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Sergeant and warrant officer teachers of the AEC

The Adjutant General's Corps (AGC) includes an Educational and Training Services Branch, formerly the Royal Army Educational Corps (RAEC) staffed entirely by commissioned officers. The RAEC replaced the Army Educational Corps (AEC), which came into existence in 1920, staffed mostly by non-commissioned officers, sergeants and warrant officers.

Like its predecessor formation, the Corps of Army Schoolmasters (1845-1920), the AEC had commissioned officers, of course. They served as administrators, school inspectors and headmasters. The majority of schoolmasters in the AEC joined the Corps from units throughout the Army, applying to take the teacher training programme at the Army's Normal School at Aldershot and recommended by their commanding officers. Before the school at Aldershot came into existence in 1910, army schoolmasters were trained at the Duke of York's. Some applicants for teacher training, however, were drawn from the civilian population.

From the start of the teacher training programme at the Normal School in 1846, the military schools (the Royal Hibernian Military School, the Duke of York's and, later, the Queen Victoria School) provided a steady stream of candidates for the programme. They began as monitors and student teachers so that, by the time they became fully-fledged teachers, they had undergone six years of training. No university had a comparable course of instruction.

When the AEC received its royal charter in 1962 and became an all-officer corps, the non-commissioned schoolmasters were either commissioned or given their ticket to civvy street. While they served, they along with Queens Army Schoolmistresses (formed in 1928 from schoolmistresses teaching in Army schools), gave sterling and unequalled service to the cause of Army education.

Sergeant and WO teachers of the AEC taught before, during and after the Second World War. Those children taught by the Army in garrison schools as well as those in the military schools knew no other teachers. Headmasters were, of course, commissioned officers as earlier noted, responsible for administration at the garrison or military school level. They were posted frequently, which is to say they moved from station to station in the Home Command and overseas at the behest of those in command over them. At the Duke of York's, they came and went in quick succession, for they were career officers. In my time, we had in turn majors Joseph, Lloyd and Turner. One HM, Major Lloyd, had earned an MC during WWI, which meant that he, like Colonel A. C. T. White, VC, author of The Story of Army Education (1643-1963), had spent time in the front line. With some exceptions, no headmaster was of higher rank than major until the end of the Second World War when Lieutenant Colonels and Colonels were appointed to the post.

We knew of the existence of our headmasters, of course, but rarely saw them. They remained dim and remote figures, seen irregularly in the company of the Commandant, with the Army Schools Inspector or on Grand Day at the annual trooping of the colours. All this is to say that the important people in our lives were the sergeant and warrant officer teachers, graduates all from the Army's Normal School. Following the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, a fresh wave of NCO schoolmasters came into the AEC, conscripts from the universities. University lecturers or assistant lecturers - for universities were sparing when it came to conferring professorial titles on members of their faculties.

We students who laboured in the classrooms of Army schools were the beneficiaries of the university lecturers who entered our lives. But whether wartime conscripts or graduates of the Army's Normal School, our schoolmasters were brilliant stars in the firmament by any measure of starlight. Their names and idiosyncrasies remain indelibly stamped on the dimmest boy's consciousness as many an ex-boy has testified: Warrant Officers Walmsley, Hunt and Roberts (nicknamed Beaucoup). Hunt's wife was a schoolteacher, too, probably a member of the fabled Queens Army Schoolmistresses although this is uncertain. Then there were our schoolmaster sergeants who will not be forgotten.

One sergeant of unknown name, but the image of film star Conrad Veight, made his mark by wearing suede shoes in or out of uniform, on parade or prowling the classroom. In contrast, Sergeant Pritchard who taught physics and mathematics, was an ex-paratrooper who wore boots and gaiters as diligently as the Conrad Veight look-alike sergeant stuck to his suede shoes. It's odd what makes so sharp an impression on children at school. Sergeant Lewis, a graduate of Sorbonne, was a brilliant French teacher; Sergeant May taught map reading and geography; sergeants Jones, Winterburn, Murray and Fishburn were wartime conscripts from the university lecture rooms. Reigate, a lieutenant, also from academia, was the odd man out for having convinced someone he should have a commission.

We spent long hours in the classroom, probably far more time that spent by children in civil society. The hours included attendance at night school. Younger boys spent less time at evening school than their elders. Whatever the case or wherever we were in the curriculum, school life was never dull. Our sergeant schoolmasters inspired, stimulated and motivated us with an enthusiasm that made them like no other teachers on earth. All the subjects taught were - in the sense the word is understood today - academic and learned. That is to say, there were no pseudo-subjects; art appreciation, for example, home economics, underwater basket weaving, gender studies et al.
We had algebra, geometry, physics, mathematics, trigonometry, French, geography, history - military and ancient - map reading and the rudiments of logic. The traditional classic subjects Latin, Greek and Hebrew were not for us; nor did we do bible studies, which was strictly the provenance of the chaplain or priest. Physical training, too, our AEC schoolmasters left to others, for they concentrated their efforts on teaching us what they believed would serve us well. Above all, they taught us to use our brains. What children have received a greater or more lasting gift?  
  Sergeant and warrant officer schoolmasters in the making - Courtesy P.J.Goble
To these men of the AEC we, my fellow soldiers and I, owe our intellectual development in the days before ordinary people had any hope of getting a university education. In those far-off days, a small section of society only had the privilege of a higher education. We in the military schools and, later on, in boy service made do with Army certificates of education: second, first and special class certificates of education, useless in civvy street, but essential for promotion in the Army. All the same, we owe to these men of the AEC a genuine thanks for a solid education that enabled us to become engineers, pilots, linguists, translators, surgeons, physicists, scientists, marine biologists and, yes, commissioned officers too, to the highest ranks of the Army.
In that far-away land of the past, about which the writer L. P. Hartley wrote, 'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there', we lived in a totally different world from the one in which we now live. That is not to say today's world is better or for that matter inferior to the world we once knew. Nor should anyone be nostalgic for 'the good old days', for they were not. Today's world, in the sense Hartley wrote about it, is simply different. Army Second Class Certificate of Education

To summarise, the quality of education given by, and received from, the sergeant and warrant officer schoolmasters of the AEC was by any measurable standard exceptional. At the end of the Second World War, the AEC received its royal charter. Of the arrival of the 'new order', Brigadier T. C. Sherry, President of the RAEC Association, wrote of as '...a time when the RAEC had received its Royal Charter and gained a prestigious headquarters base at Eltham Palace.' It (the RAEC) '...established itself as an essential source of education and training development for the Regular Army.' What the Brigadier meant by this gem of pomposity is left to others to interpret. From the perspective of those who received their education at the hands of the AEC, the quality of its teaching has never been exceeded.

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