Working Lives

Teaching and clerical work – full circle (1968-2012)

Location: Norwich

Sheila began teaching in 1968, and after living in Australia worked for the government in Norwich. When she returned to teaching in 1989 much had changed.

I was born in London in 1947. At this time my father was still in the army. When he was demobbed we moved to Wiltshire where my brother and sister were born.

The first school I went to was the local Catholic school. I think they took children in at an earlier age than the state schools. My father was now working as an architect and had a job in London. It seemed to be difficult finding accommodation there so after living in London for a short time we moved to the north east of Scotland near my grandmother while my father stayed in London to work. My mother, my brother, my sister and myself lived in a caravan for about a year. My brother and I went to the local village school. If ever there was a battle in history with the Scots and the English all eyes would be upon us so that was an education in itself.

In about 1960 we moved back to London – to a flat in Paddington – where I went to my fourth primary school. I then went to secondary school there. In 1963 a chance came for my parents to buy a house so we moved again, this time to Kent. I stayed on at sixth form and then went to teacher training college.

Though I tried very hard with it, I could not get my maths O-Level. I chose Keswick Hall College of Education near Norwich because it was one of the colleges that let you in without maths O-level which I don’t think would happen these days. When I was 32 I went to Norwich City College evening classes, took my maths O-Level and I got a grade A so I got it in the end and was really very, very pleased about that.

Teacher training in Norwich and teaching in Carlisle

The teacher training was for three years and I was training to teach infants. One day a week we could choose a subject that they offered for our own development. I chose art, but that didn’t mean that I would be an art teacher. We had lectures covering all the areas we would have to teach, such as PE and dance. We also had to do three or four teaching practices while at college. One of mine was at Oulton Broad, one was in Lakenham and one was in Earlham. I think the one in Earlham might have been a poorer area, but there were no behaviour problems like there are now and we mostly had support from the parents too.

In 1968 after completing the three years I applied for a job in Carlisle and Newcastle. I would have liked to have gone to Scotland, but they wouldn’t have accepted my English qualifications so I went as far north as I could. I’d never been to Carlisle before, but I got a job there. Again it was a fairly poor area in a council estate and a lot of the fathers were actually in prison, but I don’t remember any particular behaviour problems there either, just children who needed a little bit of extra attention. I knew nobody at all in Carlisle, but that was part of it because I wasn’t very good at talking in those days so I needed to push myself to make friends and acquaintances. I lived in a caravan on a caravan park during the year and a half that I was there and it got very cold in the winter. I used to tell people, ‘I’ve got running water. It’s alright!’, but I didn’t tell them it was running down the walls.

Emigration to Australia – the £10 passage

I then decided that Carlisle wasn’t far enough away so I applied to emigrate to Australia. I went down to London for an interview and was accepted to work in Sydney as a teacher. This was in 1970 so I just had to pay £10 passage. I told people it took me a year to save up the £10 though because we didn’t get paid very much as teachers. I don’t think my family were too upset as they actually bought me a suitcase. I’d never flown before and I was on my own, but I don’t think you worry about things like that when you’re 22. It wasn’t a direct flight. I think we touched down in Delhi and then at Hong Kong I had to change planes.

When I arrived in Sydney I was met at the airport and taken to a hostel. I went to the education office and was able to choose where I wanted to teach as they were so short of teachers. In the hostel I met up with two other teachers who were teaching in the same sort of area so we decided to rent a house together. The teaching there was very, very different to how we were trained here. While we were about learning through play and groups and everything, there it was extremely formal and it didn’t suit me very well. The head teacher was extremely old-fashioned. She didn’t think I was doing the art properly so she took me into her class to demonstrate how she would do an art lesson where all the children were given a lump of Plasticine on a board and they had to make a little basket with a handle and then make these little eggs to put in the egg basket.

After two years in Sydney I moved to Perth which is in Western Australia. I stayed there for five years so altogether I was in Australia for seven years. In Perth I was working for Australian Telecom because they weren’t employing foreign teachers. It’s a lovely country for travelling in and I did travel a lot with various people. I did a lot of camping as well. Driving over the Nullarbor Plain was a great experience and something which most Australians wouldn’t have done because a lot of the roads were still dirt roads in those days.

I moved back to England in 1977. I’d been back to Britain for two holidays and decided that Norwich was a nice place to come back to. Some friends had the Golden Star pub and I got a job in the pub which is a good way of meeting people. I also wanted to buy a house and I heard that the terrace houses in Norwich were a very good buy and I’d saved up enough for a deposit while I was in Australia.

Norwich – County Council, HMSO and more

The first job I got in Norwich was with Norfolk County Council at the council building where they were looking for temporary people to move files and sort through files so that all the out-of-date motor licences were put in one pile and then the up-to-date ones were sent to Swansea for when it was all centralised. This was the beginning of them setting up the DVLA. Three of us went for two jobs and the two of us who got the jobs were the tallest. They told us afterwards that they just thought we’d be able to reach the shelves a bit better.

I then got a permanent clerical job with HMSO, mostly dealing with accounts and contracts. It was the start of using computers and if one of the contract people phoned up because they hadn’t been paid or whatever we were always told not to blame the computers. This was really drummed into us. We were given courses in computers all the time because it was new to all of us. The computers were quite basic and there was still quite a bit of manual forms to fill in and money to work out and so on. In terms of technology, it was very much a transitional time. HMSO had moved up from London and I think they had an office in Ireland, probably Belfast, and an office in Edinburgh so Norfolk would have been the same as the other government offices so was probably fairly up-to-date. I was there for about six years and then I decided I wasn’t getting anywhere. I’m not a particularly ambitious person, but I just felt that I was getting a bit stale so I left in 1983.

