Stenton | Educational Facilities and Experiences in Stenton School 1945-2000

Mary O’Mahony

Headteachers and Staff, 1945-2000

Mr Ramsay, Mr Mitchell, Mr McRae, Mrs C. Taylor, Mrs O’Mahony

Miss Halliday, Mrs Nicolson, Mrs Cockburn, Miss Davie, Mrs C. Taylor, Miss Hughes, Miss Foster, Miss Buchanan, Mrs M. Taylor, Mrs Dillin

In the 55 years from 1945 to 2000 there have been many changes at the place called Stenton School.

For 23 of those years I was the head teacher until I retired in the year 2000. Children must have had a variety of experiences during my time, and in earlier years too, but for me it was a consistently happy and fulfilling experience which made me feel forever grateful for the happy accident that brought me to such a school and community.

During those 23 years there was much change and fluctuation both in the physical building, the school roll and the social circumstances of the pupils. I suspect that in the earlier years, change was perhaps less obvious.

At the end the war Stenton was a two teacher school. The head teacher, Mr Ramsay taught the upper school and carried out administration tasks after school hours.

The situation was the same in the 1970s. By 2000 although it was still a two teacher school the head teacher taught only part time and had at least two days for office and administration purposes and an ancilliary staff including a secretary and an auxiliary.

For 25 years from 1945 the school roll was consistently around 40 to 50 children, coming from the village and surrounding farms.

A proposal to modernise and enlarge the school planned for 1964-5 failed to materialise. It was envisaged that children from Whittingehame school should transfer to Stenton when that school closed. In the event Stenton stayed the same and the Whittingehame children went to East Linton school. This was to change in later years under different circumstances.

However in the first half of the 1970s there were rumours that the school was about to be closed.

Numbers were falling and the head teacher Mr James McRae left to take up a post in a larger school. The other class teacher, Mrs Christina Taylor, was asked somewhat against her will to run the school as a single teacher school in the interim. This arrangement, which was initially to be for a short time, lasted for several years.

The powers that be, however, had reckoned without a group of determined parents who knew the importance of a school to a community and had the foresight to recognise that the falling numbers was probably only a temporary blip. Meetings with councillors were organised and when this proved fruitless the parents group contacted the then MP, Mr John McIntosh. He took up their cause wholeheartedly and, when he got nowhere dealing with local officials, went directly to the Secretary of State for Scotland and presented the case for retaining the school. Common sense prevailed and the school was saved.

The faith and fight of the parents was rewarded and in 1976 the roll increased to over 30 which was considered to be too large for one teacher and that summer Miss Marion Hughes was appointed teacher of infants. This was her first post and she remained at Stenton for five years. She was a vivacious, much loved and inspiring teacher.

Mrs Taylor continued to teach the older children until she retired at Easter 1977. In that summer she was invited back to present books and gifts to the children at the then annual prize giving. As she walked into the room the children broke in to spontaneous applause to welcome her. At that time she was awarded the Queen’s Jubilee medal in recognition of her work. This along with the children’s obvious affection gives an indication of how much she was admired and appreciated.

In 1978 the school centenary was celebrated with an exhibition of work, photographs, certificates and other artefacts. Many former pupils and teachers contributed and visited. At the triennial village fair that year the children paraded along the village street in Victorian costume. They manned stalls set up to represent all the businesses which had been in the village a hundred years before Several parents reported lumps in throats and tears in eyes as the children processed along the street. Staff were more concerned that a steady drizzle was causing colour to run in the crepe paper accessories.

One very obvious change from this time was within the building. The layout consisting of two classrooms, a partition and a glass-screened dining room had remained the same since 1945. However between 1945 and 1975 children remember bare walls with maps and Shell nature posters and alphabets being the only decoration. From the mid 1970s the interior of the school was now bright and stimulating with examples of children’s work and art work covering every space from floor to ceiling. There was a huge supply of paper and paint accumulated over many years to be used up and fortunately the staff enjoyed art and craft work. Children from this time remember painting and sticking, stapling and modelling as being the overriding memory.

In 1982 Angela Foster joined the staff as infant teacher and her outstanding art skills did much to inspire children and staff and make the interior an even more stimulating environment for learning.

From the end of war until the early 1980s the pupil intake was from the village and surrounding farms. At that time the Parents’ Charter was introduced where parents could send their children to the school of their choice as long as there was room available. This latter condition was perhaps not understood and some schools including Stenton found themselves rather crowded. Parents of the Whittingehame children now chose to transfer to Stenton since the links between the two villages were very close. Small schools were now viewed, especially by professional people, as an ideal learning environment. Thus the social background of children in the school changed dramatically and remains so to the present day. Farm cottages now tend to be converted dream homes! Many people who formerly sent their children to private or prep schools now sent them to the village school for their early education.

