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Charles Kingsley

Suitable for Key Stage 2


To help children to learn about Charles Kingsley’s optimism and reflect on how to make the school community a better place.

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a leader and six children – one to play the character ‘Tom’, one to play ‘Old Stick’ and four to play the characters of the different vegetables.
  • You will also need labels or simple pictures that can be pinned to the four children’s clothes to identify them as the characters Onion, Beetroot, Radish and Turnip.
  • Create a sign saying 'NO TOYS ALLOWED'. In the assembly, the children playing the vegetables are to stand in a line with this sign behind them.
  • Have available either the song ‘Getting better’ or ‘Here comes the sun’ by The Beatles and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.
  • Note that sections of the script can be added or subtracted at will.


Leader Once upon a time, a young boy called Tom went on a long journey. We haven’t got time to tell you everything that happened to him, but here's one of his adventures.

One day he came to a place where there was a lot of grumbling and grunting and growling and wailing and weeping and whining. All of this commotion was being made by a group of vegetables. When he got close, he could hear what they were saying.

All vegetables I can't learn my lesson and the examiner's coming! Help! What shall we do? We'll be punished  . . . (etc., etc.)

Tom Stop! What’s the matter? Why are you all so upset?

Onion I can't learn my lesson! I can't learn my lesson! Can you show me how to turn fractions into percentages?

Beetroot I can’t learn mine either! What is the longitude and latitude of Snooksville, Oregon, USA?

Radish Neither can I! Help me, please. How long will it take an average school inspector to tumble head over heels from London to York?

Turnip Can you tell me anything at all about anything you like?

Tom About what?

Turnip About anything you like, for as fast as I learn things, I forget them again. My mamma says that my intellect is not suited to methodic science, so I must go in for general information.

Leader What should Tom do? Do you think he should help?

Get a 'Yes' from the audience. Say, 'I can’t hear you', etc.

Well, Tom did help them. Although he didn't know anything about general information – or any other soldier for that matter – he did tell Turnip about his adventures. Unfortunately, Tom had made a mistake! The more Turnip listened, the more Turnip forgot and water started to run out of him, until – POP! – he burst and all that was left of him was rind and water.

Tom ran away in fright, but, in fact, Turnip's parents were highly delighted and considered their child very, very, very precocious – whatever that means, you can look it up afterwards. That's the end of the story.

That story was written in I863 – they don't write children's stories like that any more!

How many years ago was it written?

2014 - 1863 = ?

Mental arithmetic is part of numeracy so you should be able to work it out in five seconds  . . .

Anyway, what was the story all about? Luckily for us – and Tom – he meets Old Stick who explains.

Old Stick You see  . . .  the vegetables were once pretty little children  . . .  but their foolish fathers and mothers, instead of letting them pick flowers and make dirt pies and dance round the gooseberry bush, as little children should, kept them always at lessons, working, working, working, learning all week long, with weekly examinations every Saturday, and monthly examinations every month, and yearly examinations every year – till their brains grew big and their bodies grew small and they were changed into vegetables.

Leader What do you think of the story? Is that what really happens to children who get too much education?

The person who wrote this story was called Charles Kingsley. He was vicar of a small church in the country 150 years ago. He's still remembered today because of the stories he wrote – this one is from his book The Water Babies – but he also became famous because he was the founder of a movement called Christian socialism. He believed that people should go to church and worship God, but the Church isn't just about looking after people's souls. Many of the country people who worshipped in Kingsley's church were very poor. Kingsley didn't just preach to them every Sunday, he also tried to get them better houses, medicine and enough food.

This sounds like a good idea, but it caused a lot of controversy at the time. In fact, what Kingsley wanted was balance in people's lives. No one should be too rich or too poor. People should go to church on Sundays, but they should also be able to relax on Sundays. As the story shows, he also felt that children should be given education, but not too much! Kingsley wasn't against schools. Indeed, in his day, schools were few or expensive, so he founded one in his village. Today, if you go to Eversley, near Reading, the school is still standing and its name is the Charles Kingsley School.

Kingsley wasn't a pessimist. He thought that things could get better if people worked hard and were fair with each other. He thought that the books he wrote would open people's eyes to what was wrong with their communities. In this case, he hoped the story of the vegetables would help to make schools kinder, friendlier places that children would actually enjoy going to.

Have things got better since then? What do you think? Would you have rather lived in Victorian times? Does Kingsley’s picture of Victorian attitudes towards education sound better or worse than those we have today – or are they much the same? 

Time for reflection

Let's be quiet for a moment. Let's think about our school community. What are the good things that it gives us?

A chance to learn about God's wonderful world?

A chance to make friends – and to play?

What things could be better about our school?

What could each of us do to help make it a better place? 


‘Getting better’ or ‘Here comes the sun’ by The Beatles

Follow-up activities

  1. Choose a passage from Kingsley's The Water Babies and compare it with a passage from a modern children’s classic – a story by Roald Dahl, for example. There are several modern editions of The Water Babies available, most of which have been edited to make them more suitable for a modern audience (casual racism having been removed, for example). The old Everyman edition is the original, unedited text. What are the similarities and differences between the two? Dahl shares Kingsley's linguistic exuberance, but Kingsley uses a much more 'difficult' general vocabulary. Were Victorian children better educated than modern children?

  2. Find ten difficult words in Kingsley’s text – such as 'precocious' – and ask the children to make their own dictionaries. They can take them home and astound their parents with their linguistic sophistication! Also, look at some of Dahl's neologisms (there are lots in The BFG). Can the children create ten neologisms of their own, including alternatives to some of the words from Kingsley’s text that they have learned? For example, create a new word that means 'commotion'. The new words can be added to their dictionaries.

  3. Find out about Victorian schools, perhaps even what their own school was like in the past. What are the similarities and differences? What subjects were taught and how? What was RE called and what did it consist of? Were boys and girls treated differently? How was discipline administered? After comparing the two systems, reflect on their good – and bad – points. Which system do the children prefer? Why?
Publication date: May 2014   (Vol.16 No.5)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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