past and that it is superfluous to judge them according to the values by which we live today.
THE KEN NOAKES ERA
It is the second part of the book which finds the author really getting his hands into the meat. This is Ken's personal account based upon his own first-hand experience, richly fortified by the input of many of his former pupils with whom he has re-established contact in recent years thanks to social media.
Young, enthusiastic and fresh out of university, the author approaches his first day as a real teacher (he'd served an apprenticeship of sorts prior to embarking upon his studies) with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. He describes vividly the various key characters with whom he came immediately into contact – teachers, ancillary staff, the caretaker – before listing some of the pupils that he had been told (or in some cases warned) about, along with many of their specific wonts and eccentricities. His first ever class comprises a full compliment of second-year juniors (although one of first-year age would seem somehow to have wangled his way onto the team-sheet). Nearly half a century later, and with some 44 years of subsequent teaching experience under his belt, the clarity of his recollection is staggering. That class of ours must truly have left a lasting impression!
Inevitably there is some mention of Crowlink, the then annual school holiday destination of choice for older Worple pupils and their teachers, and equally inevitably there is a small element of overlap with his earlier work. Although the trip to Crowlink only accounted for one week in the school year, and even the most affluent pupils whose parents could afford to send them away during both the third and fourth years only spent ten days of their school lives away at this wonderful location (in my fourth year the trip set my folks back a whole £8.50, plus £1 obligatory insurance), it was very much an integral feature of Worple life. With the excitement of the build-up taken into account, as well as the days following our return in which we designed and completed our project folders (which feature heavily in the book), Crowlink fever in practice consumed a hefty chunk of our third and final term.
THE INDOMITABLE SPIRIT
As well as making for an entertaining and informative read, Working At Worple captures for the enchantment of generations yet unborn the unique and indomitable spirit of Worple Road Junior School in the late 1960s and early 1970s which still pervades every reunion. Supported by photographs and work extracts aplenty, it cannot fail to transport the ex-pupil back to a place in time that was both more innocent and less buffered from the everyday iniquities that we needed to encounter, and to overcome, in order to become – for better or for worse – the people that we are today. I can still feel in my own work as a writer of fiction the call of What I Did At The Weekend, penned in 1969-70 and in which the aforementioned rowing boat sinking was proudly recounted.
This book really is essential reading for old pupils and staff of Worple Road, Isleworth residents and ex-residents with an interest in their own local history, and indeed anyone with a curiosity to understand the dynamics of junior school life in the late sixties and early seventies. As a community Worple Road was unique, but then so is every community. For me, it didn't hurt (too much) to see, for once, my younger self through the eyes of somebody entrusted with the unenviable task of being at once my tutor and my disciplinarian. That won't, of course, stop Ken being much relieved not to be the one to have to write the sequel.
Working at Worple by Ken Noakes is available at £8.00 plus £1.50 postage and packing (UK orders). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to order a copy.