Monday, April 23, 2012

Hanging, flogging... and caning?

Nearly 3 years ago, I was having a whinge about education going to the bow-wows, and one part was about the end of corporal punishment in schools, which some would like to see reinstated. A leader in the campaign to abolish caning was a teacher in Tower Hamlets called Tom Scott, who later left teaching and is now a theatre director.

I often say that the people who make changes in teaching often choose not to stay at the sharp end (if they've ever been there at all), and I thought Scott had been away from the chalkface for so long he'd probably forgotten the details himself.

Not so. Here's a post by the man himself, put up on the 25th anniversary of abolition (July 22, 1986). Some of the examples of maltreatment he cites there should give any fair-minded reader pause for thought. I certainly couldn't defend those teachers.

The only caning I witnessed as a teacher was of a 15-year-old who'd told me to get lost when I was urging a group to work hard and complete their CSE English assignments (in two terms - the previous teacher had left under a cloud in the summer, with his pupils having only 2 acceptable pieces of coursework out of the required 15). A senior teacher gave him the cane once on each hand, and that was the last I saw of him in the classroom. Pour encourager les autres: almost all the others ultimately got passes in both English Language and English Literature - and these were C Band children.

The school was a very large urban comprehensive, but with a tightly-run and authoritarian management. It made a difference to the life chances of many children, I'm sure, even though I think discipline alone will get you no more than 90% of potential. It also allowed teachers to teach - not everyone is a tough guy or the inspirational type who could get children to push peanuts up mountainsides with their noses, as they say.

But yes, I'm sure there were also occasions when authority overstepped the mark. I remember one youngster who these days would be quickly recognized as autistic: he'd tried to flush a teacher's handbag down the lavatory and was consistently denying it to the head and deputy head in the office. The deputy, a slick and tricky type, leaned forward and said in a friendly way, "Look, Jason [as it might be], we all know you did it. Why don't you just admit it and then you can go?" "Okay, yeah, I did do it." With a sweep of the arm, the desk was cleared of papers, "Jason" was hauled over it and given six of the very best, then released - howling fit to bust - to charge out of the office and through reception, clutching his buttocks. Where the parents of a prospective entrant to the school were waiting. They saw the flaming-arsed meteor scud past, followed by the head and deputy strolling out, laughing and swishing their canes.

All most amusing, but "Jason" had to return to my classroom, red-faced and in shock at a turn of events he wasn't equipped to anticipate. On another occasion, he'd gone with a school group to Kingsbury Water Park and noticed a fishing float abandoned in a shallow lake. Without hesitation, he undressed (in front of a mixed group of boys and girls), waded out bollock-naked to retrieve it, and then dressed again. "Jason" was just different, and in the Pupil Referral Unit where I work part-time he would now be treated as such; thrashing would teach him nothing. Autistic children need social rules spelled out to them, like a tourist learning basic phrases in Greek.

There was also something of a bullying culture among the more macho teachers. A teenager came to remonstrate with one of these, who let him into the classroom to continue the discussion, locked the door and listened to a stream of foul-mouthed abuse. As the peroration continued, he quietly interjected "you're forgetting something" from time to time, until the lad put his cursing on hold and said "what?". "The door's locked". The boy's face went white, and he fell silent.

Another teacher - a Northerner - wouldn't tolerate cheek and chinned a member of his own form registration group, knocking him clear over the desk behind. The boy reminded him of it when Sir came to make his farewell ("Now then, scum...") before leaving to teach abroad - but the kid said it with a grin: he knew there hadn't actually been any malice, it was just what the alpha male does to the naughty pup.

A retired colleague did his teaching practice in a school in (I think) Reading, somewhere around the late 60s. His class was a mixed bunch, with the yobbos ensconced at the back. But one made the mistake of taking out a newspaper and reading it behind the upraised lid of his desk. A mistake, because my friend is of Irish descent and has fully inherited the wrathful warrior gene. Leaping forward with a roar of rage, the trainee teacher smashed down the lid, which broke in two pieces across the head of the boy, who fell back stunned in his chair. There was no trouble from that class again.

Pre-World War I, my great-grandfather was a schoolmaster in an East Prussian village (paid for his services partly in firewood etc). He taught the children of agricultural labourers, dairymen and so on - tough kids in a tough time, and unlikely to appreciate the value of literacy and general knowledge. But great-grandpapa was built like a brick shithouse - once, when a man had disagreed with him, he'd suspended his opponent one-handed by the collar outside an upper-storey window until there was a meeting of minds. My ancestor started each day giving all the kids a whack - girls as well as boys. They all learned to read and write, and this might well have saved the lives of a number of the boys when the call-up came, as they would have been given office jobs instead of being sent out to absorb the enemy's bullets.

Quite a different world, and no Professor Challenger will find his way back to it.

Is there any halfway house between the hard ways of the past and the barrack-room-lawyer children of today? Should a civil whack on the hands be allowed again? Or is it all too fraught with difficulty?

Meantime, I shall not be so quick to judge people like Mr Scott.

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