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Cool for School - on the curriculum in the 1950s

One of the secrets of Woolworths' success - a teacher training kit from the 1950s


As you can see in our Woolies by Woolies at Woolies feature, occasionally Woolworth itself featured in products sold in the stores. For example scale replicas of the buildings and lorries adorned trainsets and layouts across the nation. But the Fifties saw a much greater compliment, which was not engineered or influenced by the Company.

After the Second World War there was a drive to modernise and improve the country, as people challenged the practices of the past, and tried to shape a new Britain for a new generation. This was particularly true in education, where progressive teachers were determined to break away from the copybook and parrot fashion learning of their own childhoods. They sought a new curriculum which would get children interested and involved in their classes.

For one educationalist, Winifred M. Ferrier, this signalled a move away from the traditional blackboard and times tables method. She proposed a new approach to mathematics that was altogether more practical. Ferrier assembled a complete resource kit to help maths teachers, in the form of a 'Real Life Number Scheme', which was adopted by many Primary Schools across England and Wales.


The Real Life Number Scheme by Winifred M. Ferrier marked a breakthrough in primary school maths teaching in the 1950s


The kit was developed in partnership with the Toy Maker R. J. Arnold and Son of Leeds. It was a 'tardis' of a box that was dull and boring on the outside, but packed with new learning ideas on the inside. The contents were packed into a set of brightly coloured envelopes and packs.

There were cardboard coins. Some were mounted on cards, while others were loose. Pupils used them to grasp Britain's strange duo-decimal money.

There were with twelve pennies to a shilling (5p) and twenty shillings to a pound. There were coins with unusual values, like the 'half-crown', which as worth two shillings and sixpence or 12½p. The smallest banknote was worth ten shillings (50p), and, one pound was also a banknote.

Other learning packs included tape measures and forms to record the length and width of a number of specially prepared items. There were also weight tests, complete with a miniature scale. Most of the practical exercises were related so shopping.

Teacher notes explained how the packs could be used to prepare a series of fun lessons. Each class focused on a single application of maths in daily life, at work or play.


When it came to shopping, there was of course a newsagent and sweet shop, a café and a Christmas Decorations store. Each had no name in the kit, but was very similar in layout to the interior of a Woolies of the day. But at the heart of the kit was an F. W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd. variety store which seemed to sell everything. According to the pack it was the place to buy dolls, beads, dogs and birds, model steam liners, sweets, toy cars and candles. At one time or another Woolworth had sold all of the items, and was even experimenting with a live pets department at the time !

The pack placed a Woolies advert on schoolchildren's desk at a very impressionable age. At the time Woolworth was such a part of British life that no-one gave this a second thought. The chain did not ask or pay for the privilege. Today the major supermarkets fall over each other to sponsor initiatives to buy sports equipment and computers, or to plant seeds and gardens at schools. They pay for banners to hang outside the school gates.


Part of the Woolworth pack in the Real Number Learning Scheme


Many of today's parents and grandparents were actually tested at school to see whether they could add up a basket of Woolworth's shopping. Teachers threatened their weaker pupils with a career at the store as a punishment if they failed the test. Woolies was painted as some kind of correctional facility for underperformance in the classroom. Little did they know that in the days before barcodes, computers or tills that added up the customers' purchases, 100,000 sales assistants were expected to do the maths in their heads. The teachers were replaced by eagle-eyed supervisors who made sure that the shopping was added up correctly. They returned the compliment, threatening wayward cashiers with being 'sent back to school' !


Float your mouse over the test to reveal the answers

An example of how to complete the Woolworths subtraction test

To complete the subtraction test children had to say how much change they would have left out of their one shilling a week (5p) pocket money. A shilling was twelve pennies (written down as 1/- or 12d.), meaning that they were substracting the number of pennies for their purchase from 12. So for example in the first question (as shown in the crib sheet), they started with twelve pennies and paid six pennies for a toy pram, leaving six.

The test certainly shows how complicated the old money was to learn - but can you work out the answers? (Float the mouse over the test to find out!)


It seems that Winifred Ferrier's scheme was popular with both children and their parents. While it was a long way from modern interactive computing, it was certainly a giant leap forward compared to the traditional blackboard style of learning of the era.

Some kids who passed the Woolworth test in the classroom, remember persuading their mums to take them into the High Street store on the way home. Some recall getting an ice cream wafer (for 1½d), and either two bouncy India rubber balls, six marbles, or a doll's hairbrush for fourpence, leaving a halfpenny to spare from a single sixpence.

But history does not record whether when they got home and found the tap dripping into the bathroom they dashed to do the simultaneous equation to find out when the kitchen underneath would flood. One thing is for certain, they couldn't log on to the Internet and Google it !

"Sell a toy, spread some joy"
Frank W. Woolworth - letter to stores. November 1909.
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Fast links to other Woolworths Museum exhibits

Wonders from Woolies

What our great grandparents used to buy   Got to believe that it's magic

The first character merchandise    In and out the windows    The Lion and Albert

There's a war on   Fifty years ago    Mum and dad's toys    The race for space

Cool for School   Woolies by Woolies at Woolies   Eighties and Nineties Toys   

Wooly and Worth    Kids and Celebrations    Century of Toys Video


Bonus Items - The History of Chad Valley

Although now owned by the Argos parent Home Retail Group, Chad Valley was
rescued by Woolworths and a key part of the firm's offer for 21 years

Toys for Toffs    TV changes everything


Museum Navigation

Toys Gallery Home     Home Page    Interactive


If you have enjoyed our Virtual Museum website, why not check out our complete history of Woolworths in a 194 page, richly illustrated paperback book?  A Sixpenny Romance is just £10.99, with free delivery in our on-line shop.
The special DVD, the Wonder of Advertising, is now available in our on-line shop for £7.50 in our on-line shop. A fully illustrated 194 page history of Woolworths, or a selection of professionally authored DVDs in our on-line shop