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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Some Aspects of our Work in the Parents' Union School

by Jean C. Cochrane, M.A.
Volume 74, no. 9, October 1963, pgs. 213-216


It is always interesting to know how an organisation functions, and to understand the ideals and principles which direct its practice. I propose to discuss both these aspects of our work.

The staff of the Parents' Union School at Ambleside might be compared with the 'backroom workers' at a research stationthose who are little known to the public, but whose ideas are applied by other people whose names and occupations are widely recognised.

What is the pattern of the work at Ambleside, and has it any perceptible rhythm?

There is a termly rhythm in the work: preparation of the programmes, setting examination questions, reading the examination answers, entering the examiner's comments upon each pupil's record sheet, and returning the reports to the parent or school.

The preparation of the programmes involves much detailed and meticulous work before they are sent to the printers. There are the books to be selected, and much additional work is involved if a volume goes out of print. Besides the essential study-books, there are books to be suggested for holiday and leisure reading or for reference in various subjects. As in other departments of life, there seems to be a fashion in certain types of book. For example, Tales of Troy and Greece by Andrew Lang, published by Longmans, had been out of print for eleven years.

We had tried to persuade various publishers to reprint it, but without success. Suddenly, in 1962, two publishing houses produced reprints of this old favourite. Both editions had to be examined and read. We finally selected the edition by Faber and Faber. This was set on Programme 215 for Lower and Upper Form IA. Other books on different subjects go out of print, and the search begins again. The publishers' catalogues are studied for promising titles, and we ask for specimen copies. Reading and much discussion follows. Every member of the staff reads the books and makes comments before a decision is reached. Sometimes numerous books on one subject are read and discussed before a decision is made.

What guides us in the choice of any one book? Every book requires to be written in good, vigorous, grammatical English; the ideas must be well expressed and presented. The author must not 'talk down' to the reader, nor patronise him. (Authors are still inclined to fall into this fault, especially when dealing with History and Civics.) In Geography and Science the facts must be accurate, the diagrams clear and well presented, the layout attractive. In every subject, a copy of the latest book is received or requested from the publisher in order that it may be read and discussed.

Before the programmes are despatched for final printing, there is the proof-reading to be done. This is exacting work, demanding a quick eye for detail as well as great accuracy. When the programmes arrive from the printers, they are put into envelopes addressed to every P.N.E.U. school and home-schoolroom. At last 'zero hour' arrives, when the post-office sends a van to collect the envelopes.

The examination questions are set upon each term's work. Usually one member of the staff is responsible for the questions set on all subjects in one form and, perhaps, throughout the school. Once the questions have been set, they are checked by someone else to ensure that they cover the term's work. Each one of us checks each other's work, and this sharpens our wits and adds to the enjoyment of the job. The questions are set freshly each term. There is no repetition.

The children's answers in the examinations prove if the questions were well chosen, the books enjoyed and the requisite knowledge acquired. From the schools come frequent comments on or criticisms of the questions. All these are most helpful to us.

The children's examination papers reveal much about themselves. Their compositions give a picture of their interests. From these, especially in verse-making, which so many schools and home-schoolrooms tackle with zest and success, I feel I have met the individual child. General Science questions, dealt with by pupils working overseas, teach us much about the flora, fauna and insects of different parts of the world. In the Painting examination in the upper forms, I learn from the illustrations offered which books have been read during the term. We look with particular interest to see which books we have suggested have been chosen by the children for holiday and evening reading.

When Picasso was set as the term's artist to be studied, the examination answers were read with eagerness. Some had found his pictures exciting, in contrast to the religious subjects treated by the artists studied in previous terms; others had disliked his work. Some of the younger children expressed their pleasure or commented like one little girl, 'The picture I liked best was the "Three Musicians." I like this picture because it is so interesting. You always have something more to find.'

The children's own judgments are most likely to appear in Bible lesson answers, History, Picture Study or Literature. In a composition on 'Space Research' one boy aged thirteen wrote about the space-ship, 'There will be the lack of something to do, for the human mind has to be occupied.'

The preparation of programmes, the setting of examination questions and the reading of examination answers, does not comprise the whole work of the P.U.S. There remain the enrolment of new home-schoolroom pupils, and the answering of lettersletters of enquiries about schools, on some aspect of the work for a parent overseas, or on behaviour problems. These aspects of our work absorb much time and thought. One never knows beforehand what the day's post will bring.

Our pupils are scattered all over the world, in every continent except Australia. There are pupils in lonely islands in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, in Tristan da Cunha, in the tropics, in Africa, Indonesia, South America and beyond the Arctic circle. There are P.N.E.U. schools in New Zealand, Bangkok, India, Bahrain, the Arabian Gulf, Nigeria, Ghana, the Congo, the Cameroons, Tangier, South America, Chile, Colombia, Canada, the West Indian Islands, Spain, Vienna, Italy, Geneva and, of course, throughout the British Isles.

What are the links which bind together all these children?

There are three: the work, the badge and the motto. All the children work from the same programmes, study the reproductions by the term's artist, hear the works of the chosen composer and read the books set for each term. All wear the same badge and have the same motto.

My information about the meaning and importance of the badge and the motto has been derived from the report of a talk given by Elsie Kitching, late Director of the Parents' Union School, at the Ambleside Conference in 1932.

In 1903 it had been suggested by a home-schoolroom pupil, Eric Bishop, that the P.U.S. should have a badge. He wrote to Charlotte Mason to ask if this could be arranged and sent her a design of a lark soaring towards heaven, encircled by a wreath of daisies. It was not until 1910 that a decision was reached on the design of the badge. Charlotte Mason and the former students from the House of Education decided that the badge should be in the form of a brooch, consisting of a circle bearing the motto around the edge and the lark in the centre.

The colours brown and white represented the lark, while the blue denoted the sky. In 1915 Dorothea Steinthal designed a badge incorporating these ideas. She added a wreath of daisies around the circlet. At first the badges were made by various firms, but as the bird frequently bore no resemblance to a lark, in 1930 Dorothea Steinthal suggested she should draw a simpler design which could be patented. This was done, and the new badge bears the soaring lark, its head thrown back in song, its beak open. Around the circle is inscribed the motto and the name of the school.

The motto, 'I am, I can, I ought, I will,' is simple and positive. It provides inspiration for all children, whether they are in the preparatory class, Form I or Form VI.

The educational principles of Charlotte Mason which guide us in our work are: the value and importance of a child as a person, and the fact that 'education is the science of relations.'

Charlotte Mason's concept of the word 'education' is derived from the Latin educare, meaning 'to feed and to nourish.' The mind must be fed and nourished: this is achieved through the width of the P.U.S. curriculum, in which is put into practice the idea of establishing a relationship with many subject and things, the reading of a wide variety of books, and the arousing of interest in crafts, art, music and physical skills. In this way the children grow to love knowledge, and their minds are nourished and expanded. They must be encouraged to discover things for themselves, to learn for themselves, whether the subject be a craft, or mathematics, or a language, science or literature. The development of character is aided by the formation of right habits or work and growth in judgment which, in their turn, lead to self-knowledge and self-discipline.

In conclusion I quote two remarks made by Charlotte Mason. 'The Parents' Union School was not intended as a cast-iron system and we must put away any idea of swaddling clothes or a system which prescribes one way and one only of entry into the field of Knowledge,' and 'We must not put the hands of the clock back.'

The saying of Dean Colet, which appears at the head of every programme, is my wish for all the pupils in the P.U.S.: 'That they may prosper in good life and good literature.'