Sally Stone has been a pupil, a teacher, a governor and a headteacher at West Burton School. She played a vital role in founding the Bainbridge-Askrigg-West Burton collaboration and is a wealth of information about the history and culture of the small rural schools of the Upper Dales. The picture shows Sally at West Burton School in around 1959. We recorded over an hour of material which we'll share over two blog posts. Here is Part I:
When I was small I lived up Walden on a very isolated farm, but in 1959 we moved down to a farm in West Burton and I started school there when I was five. At that time there were children there aged five to fourteen because the Secondary Modern School at Leyburn didn’t open until that autumn, so I can remember much older children being there and being fairly apprehensive.
The old Victorian building was divided into two classrooms, in earlier times by a curtain and later by a wall which was moved at different times to change the size of the two rooms. I remember we had an old stove that you had to feed with coke, which kept us warm. To go to the toilet it was a walk across the backyard. The headteacher Mrs Benson was the same one till perhaps my last year; and sometimes the whole school of twenty to thirty pupils had just one teacher in total. Behind the backyard there was a garden and at various times we spent quite a while gardening, lots of goldenrod and lupins grew there.
At playtimes we were out on the public green at the front of the school. I seem to recall we had skipping ropes, and we did handstands up against the school wall although I wasn’t particularly agile. If there were local village people walking around we’d talk to them. We were just in the village during playtime, because that’s how West Burton is structured - around a big green. It was an unrestricted space. I don’t recall teachers being out to supervise us back then.
Later on when I first became a teacher in the early 1980s, the children knew that they could go as far as the sycamore tree and as far as a certain path, but still then there was no supervision - children went outside, they went out in the backyard, they were up the horse chestnut tree, and they were still going to the village shop for packets of crisps and so on at playtime, which I found quite amazing. When I look back now I’m absolutely horrified. Fortunately things tightened up a bit and eventually we had very clear guidelines as to where the staff had to be, walking around the perimeter of the play area and so on. Children loved playing out there. But these days, they’re not allowed to play on the green, they play in the garden at the back.
The green has quite a steep slope. It was never a very good pitch but I can remember playing cricket and playing rounders. There were only two children in my year group but the year above me had around eight children, and I remember I was always made to bowl up the hill because I was a girl. One day on playing rounders I was on fourth base and I remember I caught out Leonard Tunstall and stumped John Guy, and having got out the two best players I was always picked out first after that. So that was a red-letter moment.
Back then the curriculum wasn’t very varied. All I remember doing is maths, writing and composition which I hated – I could never think what to put. Every Monday morning we did diary. I would write, ‘Last night Blackie had a calf’ and things like that. I rarely got beyond one sentence. But I do have a report that was written in 1963, the interesting thing being that all the children simply wrote out the headings for the different subjects, and the teacher just put a score - nine out of ten or whatever - for the result that we got in our test at the end of term. Something of a contrast to the detailed reports I later had to write as a teacher.
Mrs Benson was very keen on music, but she wasn’t particularly a musician, and I remember she taught us to play the recorder using numbers. I can still tell you how to play the recorder using numbers. ‘0, 3, 5, 5, 0, 3, 5, 5’ for example is Darby Kelly. My friend Janette taught me how to play properly one night. This started a life-long love of playing the recorder. Later, as a teacher I taught everybody to play the recorder. Lots of people decry it but it really is a good start for learning notation.
I recall having milk at playtime because I wasn’t particularly keen. Even though I lived on a farm, I didn’t drink it raw particularly. I was fine if it was cold, but I remember a time they warmed it in the winter and I really wasn’t keen on it being warm.
From the ages of about five to eight I walked home for lunch, but when my younger brother started school we had school dinners. We had a resident cook at that time. I can’t remember the kind of meals we had, but I know it wasn’t processed and we were expected to eat up. At some point we lost the cook and meals were brought into school from Middleham for many years. They weren’t too bad. I really got used to soggy broccoli and so on.
Thinking about the attitude to food over the decades, I remember a time when it was turkey twizzlers and it seemed that every day there were potatoes and they were always processed, it was either croquettes or chips, or whatever. Not too many real potatoes. When I first got a teaching job at the school in 1983, the over-processed thing was happening, so it perhaps started late 70s and then improved over the years. There were various fads along the way, I remember at one point there was a piece of cheese to be eaten at the end of each meal because that allegedly cleaned the teeth.
In the last five years the school has had the kitchen re-fit and the meals are cooked on-site again. Dinners became much better and now I think they really are healthy. But even before Jamie Oliver there was a swing-back to more healthy eating. In recent years there’s been the fruit delivery every day, and children really got into the way of enjoying the fruit. If there was any leftover it would be taken to the juniors and they’d all come running to see what was left.
But I still find the choices a little odd, when they’ll have a pasta dish and put potato wedges with it or something, and you think goodness don’t they realise you can have carbohydrate once, and not more than that? Also they reduce sugar in lots of puddings and try to push fruit into sponge puddings - sometimes it feels contrived, whereas I think children can easily have a nice pudding and run it off later.
For me as a child our farm was at the top of West Burton so I just had to walk a few-hundred yards to school, which of course made it easy when I was going home for dinner. Other children came by taxi. In later times, you could have free transport to school if it was the closest to you, so they’d be children coming from the top end of West Witton, the Aysgarth area and so on. It was usually by mini bus with the local taxi drivers, and those drivers got to know the children - they knew who was difficult to get on board, who they had to part from parents, who was going to hit them over the head because they didn’t want to go to school, and so on.
Because there were so few of us at school, boys and girls did largely the same things. And with having a farming background women did tend to do a lot of the jobs that men did anyway. I used to hate having the day off because I felt I missed something and you’d have to catch up from the day before and I would feel I didn’t know what I was doing.
But I do remember working a lot on my own when I was in what now would be year 6, because there was only me and one boy. As a result, I think it was a long time before I gained confidence. I was very shy, I didn’t know how to do things, I didn’t ask questions, and that experience made me even more passionate later, that that’s far too small a number to have in a year group at school.
In those days you sat the 11+. The headteacher was really concerned that I did pass, which I did. I remember when I went up to Yorebridge Grammar, which is now Askrigg Primary School, it seemed massive; there were actually only around 150 students in the school, but I was overwhelmed to begin with. Two girls in the village very kindly looked after me, but they were in the sixth form, and when you’re in the first year they just seem completely beyond your reach. So I just quietly went along with the flow, watched what everybody else was doing, and looking back I actually coped okay but it wasn’t easy for a long time. I hadn’t had the experience of social interaction, because there simply weren’t enough of us at primary school, and that’s why I feel strongly these days that there needs to be a certain number.
Occasionally somebody new would move in. I remember a girl in the year above me called Barbara whose parents ran Palmer Flatt Hotel near Aysgarth, and I can remember going to stay with her and being really impressed because we stayed in a room in the hotel and were allowed to join the dining room and go in for lunch. That was really quite an experience for me when I was around ten. I also remember we had a tray of tea in the bedroom and spilt it on the floor.
I don’t think as a child that I was particularly aware that the Dales were beautiful, it was just home. And I very rarely left it. Perhaps in the half term holiday I might go down to Leyburn Auction Mart with my dad. The awareness crept in probably when I moved back having been away to train as a teacher. After my first job in Harrogate we made the choice to come back and raise our children in the Dales.
Part II will explore Sally’s experience as a teacher and headteacher in West Burton – to be shared soon.