Education: The good old days, eh?

Judging from a school punishment book for 1930-56, children were no better disciplined in the days when teachers ruled with the cane than they are today. By Sam Merry
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The Independent Online
People today are rightly concerned with discipline in schools. It is something on which we can all express an opinion since we have all had experience of it. Some people think that the pendulum has swung too far towards permissiveness, but those who talk about a return to the good old days, when there was widespread respect for authority, may be making a rose-coloured spectacle of themselves.

Rummaging around under the stage of Portsmouth College, I stumbled across an old volume of the Portsmouth School Board, entitled Punishment Book for Reginald Rd Boys School. It records "every case of corporal punishment" under regulations from the New Code of 1900, and covers the years 1930- 56 for seven- to 12-year-olds. It may challenge those, such as Norman Tebbitt, who think that the present problem of discipline can be traced back to the permissive Sixties.

The number of canings over the years is clearly related to the character and style of the headmaster in office, but, interestingly, caning was most frequent in the Thirties, then dropped from a high of 300 in 1934 to single figures during the Second World War, only to reach a new high of 76 in the mid-Fifties, suggesting that it was not the permissive Sixties that saw the retreat from discipline at Reginald Road, but the "Elvis years". This raises the question of child-rearing during the previous 10 years - the period of austerity at the end of, and just after, the war.

One cannot talk of school discipline in a vacuum separated from society. If Reginald Road was reflecting society, then the society of the pre-war years was punitive and repressive, the society of war years was permissive and the society of the Fifties returned once more to the punitive. Another way of expressing this, however, is to say that students were less disciplined before the war, very disciplined during the war, and much less disciplined after the war, until 1955. Furthermore, to judge by the ages of those punished, it is not fair to say that today small children are less disciplined than they were half a century ago.

Young people between the ages of eight and 11 were punished with between one and four strokes of the cane between the years 1929-57 for offences including inattention, bad work and "inbred tiredness". The highest number of strokes of the cane (four) was reserved for truanting, but a boy could get two strokes for "inertia", "not trying", "idiotic behaviour" or "stealing and lying".

The most frequently occurring offences were "talking", "laughing", "disobedience" ("gross", "extreme", or "atrocious") and "continuous laxity". These trivial offences may indicate the poor quality of the teaching, as well as the overweening power of teachers, though there is evidence that they suffered from exasperation ("this boy has been caned for refusing to take the slightest interest in badly needed instructions"). Another teacher wrote: "Careless inattention - this boy is a `howler', starting when spoken to".

Reginald Road appears to have been much more repressive in the Twenties than in the Forties, when fewer punishments are recorded, especially during the war years. From the nature and frequency of the punishments it may be true to say that schools were harsh, but we should not confuse repression with discipline. In fact, the high level of canings may reflect - among other things - the high level of indiscipline in the "good old days".

Teachers seemed to reflect society's more authoritarian nature; they undoubtedly punished for offences that would not be punished today. Was this a good thing? There is another interpretation: perhaps they were under stress because they were failing to interest their pupils. Some of the misdemeanours now appear trivial, such as "carelessness" or "turning on electric lights". In the Thirties a boy could be caned for "wilfully breaking his pencil to get to a sharpening machine", "deliberately dropping his pen five times on the floor", "damaging school desks", "playing cigarette cards", "playing in the girls' playground", "playing with a drawing model" or "climbing on windows". It may be that pupils were just plain bored with their education.

Though there is a consistent core, the range of offences at Reginald Road is much wider than the range of punishments (one to four strokes of the cane), with the consequence that there was little or no consistency in punishment. In the Twenties a boy could be caned for "not trying", "mischief", "playing", "unpunctuality", "bad spelling", "bad writing", "untidy exercise and work books", "disfiguring books", "copying", "helping others", "impudence", "rudeness", and "refusing to use his eyes". One boy got a stroke for "putting down anything in his book", and "covering himself with ink". Boys were caned for "passing a note and finding it amusing", "chewing gum" (1931), and "playing with matches and toys".

It is not clear, therefore, that in the Twenties and Thirties students were more disciplined than today, to judge from some of the offences: "throwing paper", "making, and throwing dangerous darts", "throwing a dart at a cupboard", "using dividers as a dart", "damaging school desks", "dangerous interference with other boys", "insolence", "disrespect" and "insubordination".

Fighting in school during the Twenties becomes "fighting in the street on way to hospital for mass radiography" in the Fifties. Some offences indicate a level of violence that appears to parallel that of the Nineties: "kicking at other boys", "throwing stones", "carrying a sheath knife against orders", "shooting ink wads on ceiling", "unruly behaviour", "unmannerly conduct", "general nuisance", and "striking another boy with ruler".

Surprisingly, in view of what some people say about the good old days, "obscenity" (spoken and written) was also a problem in the Thirties: "bad language", "vulgarity and filthiness", "making indecent motions to the class". One boy got two strokes for "urinating on school premises on infants' playground wall in view of infants and girls".

Interestingly, though the permissive Sixties are often blamed for the present indiscipline in or schools, the punishment book records more serious crimes after the Second World War, in the Fifties. Some of these offences reflect the greater resources of post-war schools: "throwing papier mache models across craft room in absence of teacher", "dangerous interference with a machine", "fooling with globe costing pounds 15". One boy was caned for "being mischievous at Music Festival"; another for "irreverence in scripture lesson"; another for "climbing on cookery centre roof".

Other punishments involve toys: "bringing a water pistol to school", "being in possession of a pea shooter" and "stealing glue pellets for pea shooter", "playing table tennis". "Firing a cracker in school" in 1949 becomes "letting off firework" in 1954.

In the Forties the following first make their appearance: bullying, "rough play and bullying"; while in the Fifties offences definitely pre-figure the menace and anti-authoritarianism of the Nineties: "bringing open dagger to school and pushing point in boy's back ... and insolence", "continual defiance", "chattering after repeated warnings", "throwing books at each other", "behaving like hooligans on the premises of another school", "rioting with prefect in charge", "letting down tyres on bicycle", "wilful damage, i.e. one biology bench", "throwing waste paper basket at another boy", "hitting boy with broom", "causing commotion in streets to annoyance of parents locally" and "smoking both at school and on the school bus".

The good old days. Sounds familiar?

The writer is a former head of history and philosophy at a further education college.

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