An interview with Margaret Hughes : infant school education and meeting the needs of immigrant children and families in Birmingham through the 1950s,60s, 70s and 80s


After a long and distinguished career as a teacher and headteacher in London, Yorkshire and Birmingham, Margaret Hughes has, since her retirement in Totnes, worked with a number of local voluntary organisations.



Margaret Hughes was interviewed by Charles Sharpe on Thursday 1st, December, 2016.


Charles Sharpe: Margaret, I am grateful to you for agreeing to do this interview  for the goodenoughcaring Journal.  I wondered first if you could say something about your background and then perhaps tell me why you entered the teaching profession.

Margaret Hughes: Well, my name is Margaret Hughes, formerly John. I was born in 1929, I come from a little village in Wales called Abercarn. My father had been trained as a teacher and later worked as an overman in a colliery. As a result I, obviously, became interested in teaching to the extent that my father erected a very large blackboard in the shed in the garden and I used to entertain children in the village and play “school” with them.

I had wanted to go in for medicine but the headmaster at the local grammar school said that females did not do sciences so I was not allowed to do physics or chemistry. The school had no provision to do that so I decided I would be a nurse but my father said, “No, you will go in for teaching.” And teaching I went into, but with my background I would say that I started training as a teacher from, I should say, infant school with the children in the village. So that’s how I went into teaching.

CS: Do you have any regrets now about taking up teaching?

Margaret: No, not at all. I think I would have been a disaster as a doctor.

CS: But you weren’t disastrous as a teacher?

Margaret: Well, that’s for you to find out, Charles. Isn’t it?

CS: Tell me about your training as a teacher.

Margaret: just after the second world war I went to Homerton College in Cambridge because I heard it was an extremely good college to go to. And so it was. I was trained to teach in a secondary school and my subject was biology. In the late 1940s and early 1950s I taught biology for three years in a secondary modern girls’ school in Harrow, Middlesex which had nothing to do with the public school, I hasten to add.

Then I got married and for a short time lived in Hull where my husband was based and there from 1952 to 1954 I taught for a short time in an infants’ school and discovered that if I had known about infant school teaching I would hesitate to have coped as I did with the biology because I began to become firmly convinced that education starts at a very early age and if you haven’t got the skills in both maths and literacy then you miss out on an awful lot at the secondary stage. After that I taught English in Selby, Yorkshire until 1959. When I got married and we left Yorkshire for Birmingham, I went  first to a part-time post in an infants’ school situated in the southern outskirts of Birmingham having decided that an infants’ school was where I could really teach effectively. That’s how it started, and later  the post of deputy head of the school became available and I applied for that and was appointed to the post. That’s how it happened.

I am still more than ever convinced the earlier children start education, the better.

CS: What made you decide to become a deputy head teacher? Why didn’t you stay as a teacher?

Margaret: Speaking from a personal point of view, the head teacher was a disaster and the deputy head had resigned in order to get married which women did in those days. I decided to apply because there was so much needed to be done in the school.

CS: The deputy head resigned because she was getting married?

Margaret: In my day if you were a woman and you got married you resigned and later on if you became pregnant you had to resign. There was no question of you going on if you had a child. Of course I’m talking now of well over 60 years ago.

As for teaching, at the time – in the late 1950s and early 1960s – we had a lot of immigrants coming into Birmingham. They came from India, Uganda and the Caribbean and I decided that one way of helping was to teach people how to speak English. There was an association called BAVTE in Birmingham, the Birmingham Association Volunteer Teachers of English and I used to go twice a week to a family in Moseley which was in the outskirts of Birmingham and teach them English. I have to honestly say they didn’t learn much English but we built up quite a rapport. They were Pathans from the north of India. There were three women living in the house I visited and the only time a met a man in the house – and there must have been two other men living there too – was when I wanted to take these women and their children to entertain them because they had been so hospitable to me and this man did not want them to go but then he said that they could go if he could come as well. I said, “No, I’d like them come on their own.” Eventually I persuaded him and I took these three mothers with their children home to tea. It was a lovely experience. They were surprised when they saw my house. It wasn’t at all like their house. It wasn’t as comfortable as their house. They allowed Geoffrey my husband to be there because he was my husband and they took off their veils. And because they knew I had a son they brought the most enormous Teddy Bear but of course what they didn’t know was that my son was in his early teens. But it was a present for him and it smelt of curry.

