Tribute to Sybil Marshall


Inspirational Sybil helped pupils to enjoy life

By Christabel Burniston

Oakeshott Sybil MarshallNews of the death of teacher and writer Sybil Marshall, aged 91, at the end of last month will sadden a generation of teachers. Many who streamed into primaries in the late 60’s and early 70’s inspired by her book An Experiment in Education feel the dream she gave us has also died, broken by tests, targets and national strategy documentation. I’m told that in her final years Sybil Marshall was deeply saddened by the direction of primary education.

Mrs. Marshall was no stranger to dull, curriculum-centered teaching. Her book opens with an account of an “observational drawing” lesson she suffered as a child-sadly, all too similar to the “art” lessons many children endure today, courtesy of a national curriculum that values technique over inspiration. But when young Sybil became an uncertified teacher and during World War II, took on the headship of a tiny rundown school in the Cambridgeshire countryside, she decided to take a different approach to the subject.

She had a six-month-old baby to look after, a crumbling schoolhouse, no help, and 30 pupils between four and eleven years old, who, after several years of disrupted education, were bored, lazy, and largely illiterate. Gradually she revived the school, using art, music, and her own love of language and learning to inspire them. An Experiment in Education describes teaching methods based on enthusiasm and excitement in every area of the curriculum. This was married with deep respect for children’s needs and interests.

Sybil Marshall went on to be a lecturer in primary education at Sheffield University, an acclaimed social historian, an educational advisor to Granada TV and – at the age of 80 – a successful novelist, publishing six semi-autobiographical stories. But to those of us who read An Experiment in Education in those rosy days in the 60’s and 70’s, it was as a teacher that she’ll be remembered. By bringing ideas and knowledge to life she inspired thousands more of us to try to o the same. “If I ‘educated’ the children in my care,” she says at the end of An Experiment in Education, “it was, I hope, to help them enjoy life.” She has certainly helped me enjoy mine.

I wish we could make a bonfire of every dreary government document about “continuous improvement”, “individualized learning” and – oh the tedium! – “raising standards”, and instead just send every young teacher in the schools today an account of the art, local history, science, reading, writing, poetry, design and technology, dance and drama that Sybil Marshall and her children did, inspired by Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. That’s what excellence and enjoyment are all about.

Sybil Marshall’s Curriculum Vitae