Ragged schooling

My 11 year old daughter has missed six weeks of school this term as a result of her uncontrolled epilepsy. We are slowly getting there and hoping for a gradual return next term, starting with one hour and working up to half days. It will be some time before she is able to renew the frenetic pace of after school and extra-curricular activities. In the meantime, she is having regular tutoring from a generous neighbour and we are spending a lot of time in each other’s company. (She is next to me as I write this post).

Together we are reading one of my favourite childhood books: Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow. (Written over thirty years ago, it tells the story of 15 year old Sydney resident Abigail who travels back in time to The Rocks in 1873). Here is a glimpse into the history of The Rocks in a 360° video (use your mouse or tracker pad to rotate the view and see ragged children in the streets):

This passage about Beatie’s schooling struck me:

The younger child was such a fierce homely creature, the eyes so bright and intelligent, the small thin hands crooked as though they would claw the eyes out of life itself.

‘You’ve got plenty of brains,’ said Abigail.

‘Aye,’ said Beatie suspiciously. ‘And what brings you to say that?’

‘Because I think you want to do other things besides learn how to feather-stitch and drop curtseys to rude rich old hags at the Ragged School.’

Beatie’s tawny eyes glittered. ‘True enough. I want to learn Greek and Latin like the boys. And geography. And algebra. And yet I’ll never. [My brother] Gibbie will learn them afor me, and he’s next to a mumblepate!’

‘But why?’ asked Abigail.

‘Why, why?’ cried Beatie. ‘Because I’m a girl, that’s why, and girls canna become scholars. Not unless their fathers are rich, and most of their daughters are learnt naught but how to dabble in paints, twiddle on the painoforte, and make themselves pretty for a good match!’

I did some further reading about Ragged Schools, including this fascinating history (which challenges Park’s representation—apparently boys would not have studied Greek, Latin and algebra). The term ‘ragged school’ was adopted from the British model—I would love to visit this museum!—but also served to ensure only the neediest students attended:

The Ragged Schools by their very name were somewhere to be avoided if at all possible. The term ‘ragged school’ was used as a deterrent to those who could afford to avoid its associations of dirt, filth, poverty and disrepute. Accordingly, there are no ex-student organisations, or proud school histories, and records are scarce. Despite the chances that a Ragged School education may have given them, or the practical help they may have received, it remains an experience that some would rather forget (Henrich, 2013, 62).

Image result for Henrich ragged school

(Image source)

Reading Playing Beatie Bow inspired conversations about educating girls, Malala’s story and our family history.

My paternal grandmother did not attend school past 12 or 13 (nor did my paternal grandfather). As family lore has it, her teachers cried to lose such a clever girl. My grandparents became strong advocates for education; both their sons (and their grand-daughter in turn) went on to get doctorates.

In a neat intertextuality, my grandmother’s name, like Ruth Park’s heroine, was Beatrice (and by some accounts she could be described as both intelligent and homely). She certainly had small hands—and I am thankful to have inherited them—as this was my Christmas present last year. My grandmother’s watch (a “nice Swiss made aspirational middle class watch” according to the repairer) restored as a bracelet with her photo and a necklace with the (now working) movements visible at the back:


My daughter is incredulous and indignant that girls could be denied an education. She is desperate to return to school. (She is also quite taken with ‘mumblepate’ as an insult).

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