As a result of this influx of people coming from the Indian sub-continent, the city council set up schools in Birmingham that were based on teaching children who had English as a second language. This was something that appealed to me.

One such school was being built in Handsworth. There was an infant school and a junior school and the city spent a lot of money on it so in 1970 I applied for, and was appointed to, the post of head teacher.

CS: Do you think that your previous involvement in this type of endeavour, teaching English to people from India, was one of the strengths of your application?

Margaret: Well not just India later there were people from Uganda. When Amin came to power there was an influx from Africa as well and I must say that the best thing that ever happened in primary education in Birmingham was an influx of children who needed to learn a language from scratch because no teacher could presume the children knew anything so you started right from the very beginning, and I thought that those children were far better taught than those children who might be described as indigenous. Is indigenous the right word?

CS I think so. Tell me about the school in Handsworth where you were not only a new head teacher but also the head teacher of a school that was “brand new.”

Margaret: And also it was just at the time we were introducing decimal currency and you can imagine me as the new head of the infants’ school ordering things not in the old currency but in the new currency. There was also a head of the Junior School – they were quite large schools – doing the same thing. On the first day of the intake over 200 children turned up in the infants’ school and only 10 spoke English and the head of the junior school had the same problem but not to such an extent. What we found out was that our colleagues who were heads of other established schools were getting rid of children they couldn’t cope with in their schools and passing them on to us. But certainly it was a good way to start a school because we all started from scratch. There was no one saying, “My child can already do this” or that they were “good at that.”

We were able to presume that they knew nothing.

CS: In a sense the teachers were starting from scratch too.

Margaret: That’s right. We knew nothing.

CS So you were children and adults starting things together.

 Margaret: Yes, and as somebody who was trained to teach science I had to be able to work out the steps that were needed in order to be able to read and to do numeracy as well which is just as important.

CS: As the headteacher was there a general philosophy you brought with you about how a school works?

Margaret: Well, to begin with everybody is an individual. We are part of a group but as individuals we have different thoughts, different ideas and in the group we should be tolerant of each other’s individuality. So not only was I facing a language problem I was also facing the problem of the culture. There were many Muslims and a lot were Sikhs and that meant it was very difficult to cope with things like morning assemblies,  but I found that if you could sing things and put it into music, hypocrisy didn’t matter. So we’d all gang together and sing about things. We sang things like “All things bright and beautiful.”

CS: You’d find hymns which could be applied to any belief system.

Margaret: That’s right and the assemblies were great  which was good because that was my main time of contact with the body of the school and if I could make them laugh it was a successful assembly.

This brought us together, but I also  believe everybody has a right to think what they want to. You can’t all be the same. You see we had governors on the governing body who thought every body should be converted to Christianity but there was no way that I was going to do that.

CS At that particular time I guess your school might have been  quite controversial.

Margaret: Yes it was. The school was modern and they’d spent thousands on it but it was an open plan school;  there were no classrooms as such. There were two enormous areas each containing two classes and there were two other separate areas each containing two other classes. It was a two-form entry and the children were at the school for three years so I had to have six classrooms. There was also a medical room which I turned into room for the mothers of the children who were having difficulties speaking English, to come in and talk to one other. I started it thinking I could teach them English but fortunately the Birmingham Education Department heard what I was trying to do and they actually sent me a teacher who would come for three mornings a week to help teach English to the mothers who were learning it as a second language.

Another thing we did was to organise outings because these people never got out from their houses you see, and though they were not wearing burqas, the Pathan women were absolutely covered in clothing and wore lattice material over their eyes. So I started taking them on outings. I took a coach full of women to Weston Super Mare once, we went to Morecambe and we went to Barry Island which is a favourite place of mine. This was another innovation a lot of people didn’t agree with. I know a number of my staff didn’t like it because they thought it was an occasion when I could find out what the parents thought of the staff. They felt threatened so I just had to drag them into this kind of thinking. I’m afraid there was a bit of that but I just did it. On these occasions however staff did not come with me because I usually did it on those occasions when the schools was closed because it was it was a tolling station for an election. I also took them on outings during the holidays. I would never take them away on a school day so members of the staff were not obliged to come.

