Inspection and stopping for the hurdy-gurdy


The recollections of a school inspector from 1875 prove interestingly relevant to the modern day inspection debate. Gerald Haigh delves into the past.

I have been re-reading a book by an HMI in which he has a pop at teachers. No change there, then, you say. But wait. This is not just any HMI. This is Mr AJ Swinburne BA, who worked as HMI in Lancashire and Suffolk for 35 years from about 1875 to 1910.

His book, published more than a century ago, is a delight, not least for the wonderful stories he tells of life, travel and alarming encounters as a house guest of vicars and squires. “Preserve me from houses where private lunatics are taken...”

But it is in his descriptions of the many classrooms he visited and the children, teachers and school managers he met that we find the truth and wisdom of this remarkable man. His words give us so much to reflect upon about children, teachers and the ever-familiar challenges faced by inspectors and inspected.

Throughout the early part of Mr Swinburne’s career, the task of HMI was to ensure that schools were achieving the standards necessary to receive their annual grant. (“Payment by Results” ran from 1863 to 1890). Inspectors did this mainly by questioning children and looking at their work. Unsurprisingly, teachers became anxious, passing their terror on to children who often became mute with fear.

“For weeks beforehand the children were stuffed and almost roasted (no wonder they resembled trussed fowls). The mistress had sleepless nights, the parson and the squire of the village were in a nutter of anxiety, for so much depended at that time on the verdict of Her Majesty’s Inspector.”

Teacher, parson and school managers would hover as he questioned children, offering excuses.

“That child’s grandmother had fits.” “This boy’s aunt’s mother died in a lunatic asylum.” “That scholar’s mother had a shock before she was born.” “This child wouldn’t have been 12 today if you had come the day before yesterday.”

It was too much for one young mistress, who fainted, whereupon: “A diminutive man, in an ill-cut frock-coat with baggy trousers of a funereal hue, rushed into our midst. ‘You have killed her! You have killed her!’ he shouted, ‘I am a reporter, and if I have to bear the torch with my own hand, this crime shall be in people’s mouths from one end of Britain to the other’.”

Fortunately, she recovered, and there were grovelling apologies.

But what most impresses about Mr Swinburne is his profound understanding of the realities of school life, and his empathy with, and love for, the children of the schools for which he was responsible. 

His feelings for teachers are more ambivalent. Though aware of the insufficiency of their training, he deeply regrets their frequent inability to recognise the qualities of their pupils. Several times he reminds them, and us, that “educate” means “to draw out”.

He is angered, too, by evidence of unjust punishment and gives the example of a girl of 13 beaten for straying into the boys’ playground. 

“‘Where,’ I asked, ‘was the person who should have been overlooking the boys and girls during the dinner hour?’”

The most telling anecdote for me describes his encounter with little George Spence, aged three and a half. Having filled up his slate with the statutory “pot-hook” exercises he was set, George has done a drawing on the other side of a horse and cart. 

Bursting for someone to take an interest in it, he silently holds it up to the inspector, who is astonished enough to make a careful copy of it, yet saddened that such promise is not recognised and cultivated.

“No academy picture surpasses this sketch in interest. Minute details of harness, hoofs, wheels, driver, shafts, and even the step, are there. It is above all petty laws of perspective, the four wheels, four feet and step are in one horizontal line, the driver resembling one of the dancing oysters in Alice’s Adventures.”

I intend no deep message here, draw no easy analogies with today’s challenges. I say only how humbling and inspiring it is to encounter, across the years, this man, carrying the respected title of HMI, who constantly strove to improve the life chances of ordinary children, delighting in their responses and ideas, constantly urging their teachers to expect more of them and of themselves.

Yet how clearly we see also that he bestowed his uncompromising judgements with a benison of warm humanity. 

So when he describes how a boy is late to class because he has lingered to hear a hurdy-gurdy being played in the street, Mr Swinburne adds “Which of us has not stopped to hear our hurdy-gurdies; and which of us can resist casting the first stone, especially when it makes us so important?”

The complete text of Memories of a School Inspector by AJ Swinburne is freely available online (see below), but I urge you also to own an original copy – not least for the sense of more direct connection with the author. You should find a comfortably well-used example for about £6.

  • Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter @geraldhaigh1

Further information
Memories of a School Inspector:



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