Falling standards are really nothing new

18th July 2003 at 01:00
A head's logbook from 70 years ago shows that discipline has always been a problem, says Gordon Cairns.

WHEN experienced teachers say that levels of respect, silence or discipline in the classroom have fallen, it is difficult to argue, partly because to quantify these concepts is impossible. But I wonder if there has ever been a period when educators were completely satisfied with the level of respect, silence or discipline they received from pupils.

I recently had the opportunity to look at a headteacher's logbook, which gave an interesting insight into perceptions of discipline from the past.

Two pages from the interwar years contained general regulations on discipline.

Although this was a time when it was still acceptable for teachers physically to punish their charges, Mr Lynch, the headteacher, was evidently dissatisfied with the level of discipline within his establishment and seemed to lay the blame for this at the feet of his staff. He also thought that standards had fallen, and hoped that his regulations would return the school to a level of control whereby "the silence, order and obedience to authority so characteristic of the work of the church should permeate the whole atmosphere and life of the school."

Yet to the modern teacher the standards to which the headteacher was aspiring would seem impossible to achieve.

Admittedly, some of the 22 regulations issued in 1934 are simply common sense, such as "members of staff are not permitted to leave a class unsupervised of which they are supposed to be in charge."

Others are good classroom practice: "Inside the classroom undue raising of voices is strictly forbidden. Teachers' or pupils' voices should never be audible beyond the limits of the classroom."

Regulation 12, whereby teachers were to prevent pupils talking in the corridor had a strong psychological effect on one first year pupil who, writing five years later in the school magazine of 1940 under a pseudonym, recalled: "Well I remember my first disillusionment . . . on this occasion I was feeling more than usually pleased with myself, and as we were marching along the corridor, I burst into song, unfortunately under the very nose of an august gentleman in a black gown. . . He took me by the scruff of the neck into an adjoining room, where a trenchant interview ensued. I have more than respected that man ever since."

Although today the brutality of the above incident may seem shocking, it is interesting that the pupil felt respect for his tormentor, although perhaps it was more fear than respect.

Silence throughout the school almost seems to be an obsession with Mr Lynch. For example, pupils couldn't speak to the teacher without intimating to the teacher first that they wished to do so. These regulations seem far less about educating children in a positive learning environment and more to do with controlling them.

Mr Lynch, a World War One naval officer, had a militaristic attitude toward his staff that extended to forbidding them to speak to each other in the corridors or from visiting each other's classrooms. Certainly his promotion of respect for authority among his working-class pupils would have meant a smooth transition for the males when they enlisted a few short years later.

"All teachers are under an obligation... to instil into their minds a respect for authority in general. This can only be attained by teachers insisting on their authority being respected at all times."

Staff were also morally bound to deal with lack of respect for the teacher in attitude, tone of voice or address. Not only was this important for the smooth running of the school but also an attempt at social engineering so that these sons and daughters of miners would be obedient employees later on.

Despite the new regulations, the diligent work of the teacher described above and the physical deterrent, Mr Lynch felt compelled to issue a further memo a month later, beginning "the discipline inside the school is still far from satisfactory".

Did Mr Lynch's regulations not have the required effect because there really was a breakdown of discipline in the school or was Mr Lynch's perception of the old order in the school idealised? Today when we complain of falling standards in discipline in the classroom, we should perhaps consider whether there ever was a golden age of discipline when children did exactly as they were told.

Gordon Cairns teaches English at Our Lady's High in Motherwell.

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