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Grammar schools, mid 20th century


Timetabling and admin in a 1950s girls grammar school

Based on experiences at Copthall County Grammar School in the 1950s. How typical was it?

Very little has changed over the years as far as term dates and school holidays are concerned. Back in the 1950s at my grammar school, there were three terms to the school year. The year began with the Autumn term, starting about a week into September and went on until Christmas when there were Christmas holidays of about 2½ weeks; the Spring term went on until Easter, when there were Easter holidays also of about 2½ weeks; then the summer term went on until mid-July when the summer holidays started. They lasted about six weeks. Then the year began all over again. In the middle of the terms there were short half-term breaks.

The school 'weekly' timetable

Throughout my seven years at Copthall in the 1950s the timetable was a six-day one. Not that we worked on Saturdays. The first Monday of the year was Day 1, the first Friday was Day 5; then the next Monday was Day 6. The next day was Day 1 again, making the next Friday Day 4, and so on. Apparently this was to make it easier to fit the various lessons in. I understood from my friends at other schools that they managed a weekly timetable, although I have since heard of fortnightly ones.

The six-day timetable never caused any confusions. In fact, towards the end of my time at Copthall, when I wanted to spend weekends out with my friends, it had the advantage that different homework subjects were squeezed each time.

The daily timetable

The school started at about 9 o'clock each day. I think it was either 8.55 or 9.05, but I can't be sure. I do know that we congregated in our classrooms for the form mistress to take the register, and then we filed out into the school hall for assembly. This was conducted by Miss Heys-Jones, the headmistress. We sang a hymn, had prayers and listened to a reading from the bible. The youngest classes sat on the floor and knelt on the bare wooden floor for the prayers, while the sixth form sat on chairs on the hall balcony. Teachers sat on chairs at the side along the wall. The activities never struck me as religious; they seemed merely a morning ritual. The relatively few Jewish girls were excused from the religious parts, but they slipped onto the balcony for the notices. The Jewish girls were also excused from scripture lessons on the New Testament. I don't remember anyone from any other religion - which just shows how things have changed.

After the religious parts of the assembly came various notices. During these notices, there was a naming and shaming session in which any girl who had had three detentions was called up to stand on the stage.

Then the day's lessons began. They each lasted 35 minutes, although some were double periods, notably for the laboratory subjects in the sixth form. There were four lessons in the morning with a mid-morning break, and three in the afternoon. The day ended at 4.05, whereupon every girl had to put her chair on top of her desk to make it easier for the army of cleaners to get to the floors during the evening.

There was always plenty of homework!


Throughout the years up to the nominal leaving age, (ie the O Level exams), each year was divided into three classes with about 35 pupils in each.

In the first year, when the school had no idea of the relative abilities of the incoming pupils, they were allocated a class according to where their surnames came in the alphabet. Everyone I knew from my previous school happened to come late in the alphabet, so I found myself in a class where I knew no-one, and for the first few weeks, I was very unhappy. Fortunately, it didn't take long to made new friends.

After the first year, the classes were streamed. The top stream took Latin as a second foreign language, the middle stream took German, and the other stream took no additional second foreign language. Everyone took French. Looking back over my life, I am certain that German would have been far more use to me than Latin - but there it was. It was probably a hangover from universities requiring Latin for entry into all degree course, but by the time I came to go to university, that requirement was long past for most universities.

To cater for some pupils being good in certain subjects, but weaker in others, there were 'divisions' which crossed the streams. I can only remember these for Maths and French, but they may have existed for other mainstream subjects like English.

The lesson protocol

There were three minutes between lessons, during which time talking was allowed. It was a time for putting the books from the last lesson away and getting out the ones for the next lesson, and, where necessary moving to another classroom.

The end of a lesson was signalled by an electric bell sounding throughout the building, and the beginning of the next lesson was signalled three minutes later by three bursts of the bell. After these three bells no more talking was allowed, on risk of an after-school detention. I never knew of any detentions being given for that reason, though, as everyone seemed to respect the three bells.

When the teacher came in, all the girls were expected to stand - and they always did. She said, "Good morning" or "Good afternoon", and we replied, adding her name. Then she said, "Sit". Once we reached the sixth form we were no longer expected to stand for teachers.

The teaching was supported by text books - there being of course no internet. There was at least one textbook for each subject - sometimes more. Textbooks were given out on the first day of the school year, and we were required to take them all home the same evening to cover them with brown paper. At the end of the year they were returned to the school.

The classrooms and furniture

We sat in rows in the classrooms, two to a double desk, just as my mother described for her Edwardian classrooms. The rooms, were flat, though, not tiered as hers had been, and we had central heating, not coal fires. There were blackboards at the front, with chalks to write with and a small block covered with soft fabric for cleaning the board after use. There was often a class board monitor whose task it was to clean the board between the lessons. Incidentally, at that time, the term 'chalkboard' was effectively unheard of.

The classrooms were designed to take about 30-35 pupils, whereas my mother described classes of 60 in her Edwardian childhood.

Class captains, games captains and School Council representatives

Class captains, games captains and School Council representatives were elected by each class at the beginning of each term or each year. I can't remember which. I do know, though, that it was largely a foregone conclusion. Our games captions were always either Jeanette Smith or Jennifer Smith (not relations) because they were good at games, and our School Council representative was always Ann(e) Gibbs, a most reliable classmate who never seemed to get upset about anything. The rest of the class could supply her with suggestions to take to the council, but the final arbiter of course was the headmistress, Miss Heys Jones.

Showers after PE and games

Whenever the games teacher deemed it appropriate, showers were compulsory after a PE or games lesson. I absolutely hated them. The water was warm enough but it was difficult not to get hair wet and it was cold having to undress and then dry oneself properly afterwards.

The showers were communal. I don't know whether this is still the case at schools, but it certainly got us used to how our fellow pupils were developing at puberty. I don't remember anyone saying that this was embarrassing, but I am sure it must have been for those girls who developed early and those who were still flat chested after most of the other girls had become better endowed.

If you were at Copthall around this time, you will probably like the pages on life in the 1940s and 50s - see the top menu.


With grateful thanks for additional information from Christine Tolton (formerly Christine Culley). If any of my contemporaries can add further information or correct anything I have wrongly remembered, please contact me.

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