From hooligans to hoodies

8th October 2010 at 01:00
The media has sought to blame teachers for `declining' standards of behaviour among the young for a century or more. But Michael Shaw finds that The TES has often defended both pupils and professionals

Pupils' behaviour is getting worse, truancy and youth crime are on the increase and the modern media is to blame, along with those do-gooders who have taken away teachers' disciplinary powers.

This is the thrust of The TES article "Bad boys" - published on April 4, 1918, while the First World War still raged. Like many pieces that would follow in the newspaper that century, it stressed that the way young people acted should not be blamed on teachers: "The school has a function in disciplining the children, but the child spends only about one fifth of the available time each week in school, and even a less amount if annual holidays are included in the calculation."

The correspondent notes, sadly, that "there is no longer the strong respect for the law which was common a decade ago". Young people swear, smoke and bunk off, and if a persistent truant returns to school "he falls behind in his class place and a slacker is in the process of creation".

Unfortunately, teachers' hands are tied: "The schoolmaster has been too much interfered with by well-meaning but mistaken people; consequently a recalcitrant boy or girl is allowed to go uncorrected and bad traits are developed at the formative period."

Much as future articles might criticise computer games or television, this one notes that "the kinema (sic) has been blamed for much, and rightly so", though it adds "that there is a spirit of exaggeration in dealing with this aspect of juvenile delinquency".

The debate about the impact of cinema on young people dominated much of The TES' coverage of behaviour until the 1950s. In 1916, the National Association of Head Teachers had passed a resolution at its conference calling for age limits on films. The TES shared heads' concerns, suggesting that "gaming machines and cinematographs" had helped spark a rise in juvenile crime.

"There would appear to be little doubt that children often steal in order to be able to go to cinema shows, which are attended by many children several times a week. (.) The children see upon the films pictures of robbery, burglary, etc., which influence their minds and incite them to commit similar crimes."

It continued to report on the dangers in several articles, including one titled "Is cinema a menace to morals?", based on US research in 1934. It had found that pupils could learn such criminal techniques as "how to open a safe, how to act and what to do in a robbery with a gun, how to jemmy a door or window, how to use weapons, how to elude police, and the importance of establishing an alibi". For girls, the risks included the "unbridled sexual passion excited by amorous passages in films", as well as the promotion of materialism. A survey of "delinquent girls" found that more than a quarter "acknowledged that motion pictures make them want to have fine clothes, automobiles, wealth, servants, etc".

However, The TES also always stressed that film was a potential force for good, too, noting in 1917 that "everyone interested in education will be anxious to appraise the possibilities of the cinema as a means of instruction". In 1944 it concluded: "The old fashioned teacher may try to blind himself by despising the cinema, by sneering at the rubbish which he thinks is shown there, and by deploring this vast public habit from which he keeps himself aloof. But by assuming these attitudes he becomes more and more of a recluse, out of touch with the bright eagerness in the hearts of his boys and girls. And he loses the chance of a lifetime to do part of his job."

This pattern - to note the concerns about a form of media that was popular with children, then argue for its place in education - was one The TES would repeat. It can be spotted later in coverage of TV, comics, rock music, computer games and social networking websites.

Some types of misbehaviour would pop up every decade or so in the paper, including underage gambling (see box, left), drinking and truancy. It reports a case of a parent being fined for his daughters' non-attendance in 1926, eight decades before the New Labour government introduced its own version of the idea.

While other newspapers grew panicky about young people's behaviour through the 20th century, The TES usually tried to be more objective - perhaps because its readers had greater first-hand experience.

A headline in the paper in 1935 posed the provocative question: "Are children wickeder?" The article did not answer it directly, but gave the impression that the response was: "No." At the time, statistics from the Home Office and chief constables indicated a rise in juvenile delinquency, sparking public concern.

Although the correspondent agreed that there were reasons for anxiety, he stressed that it was "equally clear" that "the gravity of the increase has been much exaggerated", adding: "The fact is that for children between 10 and 14 years of age the increase in the number of indictable offences has, approximately, kept pace with the increase in population". An increase in reports of delinquency in older teenagers was perhaps more serious, the correspondent wrote, but here too the rise may only have occurred because agencies were now doing more to seek out and help these young people.

