‘I never knew which school I was going to be in’: Disrupted education in World War Two

Over ten years ago, Liz O’Donnell recorded the memories of more than 40 people in the North East who, as children during the 2nd World War, had experienced the huge dislocation caused by mass evacuation. Current discussions about the damaging impact of disrupted education caused by the pandemic led her to dig out her research notes, to look at the evacuees’ recollections of their own disturbed schooling, especially their feelings about its long-term effects. All the examples here are of evacuation to villages in Northumberland, mostly from the industrial areas of Tyneside. Summaries and recordings of all the interviews are available at Northumberland Archives, Woodhorn.

In looking over the interviews with evacuees, a marked difference from the current situation is that children were removed from their parents. For successful learning, children need a stable environment, so for the evacuees, the billet they were allocated could be crucial. None of them knew where they would be going when Operation Pied Piper was launched on 1st September 1939. 12 year old Alan, evacuated from Tynemouth to Coupland, recalled: ‘We had no idea where we were going to finish up that day but I was quite happy. I had some money in a purse I had been given and I was just ready to go and enjoy myself’.

In common with many other interviewees, he was surprised at the tiny village school catering for 5 to 14 year olds – two rooms, with the infants in one and all the other year groups taught together in the other. To cater for the increased numbers, initially they were taught in shifts; evacuees in the morning, locals in the afternoon, or vice versa. Later, as city children drifted home, those remaining were fully integrated with the other pupils. Alan reckoned he was about a year ahead educationally of the others in his class, which ‘appealed to my lazy nature’ and although he thoroughly enjoyed informal learning about the countryside from his host, he was ‘excited to leave school’ after a couple of years.

A common assumption, based on books like Nina Bawden’s ‘Carrie’s War’, is that children went to only one or two billets, staying there for the duration. However, I was surprised at how much continuous moving these interviewees experienced. The 47 evacuees interviewed stayed in 105 billets between them, with only 15 staying in one place. Stanley, from Tottenham, London, was not unusual in being evacuated repeatedly. Firstly he went to a farm in Cambridgeshire, returning after about 6 months because the ‘war was not going anywhere’. When the bombing really started, he was off again to two different billets in Wales. As he didn’t like the second one, back he went to Tottenham: ‘I can remember all the bombing and the doodlebugs and all that…But it got too bad and they said “Well, we’d better send you away again.”’ This time it was to Bedlington, a mining village, staying with family friends.

‘So whether it did have an effect on my education – because I never knew which school I was going to be in – I was in different schools all over the country….and in between I was coming back and going to my local school.’

Several interviewees felt village school teaching did not prepare them for the eleven-plus, putting a blight on their future life chances, but those who passed the exam had to endure being re-evacuated somewhere else to join their new school. Adjusting once back home could also be difficult. Irene (from Newcastle), only five when she was evacuated, was very happy attending the village school, so by the end of 1944, she:

‘didn’t want to come home. I wanted to be with my mum but I didn’t want to leave Whittingham. I can remember being very, very upset and I didn’t like Todd’s Nook School when I went back there. There were too many people.’

Just as today, there was a definite class divide in the evacuation experiences. Some wealthy families joined up with others to share their governess in a makeshift school, and private schools were often evacuated to a country house or hotel, operating as boarding schools. Gordon, a doctor’s son from Gateshead, was evacuated to Eslington Hall with Newcastle Prep School and recalled a ‘Boys’ Own’ existence:

This was a practice area from the Milfield air field and Spitfires and Hurricanes used to fly overhead, to our delight…For entertainment we initially used to play Cops and Robbers or Cowboys and Indians in the woods on the estate but as the war progressed we formed a Wolf Cub Pack…At nights we used to have debates, mock trials, and in the winter, with the heavy snows, we had wonderful snowball fights…

Each interview ended with the person being invited to reflect on the impact they believed the experience had had on the rest of their lives. Some looked back with nostalgia at a dramatic episode which provided many well-rehearsed anecdotes. Several had stayed in touch with their host families and one had become so enamoured with rural life that he bought his own farm after retiring! But others acknowledged the trauma that this disjuncture had caused them. Doris, the 10th of 15 children, spoke of periods of depression, caused, she believed, by having to supress her emotions while living with strangers. Foster was evacuated three times, the third time to Dukes House Wood, a specially built camp school near Hexham. He liked it there but was never visited by his parents, who became ‘like strangers’, a not untypical sensation.

Educationally, opinions differed, from ‘the best years of my life’ to feeling the village school was inferior to their schools back on Tyneside, leaving them unable to fulfil their potential. Mulling over the entire range of the interviews, I couldn’t help feeling that what influenced the interviewees’ response to their experience, their emotional resilience or lack of it, and their ability to overcome educational disruption, often lay in how much stability the environment they found themselves in was able to provide.

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