CS Did you feel the mothers of the children became better at speaking English because their children were becoming more proficient at speaking English in the school?

Margaret: No I don’t think I could say there was a great success teaching mature people to speak English but what I did notice was that the children started to improve and when the dinner lady would come in and say “Oh! Mrs. Hughes you must come, somebody is swearing in the playground.” I would say, “Great! They’re learning English and I found that as soon as they started using the swear words we were well on the way. I remember the children  when they heard adults calling me Mrs Hughes, they would hear it as “Mrs. Shoes” and that’s what the children called me.

Remember now I’m talking of 60, 50 and 40 years ago. I had Asian staff working at the school – I think I am saying this without being racist – who didn’t want to have anything to do with the women who were learning English because they wanted to be English. They got very uptight about wanting anything to do with their own background. They wanted to be English and they wouldn’t help if I had a problem with a mother who couldn’t speak English. They wouldn’t go in and help me.

CS: What you are saying is that you felt that your Asian teachers were in denial of their past.

Margaret: Yes, they were superior. It was often also to do with the cast system which had a powerful influence then. This extended to the doctors in the hospital because if a child hurt herself, her mother wouldn’t be able to speak English. In those days I had a car and I’d take the child and go to the child’s home, pick up the mother and take them to the hospital,  but often the staff at the hospital who originally came from the same region as the mother and child didn’t want to speak with the mother because they were of a different class. I thought class was always far more divisive than race.

CS: Were you at the Handsworth School for the remainder of your career?

Margaret: No I was there for eight years. In the end I decided to move because my husband had suffered a very serious heart attack at work and I had to drive across the city to get to the hospital and on some days when there was bad weather I couldn’t get to school and I needed to be nearer my home. A post at a school in the south-western suburbs of Birmingham came up. I applied for it and was appointed. It was one of the largest schools in Birmingham and there were over 400 infants there. In fact there were 425 when I started there but I must say by the time I’d nearly finished there were just 300 because they’d built a school down the road, for the school was obviously overcrowded.

This School was in a different situation altogether from the school in Handsworth. The parents here seemed to be concerned with who had the biggest house, who had the newest conservatory and who had the most modern car,  that sort of thing.

At the school where I had been in Handsworth, the parents were intent on their children getting on and being English and not in a pushy way and were grateful for what you could do for them. There was a different a different sense of feeling in this suburban school.

CS From what you say the school in the suburbs was situated in an area where the parents were increasingly affluent and wanted things for themselves. They sent their children to school expecting you to educate them and I don’t sense the pressure parents seem to feel nowadays to make sure their children are pushed to the limits to achieve high marks.

Margaret: I don’t know because I haven’t taught for 30 years. I don’t think I could cope with education today. Shall I tell you what I’d say to the staff? I’d say education was like a wall. There are bricks and cement. The bricks are basic numeracy and literacy and the cement is social awareness or you could, wrongly I think, make them the other way round but what is important is that they both depend on one another. For me I liked to think the bricks were the numeracy and literacy because that was why I was there, and the cement was the social awareness the children needed to make full use of the numeracy and literacy. I’ve said to people involved in  education now, “You’ve got it the wrong way round. Social awareness comes once children have numeracy and literacy because that’s what gives them social awareness, because numeracy and literacy are the basic instruments of communication.”   That’s the only reason for them, and if you’ve got those instruments you are more likely to be aware of what’s going on around you and to be sympathetic to other people and their thoughts and beliefs.

CS However much you like to deny it, you do bring with you long experience and long reflection as an educationalist and so I wonder what you think has been gained or lost since you were a teacher.

Margaret: I don’t know. I haven’t got a follow up study of the people I taught but as I’ve said I think that today they’ve got their bricks and cement mixed up. I believe social awareness follows from numeracy and literacy and it is not the other way around. They’re both important but there is the precedence of one before the other.