Then, as on so many other occasions, teachers were blamed for the perceived lapse in young people's behaviour. The Bishop of Gloucester had complained that "modern education does nothing . to discipline the mind and entirely fails to discipline the character". The TES thought this unfair and "too sweeping".

In that article and others, the tone of the newspaper towards "delinquents" was concerned and sympathetic, rather than demonising. When it mentioned "the hooligan" pupil in 1915, it was in a piece admiring an approach that ensured those young people received a basic education. When the paper mentioned "hoodies" in 2008, it was in the context of "teenagers take media to task for `hoodie' stereotype".

During the 1930s and 40s it was common for figures in authority to dismiss teen criminality as youthful high jinx. In 1933, Lord Baden-Powell described smash-and-grab burglaries as a sign of a "spirit of adventure" among teenagers and The TES quoted Basil Henriques, president of the East London children's court, using exactly the same phrase to describe juvenile delinquency during the Second World War.

The TES was deeply concerned about the tendency to criminalise young people, arguing strongly in 1920 in favour of the creation of youth courts, which might help reform students rather than imprison them, and, six years later, for "totally disassociating the police and prison from child life". In 1930, it criticised "amateur county magistrates" who "still send children to prison for trivial offences, such as apple- stealing, without thought of the harm they are doing to the community".

A similar sympathy can be detected in later articles, including educationalist Ted Wragg's description of a group of unemployed teenagers loitering in a shopping centre in 1982: "One or two, not especially criminal types, misled perhaps, would soon be in court for `nicking' products which advertisers had been working hard to make desirable to teenagers".

This tone continued into the Noughties. A front page headline in 2006 declaring that "Pupils are branded criminals" reported that the trend of stationing police officers in schools had "led to a spate of arrests, leaving pupils with criminal records - where before they would have been disciplined".

The paper was equally critical of the cane. Although it had defended corporal punishment in 1918 (saying "the exercise of discipline should not be thwarted by regulations promulgated by those whose experience of child life is often very limited") it was criticising it by 1925, seven decades before it was finally banned in all UK schools.

While other newspapers could be disturbed by youth culture, The TES took a relaxed, intrigued, stance. When a social psychologist suggested in 1955 that Teddy Boys had dangerously different values to the rest of society, The TES disagreed: "One has only to see a group of Teddy Boys, all with identical hair-cuts and trouser-widths, to feel their standards are just as rigorous and their attitude just as social as that of members of a Guards regiment."

The TES applauded "sixpenny hops" in the 1940s and declared 1963 "the year of the Beatles", arguing that "educationalists should be thinking about them". The same year it reported from a sixth form jazz ball, the journalist adopting the slang of the time: "Kenny blows a real cool horn and fronts some real cool cats (and is too the most as a feller and a cat) but because it is trad dad and being trad dad it gives dad a chance to stop being so square." Nice.

The paper's attempts to get down with the kids were arguably less embarrassing than the moments it grew alarmist, such as when a columnist described her concerns in 2008 at a teenage tribe called Emos who "have a distinct interest in suicide".

Like nearly all British newspapers, The TES places more emphasis on young people's crimes as the century wore on.

James Bulger was not the first youngster to be killed by other children, nor was Philip Lawrence the first teacher to lose his life at the hands of a student. Similar incidents occurred in the 1940s, but gained less prominence in the press.

There was also a shift in the tone of advice for teachers taking charge of a class for the first time. Whereas in the 1920s, the paper suggests teachers take the first few weeks as a leisurely opportunity to get to know the students, by the 1970s the focus is on establishing immediate control and by the Noughties it cites the most popular teaching book of that decade: Getting the Buggers to Behave.

This may be proof that pupils became less naturally respectful as the century wore on, but it may also reflect the pressure on teachers to get on with delivering the curriculum.

