There is a memorable line in Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra when Cleopatra rejects the power of Rome and the influence of her lovers and declares that Egypt is her ‘space’. For all the places I have lived, Barrow in Furness, York, Manchester, Lincoln, and now 25 years, a full quarter of a century, in Oxfordshire, High Legh will always be the place I consider home. For the last 15 years I have worked in teacher training and one of the activities I still do in primary geography sessions is to use a Geographical Association activity entitled ‘Me in the World’. Some students concern me when they demonstrate no interest in the World beyond their home area and I wonder how they will inspire children if they are personally incapable of demonstrating curiosity and enthusiasm for learning; equally, there is always a small cohort I feel sorry for because geographical mobility has left them with no sense of belonging anywhere.
Grandad George and his sister Lucy
From the brief family history research I have carried out, I can trace our branch of the Percivals to Crowley, near to Stretton airfield, in the late 18th century. My great-grandfather was a farm labourer in High Legh; he moved to Ellesmere Port and then onto Halton, near Runcorn, where he got married. He must have married into money because in the next census he had bought Holly Cottage near Broomedge (the white farmhouse on the right along High Legh road), where my grandfather George Percival was born in 1907.
George certainly attended High Legh school for I have three photographs that clearly show him at the school. Given that my granddad looks about 7, and we can guess his height from the band of tiles, the presence of the Union Flag suggests that this is probably a celebration of the end of the Great War. (1918)
There are also two archetypal class photographs, and the better of the two is included here. This is taken in front of the distinctive stone work of the school house and includes the (head) teacher. (Does any local historian know who he was?). There are so many faces I feel I recognise, probably including grandparents of my school colleagues, but for the record George is third from the left on the top row and Lucy is fourth from the left on the third row from the top.
My father was born in 1935, initially lived in Broomedge in houses that have long been demolished, and then moved to Boundary farm on Peacock Lane around 1950. There is no class photograph including him that has turned up, but I do have one photograph of him taken at the school in April 1950. He would have been 14 years old at this point, and it is possible to make out the same distinctive brick work and tiling that featured in my grandfather’s photograph.
One of the bits of English school history that is rarely reported is the fact that the 1944 ‘Butler’ act, which guaranteed secondary education for all, moved faster than the building of schools in rural areas, and so Grade 1 Elementary schools were, at least in theory, able to provide secondary education to 14/15. Thus, the entirety of my father’s formal education took place in High Legh school.
That brings me onto my own memories. Rather sadly my grandfather died of leukaemia in 1965, shortly followed by my uncle Herbert Wright, who was married to my aunt Vera, and lived at Crossroads farm along West Lane. Indeed, Herbert farmed the land that the new school was built upon. Their deaths meant that the High Legh estate moved my grandmother and aunt Vera to Gothic cottages on Wrenshot lane right next to the school fields. We regularly visited my grandmother’s house to walk her dog Lassie on the land where the new estate was constructed, and so I watched both the school and estate being built. The only distinct memory I have is running on the playground just before the school opened and thinking it looked massive! I must have been small.
So, having started at the ‘new’ school in September 1968, what stands out in my memory? My first teacher was Mrs Turner. She was quite austere, but she seemed to like me. I can recall sitting in front of an easel learning my sounds and letters, and learning quite formal forms of counting and calculation. Reading was taught through the Ladybird ‘Key Words’ scheme, which had just been launched, and of course there was lots of play, creative work and fun. However good one’s memory is, there is a natural tendency to distort. In my mind’s eye the weather was either baking hot, with dreamy blue skies and metal waste bins too hot to touch; alternatively, I think of the freezing fogs and icy conditions where we made slides on the playground. In fact, weather records suggest that there were few snowy days in my childhood, and probably even fewer really hot days, but that’s how I recall it.
Class 2 was with the lovely Mrs Caine. She was clearly a ‘post-Plowden’ teacher who set us a series of activities and tasks which we completed at our own speed and then went onto choosing activities. Class 3 was initially with Mrs Margison. As some of you will know, the Margison’s only child died in a riding accident around this time, and so I now wonder how she had the mental strength to return. Mrs Margison was very formal and old school in her approach, which initially I found challenging, but at some point, the classes were rearranged, and I was with Mrs Edwards. I remained in her class for almost two years, taking me through the early junior years. I was very fond of Mrs Edwards, and in many respects, it was a return to progressive modes of learning, for example working our way through the Alpha/Beta mathematics books and carrying out several independent projects. Robin Alexander has spoken about the mythology of progressive teaching and how it was never as widespread as the critics claimed. It is certainly the case that High Legh demonstrated how different styles could take place within one school, because class 5 saw a return to Mrs Margison, and more traditional modes of teaching; this time something really clicked with me and I felt that I made considerable gains in competence and confidence during that year. Mrs Margison also deserves credit for the thorough way she prepared us for the 11-plus.
