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Q&A with Caroline Vollans

Wise Words: How Susan Isaacs Changed Parenting is a fascinating collection that brings together the columns of parenting adviser Ursula Wise, ‘agony aunt’ for The Nursery World between 1929 and 1936, and pseudonym for the eminent educationalist and pioneering psychoanalyst Susan Isaacs. In our Q&A we ask the editor, Caroline Vollans, a range of questions including what she thinks Susan Isaacs would make of early years education today! Read our exclusive interview with Caroline below to find out more about her book.

Wise WordsWho is Ursula Wise?

Ursula Wise is the pseudonym used by Susan Isaacs in a popular agony-aunt style parenting column in Nursery World. In her column, ‘Childhood Problems’, Wise replied to at least two anxious parents or ‘nurses’ (nannies) on a weekly basis from 1929 – 1936.

How did you become interested in Ursula Wise/Susan Isaacs?

I am a trained psychoanalyst as well as primary school teacher. I first came across Susan Isaacs when doing my MA in Psychoanalysis – she made a major and unique contribution to Psychoanalysis by presenting a new theory of unconscious phantasy. I then became acquainted with her work in Early Years education, being especially interested in her pioneering of a child-centred and play-based curriculum, all brought to prominence through the experimental Malting House School in Cambridge. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) refers to her as being “the greatest influence on British Education in the twentieth century.”

It wasn’t, however, until I read Philip Graham’s biography of Isaacs several years later, that I knew anything about Ursula Wise and her parenting column. I was madly curious and went straight to her archive at the UCL Institute of Education to have a look. Needless to say, I was absolutely gripped as well as awe-struck - not only by the content and her beautiful style of writing, but about how prolific she was. This column was a relatively minor aspect of her working life. I continued to visit her archive on an almost weekly basis for several years.

What motivated you to put together this collection?

I couldn’t bear the fact that all these columns were hidden away in an archive and never read anymore – such treasures could not remain unknown about! As well as offering sensible and learned advice, Wise’s columns are such an enticing and riveting read – not only her writing, but that of her correspondents too. It was, too, quite a breath of fresh air to read letters at length and not truncated emails, text messages and tweets that we are more used to today.

Wise has that rare quality of a writer whose words come across as straightforward in manner, though are often based on complex knowledge and theory. As an educationalist, psychologist and psychoanalyst, Wise’s advice comes out of a vast number of first-hand observations of children. She manages to make her most knowledgeable advice sound like common-sense and her column is, consequently, a very accessible read.

Why is Susan Isaacs’ advice still so relevant today?

Well, she was so influential and, I think, still does not get the recognition she deserves for this – such was the plight of many a woman of her era. I wonder how many Education training courses include her work, despite the tribute paid to her by the ODNB? Though she was writing over eighty years ago, because her work is based on sound principles that can never date, most of what she says can be adapted to the modern world. Wise was unique in that she encouraged her readers to get to know about child development and only expect from their child what would be fitting and realistic.

Are there any key messages in the book you’d like to highlight?

The primary message that struck me was her absolute reliance on building a relationship of cooperation and negotiation with the child, as opposed to expecting immediate obedience. She saw nothing wrong with discipline and setting boundaries being a pleasant process – they do not have to be harsh or cruel. That is not to say, by any means, that she was casual or in any way feeble - quite the reverse. Wise’s advice was candid and at times exceptionally forthright in cases where she felt she had to advocate for the small child. For example, she was zealously anti-smacking and made no apologies for this, admonishing the carers if she found it necessary.

The other striking thread throughout her advice is that those who look after children tend to do a lot of unnecessary worrying, and in the majority of cases (where the general circumstances around the child are caring and loving) things turn out alright over time. I think this message is invaluable.

Was there any advice in her letters that surprised you?

Bearing in mind that she wrote the column all those years ago, most of her advice would have remained progressive in its historical context. The only thing that did strike me was when, at times, she suggested a boarding school for very young children. Though this work predates the extensive research and theorizing about attachment it still surprised me. Of course, Malting House was a boarding school, so it probably shouldn’t have surprised me, but did because it seemed so discordant with her general tenor.

Another thing that did come as a surprise was the sheer length of time the phonics debate has been going on. It comes up repeatedly over the years in her correspondence - though happy to engage with it and discuss it, Wise was not an advocate!

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

Primarily, I hope the reader finds Wise Words an enjoyable and spirited read – one that can be read cover to cover or dipped into as and when. I think also, I’d like the reader to find it a reassuring read and be sustained by Ursula Wise’s words and attitude. Anyone involved in raising children, in whatever capacity, can feel flummoxed, unsure and perplexed at times and I think Wise offers an experienced and trusty reassurance – she feels like a safe pair of hands.

What do you think Susan Isaacs would make of early years education today?

Now that’s a big question and it depends on what she saw.I think she’d be delighted that maintained nursery schools have grown in number so much since her day, and that the nursery school she helped to found – Chelsea Open Air Nursery School – is still going strong. As a pioneer in teacher training and research, I think she would be amazed by the expansion of the UCL Institute of Education, another organisation which she helped to found. On the other hand, I think she would be appalled to see poorly trained and inadequately paid nursery staff struggling to meet the needs of masses of children in some nursery settings. She would, I think, be horrified by the increasing formality of the reception year in many schools and the long list of targets (Early Learning Goals) that children are now expected to achieve. Much of her focus was on ensuring that children had the social and emotional support they needed for satisfactory development, and I think she would feel that emphasis is being lost. She’d be delighted, I am sure, that corporal punishment is now banned in schools and almost universally criticised by parenting advisers. I think she might feel sad that early years educators now are reluctant to be as radical and experimental as she was.

Featured Book

  • Wise Words: How Susan Isaacs Changed Parenting

    1st Edition

    By Caroline Vollans

    "Harassed" writes: "Your answers to correspondents are exceedingly clear, and when I read them I say, ‘That is just the answer I should think of’, though I believe I should have great difficulty when it came actually to putting it into words! However, I cannot answer my own problems, so will you…

    Paperback – 2017-10-26

About the Author

Caroline Vollans worked for fifteen years as a primary school teacher before training in Psychoanalysis and becoming a member of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research (CFAR), London. She now works as a counsellor in a secondary school, an author, a feature writer for Nursery World and a free-lance writer. 

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