What’s different now is the wider experience of the world which is around children, what with first television and now computers and if it’s properly treated and discussed there may be advantages but then when you’re in your late eighties like me, part of the growing old process is thinking that things are never as good as they’ve been. So, I’m giving a biased view.

CS: As one of advancing years myself I understand what you’re saying but one evaluation of education is the school inspection. I always experienced Her Majesty’s Inspectors of schools inspections as creative exercises where one might be criticised, yes, but advice was given and good practice encouraged. Now rightly or wrongly (though I have gained my view from listening to teachers who teach now) I worry that Ofsted school inspections are exercises in fear and negativity rather being evaluative but creative exercises.

Margaret: I have an awful admission to make. I have only ever witnessed one school inspection in my career from HMI. I’ve encountered local inspectors who I now think in Birmingham are called “consultants”. Our local ones came and were very helpful and supportive but not from Her Majesty’s except one and that was the lady who said I should turn the room I was using to teach the children’s mothers English into a poetry library. The point is this, you do not have to do what the inspector tells you to. If you put your foot down and say, “No, I’m not having that” and you stick with that it is, as it was in my case, accepted.

CS: You seem to be saying that when you were teaching if your views were reasonable enough, they would be respected and differences of view would be tolerated but now I fear that inspections are there to impose external policies and regulations which give little scope for teachers to be creative in trying to meet local needs.

Margaret: What I would like to do is to inspect the inspectorate. I don’t think they are hands on enough and should have more practical experience of teaching.  What happens if you can’t teach, you become a headteacher and if you’re no good as a headteacher, you become an inspector.

CS: At this stage in our interview that’s rather a big admission because I don’t for a moment believe you were a bad headteacher or that you couldn’t teach.

Margaret: Yes. I must enjoy teaching and I know what a good teacher is:  when I meet people who can put forward their ideas on teaching quietly and without stressing a strong point of view, I know that person is a good teacher. What I’m trying to say is that you have perfectly good people at your doorstep who could give you answers to these things and I am last person you should be asking.

CS I think I know what you mean but Margaret you bring so much with you. You carry a lot of the history and culture of the schooling of infants from the 1950s through to the late 1980s. People in the field can then make informed comparisons between what happens now and what happened then and what was about the good, the bad and the in between.

Margaret: Well let me tell you the bad things I did that made my staff very pleased when I left. To begin with every three months or sometimes  six months I would do what is called a Schonell reading test, and I would have every child I looked after on their own going through the test saying words and giving them a reading age. This was not to test the child but was testing whether the teacher in the class was improving the child’s reading. I tried to do it with number but – it was one of my great disappointments – I never really succeeded with numeracy. To me it is as important as literacy but I couldn’t come to grips with that and I should have come to grips with it.

I also think that you must never presume that a child knows something. You’ve got to make sure that they do know it, because so many children are going through their time at school and everybody says they’re doing alright, but they’re not. I learnt that from the children who came from abroad where English was their second language. And yet teaching them reading is so easy.

We also have to be sure that children understand what they’re reading. There’s no point in teaching them reading if they don’t understand it. And that’s another thing I made sure about.

One thing I didn’t like at the school on the fringe of Birmingham was that the mothers would be waiting for their children at the end of the school day and asking them, “Oh, has she put you on a new book?” It’s the worst thing they can do. It’s to do with the children not the mothers.

Something else I don’t I like are people who think they are God’s answer to all problems of reading. They are usually doddery old ladies who come into the school and hear children read so that at parents’ evening the teacher can say they learn to read every day. You don’t just hear them read you make sure when you are with a child doing reading you are talking with a child about what they are reading. You’re noticing how the child is behaving and the effect reading has on the child. This has been lost because there are head teachers all over the country who making use of old biddies, men as well, not just women,  who come in believing themselves to be God’s answer to the literacy problem. There are quangos being organised to arrange for groups of old ladies to voluntary work in the schools. It’s a mistake. I know there are people who think this is wonderful but it’s not teaching.