Ironically, despite publishing thousands of articles about pupils' behaviour, The TES could be a byword for a rosy view of classroom life. This may be partly a result of its photographs: schools tend not to allow press cameras in if they are in chaos.

In 1961, the paper reported on a speech by a secondary modern teacher who said the reality of his school was "a lot of lads in jeans who think you're a mug" and that "half the school leavers are drunk at the end of the Christmas term, at the age of 15". He added: "Anyone who goes into secondary modern teaching expecting to find the world depicted by glossy photographs in The Times Educational Supplement of children's handicraft exhibitions is in for a surprise."

From the archive: Gambling in the classroom (August 4, 1923)

"The evidence about betting by schoolboys given before the select committee of the House of Commons by an assistant mistress in the London service is, for two reasons, specially interesting. It is certainly a real evil that such a state of things should exist. `Miss Blank' stated that bookmakers took bets as small as a penny from boys as young as 10 years . But what is more deplorable is that no indication of such a state of things should have been made before the present inquiry. If a moral evil of this magnitude can flourish in the London schools unchecked and unreported, the critical mind not unnaturally asks whether there are other evils teachers do not choose to report. Miss Blank discovered that in a class of 11-year-olds, no fewer than 19 of 42 were in the habit of backing horses. One boy appeared to have offered to back horses for the witness."

Pupil behaviour has not become worse, it is our tolerance of violence that has changed

In the early 1970s, the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters, Terence Casey, warned that pupil behaviour in schools was deteriorating. Knives and other weapons were being taken into schools, he claimed, with fights between pupils becoming increasingly dangerous. Casey's assertions were supported by newspaper stories of the period, with reports of police searching children for weapons, and serious playground attacks, with injuries inflicted by such items as axes.

Yet such anxieties were nothing new. Back in the 1950s, teachers had to be warned of the potentially dangerous air guns which were being brought to school by pupils. Further back, in the inter-war years, knives were used in gang fights, often to deadly effect.

Behaviour was thought to be little better in the period before the First World War and, in 1911, the schoolchildren of Britain rebelled against their teachers in a series of strikes, a protest at the poor conditions of schooling prevalent at the time. Violence was also noticeably present in schools. In 1913, for instance, a boy was tried for attempted murder after he shot a fellow pupil with a pistol.

The idea that the behaviour of pupils is excessively poor, violent and, in particular, has declined over time, has a long history. It has often been represented as a broad degeneration of civil society that has its origins in unchecked misbehaviour in schools. Thus, in 1910, one education writer complained that "the contemptible sentimentality of a certain degenerate section of the English people banishes the rod from the schoolroom and the nursery, and, in consequence, floods the country with a band of undesirable hooligans".

In spirit this is little different to the complaints of the black papers, a series of education pamphlets in the 1970s, which talked of rising adolescent violence and stated that "650,000 children play truant every day and teachers flee from city schools because of lesson resistance and insolence".

Yet there is little evidence that behaviour in schools or society has got notably worse. What has changed, however, are popular attitudes. There is now far less tolerance of violent acts than there once was. Complaints that behaviour is deteriorating may be less about what actually occurs in schools, than our expectations, which may never fully be satisfied.

Jacob Middleton, education historian

Quiz time

Can you match the TES headline or quote to the right year? 1916, 1927, 1938, 1955, 1963, 1975, 1991, 2000, 2007

1. "Many boys got swept into gangs and roved about in search of mischief and adventure."

2. "It seemed odd that no teachers spotted the two 15-year-old girls outside the conference centre scrawling graffiti on its walls."

3. "With antisemitism on the rise in Europe, violence against Jewish pupils is increasing."

4. "The best help that television can give to the work of schools is quite simply to stop operating."

5. "Problems of Youth Today"

6. "It seemed like everyone was against me, egged on by a core of sods who thought it was funny to bully me."

7. "Preoccupation with sex: early maturing girls"

8. "St. Trinians out of date"

9. "It is notoriously difficult to secure Government action but the increase in juvenile crime makes immediate action necessary."

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