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Turning Home into School by Margaret Coombs

04 Mar 2017 1:18 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Several people have been asking me how the Parents’ Union School was organised, during the middle years of the twentieth century, when others took over after the death of Charlotte Mason. We know that the Hon Mrs Henrietta Franklin (1866-1964) took a leading role in organising P.N.E.U. school education while the home-school service, led by Elsie Kitching (1870-1955) until her retirement in 1948, spread widely across British colonial outposts and overseas countries where parents were based. What was this service like?  While sorting out boxes of notes, gathered over time, I stumbled over this engaging article written for the Housewife by Lady Pakenham (1906-2002) and reprinted in the PR or Pianta. She had married the 7th Earl of Longford and 1st Baron Pakenham in 1931 and was active in Labour political life, mother of eight remarkable children, and subsequently an acclaimed historical biographer, especially for her life of Queen Victoria (1964) and the Duke of Wellington (1969, 1972). In 1952, she decided to teach her youngest child, Kevin, aged five, at home for two terms in their busy upper-class household, guided by the Parents’ Union School.

'And what school do you go to?' said a kindly grown-up to my youngest son aged five, 'Oh, I go to Mummy’s school,' came the prompt reply. There was an unmistakable note of self-satisfaction in his voice.

    Of course, the answer was not quite accurate. He and I could not make up a ‘School’ in the sense that his brothers and sisters used the word.  Our Schoolroom was really a playroom. His lessons were really ‘occupations’. But we had spent two whole terms together. And all this had been worked out under guidance      the wise and experienced guidance of the Parents’ National Educational Union.

       I wonder how many mothers have debated, as I did, this particular problem?  How to fill an awkward educational gap? The gap may be caused by different things. Perhaps you live far away from a school. You feel that you would like to wait a while before you send your child on that bus journey. Perhaps yours is an only child, and you want to give him a taste of organised occupations before he starts school proper. Possibly, as in my case, he has reached school age. But you can’t get him into the particular school you want for a term or two.

     Whatever the reason for the gap, there is an obvious place in which to fill it—Home. And, an obvious person—Mother.

    Before I go on to show how Mother and Home can turn into a Parents’ Union School, I want to make one point. It is very important that a child’s first impression of school should be a happy one. Many children do, indeed, look forward to school eagerly. They feel it will promote them to the grandeur of their older brothers and sisters. Some under-fives describe their school experiences to strangers before they have ever been there!

     But others will shrink from the whole idea of school, and they will need some tactful introduction to it. What could be happier than two hours every morning with Mother herself? To most children, the thought of having their mother to themselves, devoting herself to them, for two whole hours at a stretch, is very Paradise. My son, in fact, liked it far too much; he often badgered me to make it longer: ‘Can’t I have school in the afternoon too, Mummy?’ When I caught ‘flu in the middle of the winter term, my ruthless pupil tried to make me conduct his lessons from bed. An older sister, temporarily absent from school, was only too delighted to join in, having two children greatly increased the fun of many of our activities, particularly singing games, poetry and handwork. The only disaster was painting, where the temptation to paint each other instead of the paper, proved irresistible.

      But these two terms at home did not spoil Kevin for ‘real’ school when a vacancy appeared. His mornings away from home were described as ‘wizard’ and ‘smashing’. But when the other day he was kept indoors with a cold, there was no doubt in his mind as to how he should pass his time. He made a beeline for his old P.N.E.U.books. Out came the number books, reading, writing and handwork. What a boon when a six-year-old gives himself lessons!  And for the sheer joy of it. . . . It is a tribute, too, to the methods of this educational union.

    I turn now to the ‘guiding hand’ of the P.N.E.U. I was lucky enough to live near the London offices of the Parents’ National Educational Union at 171 Victoria Street. S.W.1. So having taken the decision to appoint myself  Kevin’s parent-teacher for the coming term, I went in search of advice and equipment.