Yet the best was definitely saved for last. In class 6, after starting a week late due to a tonsillectomy operation, I started in Mr Wood’s class. Anything I write now I have the satisfaction of knowing that I have subsequently stated to Mr Wood. To me he was simply the greatest teacher I have had, and I think for two principal reasons. To begin with he took an interest in me which really boosted my confidence. The second reason was that he truly inspired me to value learning for its own sake. He took us on fell walking trips to the Pennines (culminating with a camp in Edale during the final summer); and a trip to the museums and galleries of Manchester, something I had never done with my parents. He also challenged us with secondary level mathematics, such as algebra, and frequent quizzes and general knowledge activities. One thing that I have often reflected on is that the current neo-liberal obsession with assessment and academic bean-counting (incidentally, the pig is never fattened by weighing it), spectacularly miss the point that any form of academic assessment is necessarily short term and superficial; how can ‘inspiration’ and the life changing influence of an outstanding teacher be measured in any meaningful way?
I have scanned all my class photographs, including those of my siblings, but this one is from class 6, 1973-4. I am third from the right in the second from top row in a bright pink shirt and flower-power tie, while Mr Wood is obviously on the right!
Other memories would include the headteacher when I started at High Legh, Mr Roberts. I have seen photographs of him on social media sites, and I could recall his large, burly frame and friendly face. I can recall Mrs Turner measuring us all against a wall and Mr Roberts came in and we all were amazed (well, I was) that he towered over our measuring tape. We had a school Christmas trip to the Circus (probably Bell Vue) and Mr Roberts was taken ill. We were told that he had hurt is neck and was in hospital, but he did not recover and died shortly afterwards. One of my proudest memories was winning the Norman Roberts’ cup at High Legh sports day at the end of class 5. I still have the little trophy!
After Mr Roberts’ death the headship was offered to John Cragg (who incidentally was the son of an earlier headteacher during my father’s time at the school). I think it is fair to say we all had a healthy respect for Mr Cragg and we were wary of him, but he often read us stories in the upper juniors. Two that I can recall are The Coral Island and Children of the New Forest. There is no doubt that Mr Cragg was an outstandingly good storyteller and I can imagine that he had been a very effective teacher. Then there was the strange business of a large, blue apparatus which we watched being installed at the edge of the playground but was never completed – probably due to safety concerns. I can also recall, presumably in 1970, thus celebrating the centenary of the 1870 ‘Forster’ act which heralded the start of state education in England, the junior children dressing up in Victorian costume and making a short film.
Overall, I had a fabulous time at High Legh school. The school dinners were consistently excellent compared with the mush that is served in schools these days; a great favourite was cheese and onion pie (quiche by any other name), chips and baked beans. We had great Christmases including a show, usually performed by a magician, a party in the hall, and presents provided by the PTA. I usually asked for a Ladybird book and I still have them. There was also, I now appreciate, a real family feel with the caretaker and support staff all from the local community.
I will finish my memories by outlining the excellence of the school trips, which was one truly defining aspects of High Legh during my time. In the infants we invariably went to Chester Zoo, but in the juniors, there was an exponential explosion of ambition. In 1971 we went to Slimbridge, where I remember someone saying, ‘there’s Peter Scott’, and then onto Longleat Safari Park. How on Earth did we do this in one day? In 1972 we had a trip to London, which was fairly whistle-stop, but I do recall eating my sandwiches with the Jackson family in (probably) Green Park. In 1973 the coup de grace was a trip, by ‘plane from Manchester airport, to Edinburgh. It was the first time I had flown and a simply wonderful experience. The final trip, in 1974, was to York. This time my brother and parents made the trip, so it was a true family event, and we stopped off at Mother Shipton’s Cave in Knaresborough on the way back.
1974 was not the end of my relationship with the school. My three younger siblings continued at the school until my youngest sister Sarah left in 1980. In 1991-2, in preparation for teacher training, I volunteered for one day a week at the school, usually in Mrs Leather’s year 2 class, and it very much felt like home. This was during Mr Skelland’s time as head, and I even did a few days supply work in the autumn of 1994 before starting my first teaching post in Oxfordshire.
When I look at the final class photo there is a certain elegiac quality as I reflect on the distance of time and the people I have lost touch with. There was something like the scattering of seeds in the wind as we split into different schools - Lymm Grammar, Lymm Secondary Modern, Knutsford High and Altrincham Grammar in one case. Several families took the opportunity to move, and I never saw them again, including my best friend for several years, Graham Wills, who moved back to Lincoln. There was also the tragedy of Christopher Sephton who died in September 1974. High Legh will never be my home again, this I know, but it will always be my ‘space’ and forever in my thoughts.