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Florence Cole as a child

The school system for working
class children in the early 1900s

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The Board School system

Like other children from working class backgrounds in the early 1900s, my brothers and I started our education at what was called a Board School because it was under the Middlesex Education Board. It was Silver Street School in Edmonton, which was well situated at the edge of a housing district, the Huxley Estate in Edmonton.

The Balfour Education Act, 1902

My mother wrote as if her school was a Board School. However the Balfour Education Act of 1902 abolished school boards and put education in the hands of local authorities. I have been unable to establish whether this meant that Board Schools were also abolished. It is possible that my mother's terminology was a widely used hangover from the Victorian era of a few years earlier or that the act took time to enforce. My mother referred in her writing to the man who visited homes to check on absenteeism as the School Board Man and she often used to mention the Board of Education. Whatever the facts of the matter, her writing is nevertheless informative and insightful about life at the time.

Pat Cryer, webmaster,
and daughter of the author

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Segregation of boys and girls

The school was typical of other Board schools in providing free education designed to equip boys for earning a living and girls for keeping house. For this reason alone it was hardly surprising that boys and girls were taught separately.

Typical early 1900s school entrances - for infants on the left and girls on the right, leading from a shared playground to separate floors, the ground floor for infants and first floor for girls

School entrances - for the youngest children on the left and for girls on the right, leading from a shared playground to separate floors, the ground floor for the youngest children and first floor for girls.

Typical early 1900s school entrance for boys leading from their own playground to the top floor

School entrance for boys leading from their own playground to the top floor.

Boys and girls were even taught on different floors. However the segregation of boys and girls went further than the teaching. Once the children had grown older than what were called 'juniors', the two sexes were kept entirely separate.(Photography of the doors, courtesy of Cliff Raven.)

There were three floors to the school building. The youngest children were on the ground floor, girls on the first floor, and boys on the top floor. There were separate entrances for all three, and there were also separate playgrounds. The youngest children and the girls played in one playground, while the boys used a playground on the other side of the building.

lintel above infants' entrance to a Victorian school, engraved 'juniors mixed (girls)' the 'girls' confirming that the youngest children shared a playground with the girls

lintel above girls' entrance to a Victorian school, engraved 'girls'

Details of the lintels. The girls' and juniors' lintels have since been painted white whereas the boys' lintel is probably more the original colour.

Such lintels can still be seen on old buildings of Victorian and Edwardian schools, even where segregation has long since vanished.

Older girls at Silver Street School

There were no older girls in Silver Street School in my time (the mid 1930s). They were transferred to Hazelbury Road School when it opened in 1931, which was no doubt tied in with the building of the council estates in Edmonton. So, although the doorway marked Girls would have been used by girls before 1931, it was afterwards for the junior boys (aged 7 to 11).

The top floor could be accessed through the Juniors entrance but the older boys (aged 11 to 14) had the separate main gate playground and stairway at the far end of the building.

When, as a junior boy, I was late for school, I would (illegally) go in the Seniors gate, run to the far end and use its stairway to the second floor. As there was no monitor there to catch latecomers, I could look as if I was coming back from the toilets after assembly.

Desmond Dyer

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The school playing field

There was a small field or playing ground at the end which was turned into an allotment during the 1914-18 war, and worked by the boys.

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The cycle shed and the bicycles

Victorian woman with a bicycle

Woman with bicycle, early 1900s, courtesy of Moyra Hill.

The support at the front for the lamp could alternatively carry a basket. Then the lamp would have been attached to the bicycle frame.

There was also a cycle shed for the teachers as they mostly arrived by bicycle.

I like to picture the teachers. No cocking a leg or dashing along for them. The women would cycle along at a dignified pace with their cycle baskets on the handlebars in front of them.

The headmaster would get on to his bike elegantly by stepping onto a little bit of metal on the middle of the back wheel to raise himself onto the saddle. He was a well built, grey headed, imposing man who looked as though he was in command of any situation.

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School attendance and meal breaks

We were called to school by the school bell which could be heard quite a distance away. It was in its own bell tower, like church bells.

We started school at 9.00 am. Dinner-time [lunch-time] was from twelve until two, and home-time was at four. Most children brought a slice of bread and butter to school to eat in the playground at morning break, but they went back home for dinner. No food or drink was provided.

Checks were made on absentees by an inspector known as the School Board Man. He would make enquiries if a child was absent for any length of time, then send in his report. The School Board Man who came to our house was respected. He always wore sombre clothes and lived in a very nice house. Like everyone else, he went around on a bicycle.

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.