I know a man who had been a scientist who was doing this and I asked him “Would you have volunteers in your laboratory?” “No,” he replied. I told him that teaching is as professional and complicated as the work that he did in his laboratory. In schools you need people who know what it’s about and you don’t cover up your shortcomings by employing a lot of retired ladies and gentlemen. I see I am on my soapbox but I feel strongly about that. Teaching is a profession and there are no two ways about it.

I meet people who tell me that they have done voluntary work in schools with children helping with various things, and I respond by saying they shouldn’t have been allowed.

CS Thinking of the social awareness you mentioned when using your bricks and mortar analogy, do you think being at school should be learning to be part of a community?

Margaret: Oh, yes but you could do that without going in and pretending to teach children to read. You see I think children are missing out a lot because on open evenings the teacher will say to parents, “Oh, yes, he’s heard reading every day.” But he is not because comprehension is part of reading. I did a lot about that but I do wish I’d done more about maths.

Maths is about communication as well. I had an argument with a man who had been awarded with a CBE for his work in the Civil Service. I think it was part of his golden handshake really. When I suggested to him that Maths was a form of communication he said he didn’t go along with that. I asked “Do you write a report without using number?” How could he do it without using number?

CS I wonder what you feel of the progressive movement in education and people like A.S. Neill who believed children should learn by discovery and learn things when they want to learn them rather than be directed to.

Margaret: Ah well that can go too far because a bad teacher will use that to cover their misgivings and the fact that they can’t cope.  I do go along with a lot of that if it is honest. On the other hand it’s like Froebel teaching, when somebody says, “If school’s like a garden then the plants will grow.” The plants will only grow if the gardener goes and weeds the ground. You do need guidance. It’s not just waiting for it to happen. The word is balance.

Looking back, I can’t say I was a popular head. Let’s be honest. You see I say every child is individual and so if each is individual they can’t all progress at the same rate. You may not agree with me but I asked that the classrooms were organised so that the children knew where things were. That’s another thing I learned from starting up in an open plan school,  if ever there was a situation set up where a child might not know where something was it was in an open plan school: nothing to sit on but a mat in the corner and nowhere to put their own things and have their own things. They’re lost and so providing security is essential as part of the teaching. I insisted the children all had their own trays with their names on, with their things in or if they were lucky they had a lidded desk to keep their things in, somewhere to sit, a chair rather than sit on something in the corner all the time. All sorts of things were needed so that they had a sense of security at school.

On the other hand I would say, “If you’ve got to be so organised so that each child knows exactly where his or her book is, the classroom is organised.” I know there some people might not agree with me but what would happen if a teacher was away? I didn’t ring up for a supply teacher if the teacher was only going to be away for a few days.  I would march into the classroom and take over and I re-organised classrooms while a teacher was away.  I realised how unpopular I was because the fellow at the local education office who was in charge of staffing at schools would say, “Mrs. Hughes do you realize that your school has the lowest staff absenteeism in the district.” That was because a teacher would  come into school rather than have this busybody take over their classroom and change it around.

Although I was with others responsible for appointing teachers to senior posts such as that of the deputy head teacher, I didn’t have a hand in appointing the other staff so much because they were often probationers and the office just sent them to us. The probationers would arrive enthusiastic about new ideas including ITA. You remember the Initial Teaching Alphabet? They were all keen on that and it doesn’t teach them for the future.

I remember also that if we had probationers from a certain college or university they were often not as good as those coming from other colleges. You could always tell a teacher who had been well-trained and one who had not.

When my husband retired to Devon I resigned from the school in order to join him. Naturally the school spent some time adapting to my resignation as I’d been the head teacher for 17 years. Our local inspector suggested I’d set too high a standard but there were superb teachers there who I really admired. I am sure they helped the school continue to develop.

CS: We’ve come to the end of the time we allotted for this now Margaret.

Margaret: Have we? Let me mention one other thing I have thought about. I am concerned that there is so much concern about physical contact children these days. First of all it is obvious physical contact will be needed in the case of there being an accident, but also it is important that children and not just infant school children who are in distress need comforting. On many occasions over my career I have comforted deeply upset children and had them sitting on my lap. It is a natural thing to do.  I think I’ve finished now Charles.

 CS  Thank you very much Margaret for meeting with me to do this interview.

Margaret: Well, I must say I enjoyed it.