   How much I enjoyed that first visit. I went in full of good, but undefined intentions; pious, but woolly hopes;  and a mass of half-formulated queries. How long is a ‘morning’s work’ for a child of five? Three hours or less? How long should one spend on anyone subject at a time? How should one test children’s knowledge? Is it a good thing to ask them questions about the books we read to them?

      I came out full of information, vital hints, and crayons galore—huge fat ones, all the colours of the rainbow. Also the thickest, blackest pencil I have ever seen, a pile of coloured sheets of paper, reading cards. Exercise books and tins of powder paint.

       But I think the most useful things of all were a shilling book by Miss E. Kitching on Children at Home and in the Parents’ Union School and a timetable (1) giving specimen timetables for preparatory classes.   

     Here is some of the useful advice I got.

1.      Two to two–and-a-half hours a day is enough for the five-year-old. Don’t forget ‘Break' outdoors.
2.       Never spend more than ten minutes at a time on a subject that needs concentration, e.g. reading, writing and numbers. You can carry on for fifteen or twenty minutes with the others. But encourage small ‘Breaks’ between lessons by letting your child get out and putting away everything himself.

3. Preparatory work must be informal and flexible—but not irregular. Don’t confuse flexibility with a haphazard timetable. Frequent half-holidays, when two hours’ teaching happen to be a little inconvenient for you, are to be avoided. The child should have the feeling of utmost freedom. But the parent-teacher must consider herself as bound as if she was doing a paid job. Otherwise the whole thing will lack seriousness, and collapse.

It was great help to know that all one’s efforts were made within a real educational framework. At the end of ten weeks one could send in a report. This would come back with further advice and criticism.   

We parents were urged to keep a log book. In it we entered each morning’s work with the time spent on each subject. It’s amazing what a kindly mentor that log book becomes. Somehow one can’t let it down.

4. The vexed question of handwriting is made beautifully easy. I use the word beautifully advisedly, for the Marian Richardson writing cards are lovely to look at and inspire splendid original patterns.

All the sentences and rhymes are copied through tracing paper. Kevin found writing hard and numbers easy. But his aberrations were as fascinating as his successes. He had an uncontrollable urge to write backwards from right to left. We got great amusement from holding it up and reading it the right way in the mirror.

Enormous pictures were achieved economically by an excellent tip given by the P.N.E.U. Secretary. Don’t buy fresh sheets of paper. If you do the expense will automatically make you say to your child. ‘Don’t waste it!’ This is all wrong. Sheet after sheet—3ft by2ft,--must be available. What so handy and inexpensive as old newspapers? Make a good thick pile of them. The wonderful thing is small children don’t mind the print.

5.  On the point about questioning five-year-olds, the P.N.E.U. was quite definite. ‘Kevin should not be expected  to narrate what is read to him, nor should he be questioned on it. If he volunteers to tell back all well and good. But he should not be pushed at this stage.

 Poetry and singing play a big part in the P.N.E.U. curriculum. I doubt whether I should have dared to attempt the latter but for their encouragement. Born into a sadly unmusical family, it took Kevin a long time before he could imitate one note correctly. But how enchanted he was when the right sound came out at last. It reminded me of an older sister who had suddenly begun to sing in tune at four and a half, and was asked how she managed to do it. 'I just made a voice in my tummy,’ she replied, ‘and then put it into my mouth.’

     Impossible to enumerate the many other subjects we covered-foremost in popularity being Scripture and Nature. Enough to say that we tried to look at man in his three relationships – with himself, (History etc.), with the outside world, (Nature, Geography etc), and with his Maker (Scripture), always remembering  that ‘education’ for a five-year-old  means occupations in a playroom, not lessons in a classroom. And that for all ages ‘education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.’     Lady Pakenham

End note

Do you think the overall approach to P.N.E.U. home education has significantly changed since the early days of the P.U.S., established by Charlotte Mason in 1891, but managed and organised by Elsie Kitching and her team from the later 1890s until 1948? How far does this 1952 account resonate with parents’ experiences in the twenty-first century?


(1) E Kitching, Children at Home and in the Parents’ Union School, P.N.E.U. pamphlet price 1s.6d. I have a copy. Revised 1955.


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