Indignant in Scotland Street

14th March 1997 at 00:00
The only excuse I can offer is that, so far, it's been a hard term. So when I awoke on the Friday of the half-term break, it seemed easier to engage the autopilot, get in gear and go to school - any school. That's my explanation for my busman's holiday visit to Glasgow's excellent Scotland Street School Museum.

It was my first visit, and you can't help but be impressed by the Rennie Mackintosh edifice that looms above you, with its glass-towered staircases. The first classroom we came to re-created the early years of the century, and while my nine-year-old son was fascinated by the raked tiers of seating for 60 pupils, he soon created his own interactive museum piece by dipping fingers into the inkwell. Interestingly, the bin was already filled to the brim with parentally discarded, ink stained paper handkerchiefs.

The next classroom, from the Second World War, created its own gloom, as the gas mask box on every desk, and instructions for refugees on the blackboard, reminded us of our relative good fortune.

The final room had most effect, however, being set in the 1960s. As I looked at the yellow wood desks, with attached tip-up seats, and pondered the round hole in the bottom of each desk that used to trap fingers and chewing-gum in equal measure, it was the first time I'd savoured the atmosphere of my own schooldays since I left school.

Working in schools, it had escaped my notice just how much the fabric and design of classrooms had gradually changed, and the scene before me brought it all back, right down to the smell, of pencil sharpenings, chalk and floor polish.

It reminded me too of a darker side of sixties education, where humiliation, sarcasm and corporal punishment had been major elements of classroom management. Thank God we exist in more enlightened times, I thought.

Maybe it was this state of mind that did it, or perhaps I was just suffering from normal winter term exhaustion, but I found myself in the abnormal situation of reading The TES Scotland with tears in my eyes. The article responsible was that written by Helene Witcher, in which she outlined her daughter's acceptance of being insulted on a regular basis by teachers; the words "tart" and "prostitute" featured.

The tears, I think, were of anger; not just that pupils should be thus demeaned, but that it took place within a resigned atmosphere of acceptance on the part of the girls. Surely such an approach belonged in Scotland Street Museum, with the other relics of darker times? Whatever the variations in how we perceive our role as teachers, we cannot avoid the fact that we should act as role models of acceptable behaviour.

What sort of image is projected by a teacher who insults pupils and calls them names? And what can they expect to receive back from their pupils, if they employ such an approach in the classroom? There is, or ought to be, a basic dignity about our profession. It should be the case that, no matter how errant our charges, we retain that dignity.

If this sounds to some like naive ramblings resulting from a 1960s "woolly" education, it is interesting to read in Scotland Street School, the following extract from the Board's Duty and Conduct for school pupils, dated 1874: "Remember the good name of your parents and teachers is bound up in your own. Speak and act so as to bring no shame on either your home or your school. Cherish for both the respect you owe them."

Not a bad statement for the classroom; just as relevant, I reckon, in the staffroom.

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