A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
Preston School - attendance and absenteeism
It is stating the obvious that for education to be effective, pupils must attend school. However, in nineteenth century Preston, there were considerable and varied pressures to keep children away from classes. Besides the desire to teach her pupils, there was also a financial incentive for the schoolmistresses to maintain a high attendance. The school received a grant which was dependent on pupils passing their standard examinations and their regular attendance. In 1874 the annual grant was 6 shillings per student. In 1900, the grant had risen to 18 shillings. Little wonder that there are dozens of entries in the log book relating that monitors had been sent after absentees - like sheepdogs rounding up and penning errant lambs. The main reason for pupils’ absence from school was that they could otherwise be at work, supplementing their family’s meagre income. There was also the necessity of completing tasks like hay making and harvesting when haste was vital. During these busy periods, the log book tells the same tale year after year
5 July 1875 - ‘School very thin. Several children gone to work for a time’. 15 July 1889 - ‘Still hay making’. 21 Sept 1894 - ‘Some children still absent in the harvest fields’. 10 July 1896 - ‘The attendance of the elder boys is unsatisfactory just now owing to outdoor work being plentiful’ 26 Oct 1899 - ‘Nine boys have gone beating for Mr Mathey.’ 29 Oct 1900 - ‘A few boys have gone beating for Bailey Hawkins at Stagenhoe.’
The headmistress sometimes locked horns with local farmers over the issue of employment of her pupils: 5 July 1898 - ‘Mr Piggott (of Temple Farm, farmer and school manager) is employing school boys although I have spoken about it. Mr Alfred Brown (at Home Farm) is likewise employing young school boys. Shall talk to the attendance officer about it’. The problem was that although school attendance was compulsory and fines could be and were levied by the court following a report by the attendance officer, the fines were small (perhaps 2/6d), the magistrates were lax and it was relatively expensive to bring cases to court. Parents and employers preferred to chance possible prosecution in order to add to the household income and complete the necessary tasks. Another reason to miss school was that at busy times in the agricultural year children took their parents’ meals to them in the fields: 14 July 1899 - ‘Poor attendance - hay making, dinner-taking, baby minding and mothers being laid aside being the reasons.’ Many children earned income as straw plaiters and could be kept home to work in this cottage industry: 23 April 1897 - ‘Have sent Carrie Wray’s name to the attendance officer as her mother illegally removed her from school to plait at home. She is only eleven years of age and has passed Standard V by sample only.’ 16 March 1900 - ‘Fourteen children away for minding babies, going with plait.’ There were several seasons when children turned to other pressing activities: 21 Sept 1996 - ‘Children are sent gathering chestnuts, acorns and nuts etc.’ 18 Sept 1896 - ‘Attendance poor this afternoon. I think the children went gathering nuts, blackberries and acorns. They feed them to the pigs.’ 15 Sept 1873 - ‘A great many children absent being kept home to glean’, ‘pick up potatoes’ (2 Oct 1874), ‘pick up stones’ (8 April 1876), ‘pick up leaves’ (15 Nov 1875) and ‘glean beans’ (5 Oct 1876).
Often, pupils were needed at home to care for their younger siblings. My grand mother, Emily Wray kept an older daughter at home. Alice Wray (11) was ‘frequently kept at home to mind babies and is backward in consequence’ (there were then three children aged 3 or less in the household). Carrie Wray left school at an early age ‘ to help her mother’. This was a common comment made about older girls. There were also rival attractions to divert the children: 28 Oct 1885 - ‘Only thirty-seven present due to a Fair (at Preston) in the neighbourhood.’ 10 March 1896 - ‘attendance poor: Hitchin market and a circus account for this’.
It is noticeable from the log book how often the attendance was poor on Tuesday afternoons when there was a plait market at Hitchin. Then, the children either accompanied their mothers to Hitchin or cared for their siblings when their mothers went to market. Many of the examples of absenteeism noted above were from spring through to autumn. Winter provided its own reasons for non-attendance - inclement weather. Some children, aged three of four, braved a long walk of up to two miles to get to school. Deep snow and heavy rain storms would decimate classes: 25 Jan 1895 - ‘Snow too deep for little ones to attend at a distance.’ 18 Mar 1896 - ‘A very stormy morning. Had to send the four Whites home again as they were wet through.’ 14 Feb 1900 - ‘Very deep snow. Only 13 elder children and four infants attended - all lived close to the school. Some roads quite impassable’. It wasn’t only snow and rain that cut the attendance, good weather also had an effect: 5 Mar 1996 - ‘A fine Friday afternoon. Therefore, many of the mothers have left their children in charge of the babies.’
Aside from coughs and colds, epidemics swept through the school, sometimes resulting in its closure. For example, in 1875, there was an contagious outbreak of measles: 23 Feb 1875 - ‘only eleven children at school today - more than 30 being ill with measles.’ 26 Feb 1875 - ‘Closed school - measles very bad in village.’ 29 March 1875 - ‘Reopened school after being closed for a month .’ Whooping cough invaded the village periodically: 19 Oct 1874 - ‘Several children absent this week with whooping cough.’ 13 Oct 1896 - ‘Two infants, Emily Thrussell and Lucy Swain, are absent with whooping cough and I fear more children are sickening.’ There were cases of scarlet fever (April 1884, Nov 1894) and chicken or blister pox (Nov 1900). Skin problems also sometimes appeared: 23 Mar - ‘Emily Adams has eczema in her head and has it every spring.’ 20 July 1897 - ‘The heat has seemed to affect the children.’ 22 July 1897 - ‘There is a good deal of sickness among the children. Several have a rash which I think is eczema. I have sent Maud Thrussell home with it.’
Some viruses were more virulent leading to tragedy: 6 Oct 1899 - ‘Rosa Ashton, a bright girl in Standard V died on Sunday from typhoid fever and pneumonia.” 9 March 1900 - ‘Edith Crawley, a bright girl in Standard V is seriously ill. The doctor reports it as a bad attack of influenza.’
12 March 1900 - ‘Edith Crawley died yesterday of influenza and congestion of the brain. She had appeared languid and I asked her if she felt well and she replied, “Yes, thank you.”’ 27 Jan 1888 - ‘A family of three children (J. Peters) absent this week through having the mumps.’ 10 Feb 1888 - ‘very bad attendance, many sick with mumps.’ 13 Feb 1888 - ‘Only none children attended school this morning. School closed through sickness.’ 16 March 1888 - ‘Reopened school after being closed a month. Edith Marshall’s name taken off the infants register - deceased.’