Classes in Barnet used to be taught by children as young as 14, but PERCY REBOUL and JOHN HEATHFIELD wonder how many readers could match their powers of arithmetic

The amount of space and comment that this newspaper and others devote to education shows the importance of the subject to nearly all parents in the borough. It was not always so.

In Tudor times, for example, most children had no education whatever and many would finish up in the same job as their fathers. There were even fewer opportunities for girls and women. It would be centuries before most people could read or even sign their name.

Until the 19th Century, such education as there was was largely in the hands of the churches, which jealously guarded its preserve as one of the best ways of maintaining and spreading the Christian gospel.

In 1813, a villager' had commented that no village within 300 miles of London had more children in a deplorable state of education than Finchley. The response was to open St Mary's School, Finchley, in 1813 with the Methodists slightly ahead of the game, opening their school in 1812. It was the Education Act of 1870 that made sweeping changes possible. The Act made attendance at school compulsory with local areas being required to form school boards hence board schools. Pupils were required to remain at school until age 12 and they were taught, hopefully, by a trained teacher helped by monitors and pupil teachers. Monitors were clever children asked to remain after 12 to help teach other children.

At 14, they could become pupil teachers. They arrived at school at 8am and were taught by the teachers the lessons for the day, which they then passed on to the classes.

At 18, they could sit an exam to become a trained teacher. The type of thing they were taught is to be found in their exam questions. See if you can answer these two typical arithmetic problems from an 1894 exam paper: u How much higher will the terminus of a 280-mile long railroad be than its starting point if, for 0.25 of it length, the line ascends one foot in 90 and, for the last 0.1 of its length, decends one foot in 55, the rest being level?

u At what percentage compound interest would £750 amount in two years to £826.17s.6d?

The lot of teachers, like the police, was not always a happy one. In 1896, Mr Collier, who was to become an outstanding headmaster, wrote: "I took charge this day. The discipline of the upper classes is very unsatisfactory. Stone-throwing, disobedience, laughing, playing about and talking have been rife. Twice, pistol caps were fired in the classroom."

Out of 31 11 and 12-year-olds, he revealed, none could divide 27 by 3, only one could multiply 24 by three, five could add and subtract two numbers and 21 could not get any sum right. He soon made a difference as the 1898 inspectors' report shows.