Spotlight on the NUT donation: “The rural school in the modern world” by Sir E. John Russell

Last winter we received a wonderful donation from the National Union of Teachers (NUT), which included 380 archive boxes containing material published by the NUT itself and many other organisations operating in the areas of education, children and families.

Over the last year, we have checked and sorted these resources, discovering many interesting publications during the process. Among these, we have picked a few ‘gems’ and decided to share what we have learnt about each one.

Today is the turn of The rural school in the modern world, a paper presented at the 1932 NUT conference by Sir E. John Russell, a known agriculturalist who, among other things, actively promoted international information exchange about agriculture. At the time of this conference, he was also director of Rothamsted Experimental Station (now called Rothamsted Research), one of the oldest institutions in the world dedicated to agricultural research.

Rural school in the modern world

The aim of the paper is to offer advice and practical ideas for teachers working in countryside schools so that they can make the most of the resources at their disposal and create interesting and relevant lessons for their pupils. In fact, the author is conscious of the fact that schools can positively influence changes, but it is important that the needs of ordinary pupils, not only a few selected ones, are taken into consideration. In particular, he highlights two main weaknesses in the average young person: fear of the unknown, which explains why the prospect of travelling and finding employment abroad are not as appealing to the new generations as they used to be, and lack of a sense of values.

In contrast, education in rural locations should help forge characters and develop an interest in the surrounding world and in the deeper meaning of life. At the same time, it should equip the child to respond to the challenges thrown at him/her by Nature. These two purposes, one idealistic, one more practical, are not in contrast and often once the first is achieved, the second one will follow.

Arguably, accomplishing these objectives while relying only on the means of a village school can be tricky, however the author offers plenty of ideas to foster children’s development, chiefly by making use of resources found in nature. For example, children should be encouraged to reflect on the topography of the area in which they live and the different types of soils in the nearby fields, with close observation accompanied by testing of various hypotheses and integrated with theoretical lessons in the classroom.

As well as the natural element, the author is keen for pupils to understand how humanity has profoundly shaped the rural landscape over time, for example by reflecting upon any ruins found in the countryside and making advantage of resources found in local museums. The goal is for children to “see themselves as standing between the irretrievable past and the uncontrollable future, yet able in their own generation to improve their lot and dignify their position” (p. 11); in this sense, understanding the impact that our actions can have on future generations is a key lesson to learn.

Ultimately, teachers want to see children prosper and “realise that they live in an infinitely wonderful world, surrounded on every side by things of absorbing interest” (p. 16).

Sir Russell’s paper is one of several items in this donation focusing on rural education, and this reflects the importance of this area of study among educationalists. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the IOE collection already holds many resources dedicated to the organisation of countryside schools in the UK and abroad.

More recent items are also available via DERA, our institutional repository of official publications in the areas of children, training and skills; these, however, tend to focus on the issues linked to rural education. A report published by the Commission for Rural Communities in 2013, for example, looks at the challenges encountered by young people living in the countryside when it comes to education and employment, reaching the conclusion that transport, training support and youth services are the main areas in need of intervention. Similarly, the isolation of provider and learner and the costs of reaching remote locations are identified as significant barriers to rural education in a 2002 publication by the Learning and Skills Council.

The rural school in the modern world, like all the other items included in the NUT donation, is currently uncatalogued, although this will be the next step in our project. In the meantime, if you’d like to find out more about the contents of the donation, please check our LibGuide.

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