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Wartime Evacuation Project

Introduction and Background

Illustration of wartime teacher

This major oral history project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council aims to investigate the impact of evacuation upon teacher attitude and practice during and after World War II.

Wartime evacuation lives on not only in popular memory, but also in a very particular way in the professional memory of teachers. We had for some years been collecting oral histories and life histories of teachers regarding their training and careers going back as far as the closing years of the first world war. Profound and often moving accounts began to emerge from teachers' memories of wartime circumstances early in their careers.

'We now have a very difficult and unusual chance of doing more for children than we have ever dreamed of doing before.'
New Era journal (1939)

Teachers certainly played a crucial part in the mass dispersal of population, planned in the expectation of immediate blitzkrieg, in which the priority classes were children, mothers with pre-school children, along with the elderly and the disabled. The first wave of organised evacuation took place over the course of a few days surrounding the outbreak of war in early September 1939. In that short time 827,000 schoolchildren, 524,000 mothers with pre-school children, 13,000 expectant mothers and 173,000 others were evacuated. But in the circumstances of the 'phoney war', as the feared air-raids failed to materialise, a steady drift back of population followed, amounting to 80 percent of the original total by 1940. However, the Blitz in summer and autumn of that year led to a new wave of evacuation, with nearly 1,400,000 evacuees recorded by early 1941.This was to be followed by a final exodus in 1944 under the new threat of the V1 and V2 flying bombs.

Work on this project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC research award no. R000237231).

The Teacher and the Child

This enormous operation attracted contradictory responses at the time, followed by a subsequent tradition of overtly celebratory historical accounts which has, in recent years, given way to more critical revisionist views of the evacuation. Few of these, however, have considered the roles and experiences of teachers. Our research has looked to redress this by recording the memories of the teachers and children who were involved in evacuation. We are also attempting to place their experiences within the broader historical context of wartime and post war education, thereby coming to an understanding of the short and long term impact of this extraordinary period on the role of the teacher. The research is designed particularly to examine the extent to which evacuation had a collective influence upon the profession both in terms of what it meant to be a teacher and on the pedagogical practices of the classroom. The enforced closeness between teachers and pupils engendered by evacuation is a key point for us. Did it lead to a reformulation of the idealised pupil-teacher relationship upon which the profession built its expectations and practices? And, if so, might this change have been transmitted into a more general currency throughout the teaching profession?

'... the educational order of 1939 has passed beyond recall. It died on September 1 of that year, the day on which evacuation began. It can never be reborn; there has already been too much of change.'
'Our conception of education is changing - not for the most part deliberately to suit our ends and purposes, but by the sheer force of circumstances.
... all these curricular trends are along the right lines. They all point towards the school as a society, a community of human beings learning and living co-operatively.'
Harold Dent (1944).

The Teacher's Voice

In order to answer these and other questions the process of interviewing respondents began in the summer of 1998 and thus far 145 interviews have been successfully completed. This represents around 250 hours of recorded testimony. Of the total number of interviews, 63 have come from target Group A - "teachers whose active teaching careers straddled the war years and included direct involvement in the process of evacuation". As this group constitutes the core focus of the project, and given the advanced ages of its constituents (all are aged 80 years or older), this represents significant progress. As the interviewing has continued a significant sub-group has emerged comprising pupils who underwent wartime evacuation and who subsequently trained as teachers, and we have designated a further group to include this distinctive life history and career path, as we consider that their testimony may be of particular relevance in relation to our hypotheses.

'The school appeared in a rather new role. The boundaries of education were suddenly vastly widened when the child was entrusted by his parent to the teacher who thus became for the moment the only link with all that had gone before in the child's life.'
Susan Isaacs (1941).