A Reflection by Muriel Hipsley-Smith

Needleowork Teacher at Moseley Modern School 1956 – 64

Muriel-Hipsley-SmithI had just returned from twelve months in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia now) when I joined the staff of Moseley Modern School. I was expecting to hear from Birmingham Education Dept. concerning a teaching appointment when Miss Cohen heard that there was a teacher awaiting a post, in the district of Sparkhill, so the next thing I knew was that Tom Hughes (metalwork) arrived on my doorstep asking me to go for an interview with Miss Cohen on the next day – a Friday. This I duly did, and was asked then, to present myself at the school on the following Monday where I would be assigned to a form.

This I did, only to find a state of organized chaos. This was 1956, – the bulge year coming into secondary schools. This meant that numbers of children who would normally have gone to Grammar schools could not, because of the increase in numbers and not sufficient places (these were the days before GCE’s, CSE’s etc were in the province of secondary schools).

At this point Miss Cohen stuck her neck out. She was determined that these children should have the chance to achieve GCE results, so that first fortnight in school was spent testing the 1st year intake. On those results she picked a number to make up a special form and wrote to parents of those selected to ask whether or not they would agree to their child staying at school for a fifth year until they were 16yrs old in order to follow the full course for GCE examinations. Of course the parents jumped at the chance. And so the first year of the 5yr course began; soon to be followed by an inspector from the Education Department telling her that THEY chose the children suitable for these examinations. Her reply was that she would prove that she was right in 5 years time. And as any pupils from that year onwards knew, she was right.

As soon as C.S.E. examinations had been organized and a curriculum approved, then these examinations were introduced for other groups of classes, followed by groups studying technical subjects – i.e. Science, Metalwork, Woodwork, Shorthand, Typing and Bookkeeping. In this way, all the children eventually had a goal to aim for.

The husband of Mrs Shuttleworth (who was the school secretary) was a junior school headmaster, and he always maintained that the children of Birmingham had a lot to thank Miss Cohen for as she was the pioneer for these examinations in secondary modern schools. Nowadays it is taken for granted that children can qualify for many types of careers and university courses – stay into the 6th form until they are 18yrs but in 1956 that was not so.

Apart from the ordinary sort of school life with it’s ups and downs, I remember

the Christmas parties for children from the poorer areas of Birmingham. She (Miss C) appealed to the school for toys that were no longer wanted – school would refurbish and repair them – and for some weeks before Christmas, woodwork, metalwork and needlework departments were busy putting cars, trains, dolls, you name it, into prime condition.

On the great day a bus would arrive bringing these children from the poorer areas of the city, and each of them would find an escort of two senior pupils awaiting them. Onto the hall for games, followed by tea in the dining room, then back to the hall. In would come Father Christmas on a sleigh drawn by some of the boys, and then the curtains on the stage were opened and there were the presents!

I remember one little girl who received a dolls cot in which was a baby doll and a little doll. She cuddled the little doll, and when asked didn’t she like the baby doll she said “yes, but that is for our Mary” – she was giving it to her little sister!!

These parties could only last for a couple of years or so because the supply of unwanted toys from the school was going to dry up. I never again taught in a school which had such a philanthropic outlook, and I’m sure Moseley School children of that time would remember the look of wonder on the faces of the visitors.

Alongside all this was a school that ran like clockwork, Miss Cohen was a disciplinarian, and a line was drawn over which a pupil stepped at peril. Stealing, lying, truancy, defacing school property and insolence were all punishable. the cane could be used, but strangely, it was seldom needed. Everyone knew what the rules were, what the punishment could be and virtually no one wanted it, so it didn’t happen, only rarely. In all my eight years at the school I can only recall a few occasions when drastic action was taken – it wasn’t needed. sadly that doesn’t seem to be the case universally any more. It meant a happy atmosphere all round, and many years later I went to a reunion of old scholars at the Greswolde Hotel in Knowle. the ‘old boy’ who helped organize it, and who was now a successful business man said in his speech “She was very strict but we loved her”.

Miss Cohen, now Mrs. North was there and I saw tears come into her eyes at that remark. A great tribute to a lady who loved her school, and the children of that school, and I’m sure that there are many men and women who have cause to be grateful to her and to Moseley School.