Saturday, 12 June 2010

Ragged, wretched, filthy, and forlorn

A few weeks ago I was in one of the backstreets of Bethnal Green in the heart of London’s East End. In the middle of a street with a garage servicing a long line of Black Cabs is one of the old Ragged Schools.

The Ragged Schools were early free schools for the poorest working class children, set up before elementary education was made universal in the 1870s. The children were, by all accounts, literally ragged. One of the most important things offered by the schools was free food and clothing - they were not just about education. Charles Dickens, an early supporter, wrote that “they who are too ragged, wretched, filthy, and forlorn, to enter any other place: who could gain admission into no charity school, and who would be driven from any church door; are invited to come in here, and find some people not depraved, willing to teach them something, and show them some sympathy.”

Today, in the hall of that old Ragged School in Bethnal Green, thriving groups for children and parents are offered through a link to the local Children's Centre. I was lucky enough to be there on a particularly vibrant day, and meet numerous mothers, fathers, grandparents and carers. I listened as a grandmother told me that she came there every week, and that her grand-daughter liked the company, space and freedom. As we were talking, the little girl – who had been glancing backwards – came over, got a cuddle from her nan, and went back to what she was doing in the home corner. It was a strikingly loving and tender moment.

Later on, as I tried to wipe snail trails of Pritt off the tables (with little success) I wondered about the many drop-ins I have seen over the years, some with organised whole-group activities, others with practitioners on-hand to promote interaction between adults and children, working the room to get parents off their chairs. Some of these sessions are good. But others are quite dreadful, with children going through someone else’s motions without much enthusiasm. Parents, assuming it is all for the best, respond gamely or grumpily to the directions and suggestions they are given by staff.

I imagined all those ragged children sitting in rows a century and a half ago, warm and fed for once, but surely also miserable and destitute. I wondered what they would make of their small descendants a century and a half later, playing freely in the space, moving, singing and dancing, and enjoying the affectionate company of relaxed adults.

First published in Nursery World