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School teaching as National Service
outside the armed forces in World War Two

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From a conversation with Lewis Elton

Alternatives to wartime service in the forces

Although it is well-known that young men were called up to serve in the Second World War, either as soon as they reached 18 or after a period of referral, what is less well-known is that the service was not necessarily in the armed forces. Service meant service to the nation which could take various forms according to the nation's needs and the qualifications of the conscript. For me it was school teaching. Let me explain:

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Why my national service was teaching

I left school in July 1941 and went on to do a two-year wartime degree in physics at Christ's College, Cambridge. This took me to July 1943 when I was called up. I was 20.

When the call-up board looked at my qualifications, they said that my degree implied that I could teach Higher School Certificate maths, i.e. sixth form maths. Apparently there was a severe shortage of such teachers. So they told me that I would be drafted as a sixth form maths teacher.

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My experience of teaching for my national service

I thought quickly and said, "OK, but may I find my own job?" I knew that this wouldn't be difficult because of the shortage. The board agreed.

I decided to choose a live-in post at a boarding school in a pleasant area of the country where there would be good walking and cycling with minimal air-raids. This led me to St Bees independent school on the edge of the Lake District National Park in Cumbria. I was there in these pleasant surroundings until the war ended. The work wasn't taxing and I did manage the hoped-for walks and cycle rides.

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Acceptable subjects for wartime conscript as a teacher

Young men with qualifications in non-science subjects were not exempt from the standard armed-forces route. My older brother had a history degree and was drafted into the army which, fortunately, he loved. He was fluent in German and spent much of this time there interrogating German prisoners to establish what part they had played in the war.

Married women go back to school teaching

Until the Second World War women school teachers had to give up teaching when they married. This changed during the war and has continued ever since. As a child I remember a man knocking at our door and telling my mother who was a school teacher until she married in 1932 that she was required to go back to teaching.

Lyndsey Blake

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Reflections on my time as national service teacher

I did not stay in school teaching after the war, but I was pleased to have had the experience. It served me in good stead afterwards, when having done a London full term external degree, I went into university teaching and research.

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