Medway, P. (2012). Teachers learning in a London school: autonomy and development in the 1950s.A contribution to The inescapability of language, a special issue of L-1, guest edited by Iris Pereira and Brenton Doecke
L1 - Educational Studies in Languages and Literature, 12
, p. 1-32. http://dx.doi.org/10.17239/L1ESLL-2012.03.03
In the first two decades after the war L1 (English) teachers in Walworth School, an ‘experimental’ state secondary school in a working-class area of London, worked out, essentially by themselves, a common curriculum and pedagogy for the entire ability range of students. In developing their widely influential approach the teachers constituted themselves as a professional learning community, engaged equally in developing practice in a school and participating in the hopeful politics and culture of post-war Britain. A current research project is investigating this history.
Walworth was ‘experimental’ in that it was a pilot, set up in 1946, for the comprehensive schools that were intended eventually to constitute the entire London system. Unlike those in the traditional segregated system, these schools would take the full range of children rather than a group selected by results in a test. Walworth attracted both new and experienced teachers with a commitment to a democratic and non-selective model of education.
In a period when there was almost no support for teachers in the form of professional development courses, governmental guidance or prescribed curricula, London teachers, together with individuals from teacher education institutions, formed a professional association for English teaching. The association discussed aims and methods, organized research groups and campaigned for a fairer system of public examinations.
The article describes how Walworth English teachers, in sympathy with many in the London Association for the Teaching of English, achieved both greater understanding and more effective practice. It focuses on developments in a specific area of English: the relationship between spoken and written language. The account follows a succession of teachers who built for themselves a professional development environment in which they collaborated as intellectual equals with colleagues in higher education on a working theory of language learning. New approaches to children’s talk in the classroom opened up ways to fluency in writing, while members of the English department of the University of London Institute of Education developed the concept — initially not part of teachers' working understanding — of ‘language’ as a function with spoken and written modalities the relationships between which were fluid and, potentially, mutually fructifying. Ideas from psychology and linguistics were crucial to the eventual formulation of something like a theory, though the impetus came as much from what teachers were finding in working with children of all abilities, not least in the new comprehensive schools.
For teachers in this period to act as full professionals despite the austere conditions of an economy still recovering from the war points to the power of their belief in education as a social and political project and their commitment to an ideal of democratic collaborative working. Teaching was influenced by the interaction in teachers’ lives between professional concerns and political and cultural engagement. The learning that some English teachers experienced in working collaboratively on developing the subject with an awareness of current research and ideas, in association with committed academics and as a contribution to building a more equal society, made their time at Walworth the most rewarding of their careers.