This increase in pupil numbers led to the appointment of a third teacher Sandra Buchanan. All three teachers and 50 plus children squeezed into a very small area in conditions that were far from ideal. Children from this time remember not minding or noticing the overcrowding but enjoying making papier-mâché models, painting and first experiences of computers in the classroom.

Learning experience from 1945 until 1960 was very much based on rote learning and people have memories of ‘getting the belt’ for spelling or tables not learnt. This is the memory which invariably crops up.

A friend of mine who attended the school throughout the 1950s remembers the fear associated with the spelling tests and can recite pages of Schonell spelling to this day. She too was belted for not achieving full marks and can remember being bullied by a boy in her class on a fairly regular basis. She has wonderful memories of the 1953 Coronation celebrations. A huge Fancy Dress event was held in the school playground and the children took part in a concert in the village hall. She thinks this was organised by the WRI ie the ‘rooral’! ! !

There was an open fire in the ‘Big Room’ She has countless other interesting and vivid memories. Children sat in rows and the three Rs plus nature study and religion featured strongly. There were no specialist teachers.

However educational thinking was gradually changing and consequently children would now have different experiences.

In the 1960s ‘The New Methods’ arrived where children were to learn by ‘doing’ rather than listening. Projectors, record players and learning from television programmes were now a feature.

Specialist teachers of music, art and fabric craft visiting the school. During the 1970s and 1980s using informal methods was the proscribed way and formal teaching of spelling, tables and grammar was discouraged. Environmental Studies incorporating science, history, geography and the outdoors became a very prominent feature of the curriculum. In the main teachers devised their own programmes of study and there was no overall structure or national guidelines. As a consequence some areas of the curriculum might receive scant attention and others be thoroughly explored.

Children at this time have memories of sunny afternoons in the playground making balsa wood gliders as part of science projects. Others remember planned and impromptu trips to the burn, various farms, local ‘big’ houses and museums.

A prominent feature of school life in the 1980s and 1990s was the development of school residential trips. For many years camping under canvas with children from Whitekirk

Primary School became a regular event in the older children’s school year. Learning was great fun.

This developed into a routine whereby the older children went to the outdoor Education Centre at Innerwick with children from Athelstaneford Primary School on one year and to the island of Iona (in the far west) school on the alternate year. There they shared and compared experiences with the children from Iona Primary School.

These trips are what the children mention first when asked for high spots and have been described as ‘magic’ and ‘unforgettable’. Former pupils also remember all the humorous incidents and fortunately seem to have buried any unhappy events.

The last visit to Iona was in 1999.

In the early 1990s the National Guidelines for the Teaching of Children from 5-14 were introduced. This was now the bible and schools were given a time scale of several years to implement them. At the inspection of Stenton Primary School in 1993 most areas were in the process of being implemented and at a follow up visit the following year all areas were fully in place.

A notable feature of learning socially for the children in the 1980s and 1990s was the interaction and involvement with other village organisations. Visits from playgroup, entertaining senior citizens, decorating the village hall for community events, producing musicals there, participating in the flower show etc. gave a very strong sense of community. A teacher at Dunbar Grammar School at this time remarked that you always knew the Stenton children because they took responsibility and wanted to be involved. Indeed many went on to be head boys and girls at Dunbar Grammar School.

While it is what goes on within the walls of a school which is important it goes without saying that the physical building and surroundings have an important bearing on the general sense of well being. The exterior of the school has changed very little in the years between 1878 when it was built and the present time. The interior has changed radically.

As it turns out we were fortunate to have escaped the earlier programme for rebuilding and re-siting rural schools in the 1960s since it resulted in fairly unattractive new purpose built buildings in surrounding villages at that time.

There was a plan afoot at the time of chronic overcrowding in the 1980s to extend the building and East Lothian Council architect Charlie Park visited the school, drew up plans and went away again. The roll settled to around 45 which required only two teachers and was now seen as the nominal capacity of the school. Plans for improvements resurfaced from time to time but quickly disappeared again.

Much as the old building with its lovely architectural features and character was loved the outstanding issue became the outside toilets! For over 100 years the children at Stenton Primary School had to go out of doors in all weathers to go to the lavatory. This had advantages and disadvantages for both children and staff!

In the 1990s, however, the situation was perceived as being rather 19th century with the 21st century fast approaching. A new council was in place and Charlie Park was asked to resurrect his plans and the result was a much appreciated extension and refurbishment beautifully in keeping with the original building.

The main area was now an open plan classroom and activity area for all the staff and children, a computer room and indoor toilets completed the dream.

A Grand Opening was held on the evening of 21 April 1998. A large audience, architects, councillors, representatives from other schools, former pupils, parents and the wider village community gathered to help celebrate. The children burst cheering out of a huge paper cake and then helped 90 year old Cath Watt, a former pupil, to blow out the candles on a real cake. Then, as generations of children before them, they entertained the audience with songs and plays. The sense of family and community was strong.

A memory to treasure – a very old school renewed and still very much alive!