Back in Time for School – 12 October 2021 – BBC Two

Series 1 Episode 1 of 8Fifteen pupils and three teachers embark on an extraordinary time-travelling adventure to discover just how much life at school has changed over the past 100 years. The school itself is their time machine, transporting them through seven eras of British history – from Victorian grandeur and the age of Empire through a postwar grammar, a 60s secondary modern, and finally the dawning of the digital revolution in the 80s and 90s. Guided through their time travels by presenter Sara Cox and social historian Polly Russell, everything the students and teachers experience – from the lessons they learn to the dinners they eat, technology, discipline and playtime, is based on historical data and school records of the past.

Starting at the very close of Victoria’s reign they discover how national attitudes to class, race and gender filtered into the classroom, before entering the turbulent years between the World Wars. They experience lessons that seem bizarre by modern standards – from musket practise and mother-craft to deportment and duck herding – and take part in activities that we all remember from our own school days – the classic 80s cross-country run, the day Encarta enters British classrooms, and perhaps even master the puzzling gadget that was the 1960s slide rule.

Their experience begins in 1895. The smell of coal burners wafts down the corridor, and a portrait of Queen Victoria hangs proudly in the school hall. Our class discover what it was like for the lucky four per cent of children able to attend school in this period, when education was still seen as a preserve for the rich, but a handful of schools offered affordable places to ordinary families for the first time. In this age of Empire, the class comes to understand just how much attitudes have changed, and are shocked to discover that Victorian notions of Empire and citizenship are very different to modern ideas. School dinner is a silver-service affair, presided over by the teachers, whose authority is absolute. Alien to our 21st-century pupils’ eyes and palates, the menu offers them fish pie with a tapioca pudding, a meal the Victorian schoolchild would have been grateful for, at a time when many pupils worked part-time to support their family’s income and food supply – as some of our boys find out. With the advent of flash-photography powder, their chemistry teacher introduces them to a new scientific formula with an explosive bang, and one of the pupils is disciplined in an era-appropriate fashion by having his left hand tied to the desk.

With the death of Queen Victoria in 1902, the pupils and teachers enter into the Edwardian era. Segregation is common place in schools at this time, so our pupils are separated for gender-specific learning. While the boys enter into the possibility of the professions by learning Latin, the girls are tasked with more ladylike lessons – making beds, cleaning and putting up wallpaper, as they are taught the art of the housewifery. In 1904, the class and teachers gather with friends and family to celebrate Empire Day, a pageant common in schools throughout the Edwardian era. With students playing the roles of Peace and Britannia, their classmates flank them with banners proclaiming the reach of the British Empire, before singing the national anthem.

Towards the end of the era, the threat of war means the boys are trained in musket practise and learning to fight. The building desire for democracy has begun, and the girls come to understand how important the vote was to British women, as they learn the art of self-defence Suffragette style. As their time-travels draw to a close in 1914, and the pupils reflect on their Victorian experience, the school holds a prize-giving ceremony. A mark of academic achievement, which seeks to imbue the children with a sense of pride and responsibility, in order for them to fulfil their roles in society, in the testing and troubling years that will follow.

About Back in Time for School

Fifteen pupils and their teachers embark on an extraordinary time-travelling adventure as they fast-forward through more than 100 years of school life.

This show is broadcast on BBC Two, also known as the British Broadcasting Corporation.

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