Dame Leah Manning’s early teaching philosophy before WWI.

Above – Leah Manning from her Homerton College days.

Before she married Cambridge Astronomer Will Manning, Leah Perrett gained prominence as a teacher and political progressive who spoke out against the poverty that she saw every day teaching at New Street School in one of Cambridge’s worst slums off East Road. The foundation stone that has the name of fellow Homertonian John Horobin now has a blue plaque with her name on it next to it.

Three years earlier, she introduced Eglantyne Jebb – then one of the most high profile political activists in Cambridge, to a public meeting of young liberals. Both Leah and Eglantyne gave public talks to the Cambridge Men’s Brotherhood.

Above – Eglantyne Jebb from Palmer Clark in the Cambridgeshire Collection.

Leah’s speech, which I’ve transcribed from the British Newspaper Archive here, may sound striking to students of her later political years. It’s ever so easy to forget that they had no idea of what was to come over the next couple of decades. Therefore some of the suggestions read as politically and socially conservative as far as the role of women is concerned.

Above – Leah Manning, from Palmer Clark in the Cambridgeshire Collection.

The saying goes that as we get older, we become more conservative. Both Eglantyne Jebb and Leah Manning became more radical as they got older. Compare this speech by the then Leah Perrett to what she was advocating as a Labour MP in the late 1940s and you’ll see some of the differences. The same is true with the writings of Eglantyne Jebb comparing her writings of Cambridge’s social problems versus what she was writing at the end of the First World War.

“Some Problems Elementary Education” was the subject of thoughtful address given by Miss Leah Perrett at a meeting the Cambridge Men’s Brotherhood Sunday afternoon.

Herself a school teacher, Miss Perrett dealt with her subject in a practical manner, and touched upon many of the most vexed questions educational policy in an enlightening interesting manner. Miss Perrett at the outset, said she proposed to raise four or five points, and she would not give her own decisive views to them as they were her still problems she had arrived at no definite conclusion.

“The first point she would discuss was the problem of the teacher. a member of the profession she would have speak rather diffidently. Had she spoken the subject two years ago she would have had some very strong views- She would have said that no one should teach in a school who had not had thorough training.

“During the last year or two she had begun to be very dissatisfied with the kind training men and girls got who were becoming teachers. When she was pupil teacher she had work very hard. She had to to school for half-a-day teaching, and also pursue her own studies at the Centre. That lasted about five years, and during that time she got a very good insight into the methods of teaching.

“In those days girls who sere not suitable were thrown out of the profession before they had a chance of entering it. Many people held the view that teachers were narrow-minded, uncultured and uneducated, with the result that the children did not get a sufficiently good education. A girl who intended to become a teacher must go to school until she was 18, have a few weeks’ teaching, and then to college. After that she could teach in a school.

“During the last two three years she had come across the most appalling kinds of teachers who took no interest their work. It was impossible for persons of that kind to get into the system of child study. It seemed to her to be almost impossible nowadays to get a really good teacher, and at the same time a trained teacher. If teacher hated her work she would never get to love it.

“The next problem she would discuss was an important one, and that was the curriculum problem. Nearly everybody had different opinion it. Had they made the curriculum rather too wider? Many employers nowadays said that ten years ago young people were very clever, but now they had little smatterings of knowledge and could not do any one thing really well.

“She had always held that it was not right to bring a child to school and teach it merely the three Rs, but she was beginning be a little bit doubtful as to whether the things they were teaching children were not pushed a little too far. She believed that, especially in the poorer class schools, the girls in the fifth and sixth standard should be given a tremendous amount of time in a home-making class of some kind.

“Girls were being taught natural history and handiwork and other things that were extremely interesting, but what use had girls who were going to be wives and mothers in a few years time for those things? They should be given at least one day a week to study the things that would be of importance in their later lives. It seemed to her that they were missing a great opportunity not giving girls an efficient training in home-making and housekeeping.

“The question has been before the Council but with the usual result,” caustically remarked the speaker. They got absolutely no hope of getting a home-making class when there was excellent opportunity for making one. The amazing part was that Councillors who were least expected to do so went against the project. [Note at the time there were no women councillors on either the borough or the county council]

“The next problem she would deal with was the question of how much one ought to regard or neglect parental responsibility dealing with the health and physical well-being the children. They had had during the last fortnight a school medical officer and a dentist at her school, and 40 per cent of the parents objected to have their children examined. (“Shame.”) The ridiculous thing was that papers were sent to the mothers asking they would have their children examined. Children were often unable to do their work through toothache, and yet parents refused allow the dentist to attend the children’s teeth free of all cost.

“The last point was the problem of expenditure. With the new Education Bill she hoped to see the education charge an imperial charge. They might say that was taking money out of the left pocket and putting it into the right. With an imperial charge, however, she felt certain that schools of all classes would have come under a Central Authority. That was a point she was anxious to emphasise.

There were two schools in the town that ought to come under the Central Authority, and because they did not they were suffering tremendously, as they wanted partitions. If they were Council schools the partitions would have been put months ago.

“Continuing, Miss Perrett said teacher could not do her duty to the children when she had a class of 60. The backward children would have to drag behind. There was also need in Cambridge for a class for mentally deficient children. A” discussion followed Miss Perrett’s address.

“One speaker thought that before the Council sent doctors to see the children they should send someone to see the homes. It should be the sanitary authorities first and then the doctors, “and,” added the speaker, “there might not be such a need for the latter.” (Hear, hear.)

“Another speaker said that in regard to mental deficiency, if some of the lads were not mentally deficient they soon would be if certain methods were continued. A boy he knew was told on “Egg Day” that if he did not bring so many eggs to school the afternoon he would be held to ridicule before the school. Another speaker asked if two examinations in six months were necessary; and another said he thought that before children went to study to become teachers they should be asked if they would like be teachers. Also, their teachers should express an opinion whether the child was adapted to the profession.

“Drill as an essential part of school instruction was advocated by another speaker. In her reply Miss Perrett said that she was sorry to note that so many disagreed with compulsory medical examination. In regard to physical drill, she said she would let them into the secret. Most teachers did not know how to teach drill. In London, where she was trained, every teacher must have a physical drill certificate. There were very few untrained teachers in London. At the conclusion of the debate Miss Perrett was heartily thanked for her excellent and helpful address.”


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