For two years I just had lots of little jobs which kept me ticking over. I worked in the pub; I did some cleaning work; I ran a market stall for somebody selling plants one day a week; I did bits of painting and decorating. I think it was quite good to not have very much money as it sort of levels you out a bit and also you meet different people when you’re not in full-time work.

Project 86

The next permanent job I had was at Project 86 off Heigham Street in Norwich. This was for people who had left school without doing well and they would do a bit of bricklaying, a bit of carpentry, a bit of electrical work and catering to hopefully get them into a job or apprenticeship. The group I was with were the special needs. They’d come from special schools so they had quite severe learning difficulties. At the interview I just said that I was willing to learn so I didn’t have any direct training for that age group or special needs, but there were other instructors on the course. You had qualified bricklayers, painters and decorators and we did have a little bit of training at City College, but not a specific qualification.

Our group of about ten or 15 was a little bit separate from the others because they needed more care and attention and then if they were able they could move into the main area and perhaps do a little bit of bricklaying, painting and decorating. If the cook was away I would take a group of them into the kitchen and we would cook up lunch. I also took over the allotment that they had so I used to take them gardening because it’s good for measuring all sorts of different things. We used to take them camping in Thetford Forest as well. They had to go out shopping, decide what they were going to eat for the week and so on. This really encouraged independence and a few of them said how it changed them.

It could be a challenging place to work. One lad lost his temper and hit me over the head with a lump of wood because I wasn’t giving him enough attention. There were all sorts of things going on and you never knew what you would have to deal with in a day. You never felt in danger as there was a good team of staff about, but I found it very draining which is why I left. They would never say to you, ‘How are you today, Sheila?’ ever. Even now when I meet them they never ask what I’m doing. It’s always what they’re doing or their family or whatever. It is nice to bump into them though and seeing some of them with families and jobs.

Back to teaching and to changes

In 1989 I decided that I would go back into teaching because in a way being an instructor was on the way to teaching, but by this time I’d been away from teaching for 17 years. There was a teachers’ centre on Ipswich Road and they did do a returning to teaching course which I went on. That was a six week course. A friend of mine was a head so arranging the teaching practice was no problem and she was very encouraging. We had to do one or two essays for this course as well. I did supply teaching for a while and then went back to teaching primary school children full-time. I worked at Sprowston First School for almost 15 years.

The biggest change in the time I had been away from teaching was the introduction of the National Curriculum. It was the paperwork that started to build up with this. What you were going to do was prescribed and subjects were separated out. Whereas before you would think of a topic and you would build everything around that, you now had to do certain things. This meant talking to a five- or six-year-old about history when they’re not really sure when yesterday was. It was very difficult. It was like the literacy hour where the children spent half of that time sitting on the carpet as a class and then they would go into their groups, but you would only sit with one group. It meant that you weren’t really sure what the rest of them were doing and if they were doing what they should be. Then they brought it in with numeracy as well. Because I’d struggled with maths myself I could understand the children who needed repetition and there wasn’t this repetition. A lot of them would just absolutely flounder; they hadn’t got a clue.

In my opinion the start of SATs exams and the league tables in the 1990s was a cause of making a more narrow education. I think education should be very, very wide because poor little Johnny there, maybe his only thing is that he’s really good at running and it was hard to fit in PE and painting and all the other things where some of the less academic children could flourish. Before in the afternoons we would do art and there’d be a dressing up box for the reception class. All that went. You couldn’t sit and have a chat with the children and build up a relationship with them or find out if they had any problems.

I used to get in at half past seven in the morning to get everything ready for the day and not leave until about five so it was a long day for me. I tried not to do work in the evenings and after the National Curriculum I didn’t have to take piles of books home to mark as I’d try and do that at school.

We went on school trips. We went to Southwold because it was a Victorian seaside town. That was nice, especially queuing up with 60 children for an ice cream. We took them to a farm out at Easton where they had school parties visit. In Norwich itself we did things like go to the Castle Museum and the Sainsbury’s Centre. When we went to the UEA we took them for a walk round the lake – which you probably wouldn’t be able to do now because of health and safety – and they would collect all sorts of things and then come back to the classroom and make their own sculptures. The Puppet Theatre came out to us and did George’s Marvellous Medicine. Children are like sponges; they just soak up the different experiences.

Although I enjoyed teaching, I was starting to become disenchanted with it so I left when I was 58.

Full circle

It’s funny, going round in a circle, my last job was back with Norfolk County Council Pension Fund doing filing. I didn’t want any responsibility and wanted somewhere where I could walk to work. I found that I had this talent for photocopying that I never knew I had because the classroom assistants always did the photocopying. The machines had changed a lot from the ones I had first used when in Australia. I feel lucky that that was my last job before retiring properly because it was such a pleasant place to work and my colleagues were very nice people. They were so helpful to the pensioners who would phone up or even come to the office.

Since retiring five years ago, I’ve been keeping myself busy with my interest in art and especially painting. I even got a painting accepted in an open exhibition at the Assembly Rooms one year which I was surprised and pleased about and I have sold some paintings as well from the exhibitions. Really though, I don’t paint to sell so that way I just do what I like doing. I’ve had my allotment for nearly 30 years now as well as my garden. I grow fruit, vegetables and flowers. There’s a good community down there and people are very willing to share information and to help. It’s become more diverse and isn’t just old men in cloth caps! It’s good for children to know where their food comes from so there are families and there are different ethnic groups as well. With Norwich being a small place I sometimes bump into these allotment people at, say, a concert or an art exhibition which is lovely.

Sheila (b 1947) talking to WISEArchive in Norwich on 22nd September 2017

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