Long gone and good riddance

29th August 2003 at 01:00
The reality of the 1950s was not a golden age of discipline but that too many teachers were 'taking it out on the kids', says Peter Wright

IT'S a fair bet that one of the early topics of staffroom conversation in the new session will be Channel 4's new series That'll Teach 'Em, in which modern teenagers have been sent back in time to enjoy the anachronistic delights of a 1950s boarding school.

For present-day teachers, the programmes bring new and exquisite meaning to the term "schadenfreude". One can imagine thous-ands of recumbent dominies, remote control in one hand and glass of Chardonnay in t'other, chortling hysterically as televised adolescents gag on sago or, better yet, biscuit bootleggers are marched off to detention by "teaching staff" in a flurry of academic gowns, blazers and acne.

Even the parents of the volunteer pupils seem to have entered into the spirit of retribution, recording comments along the lines of "the state of his bedroom . . . he needs a good dose of discipline".

All good fun and perhaps symptomatic of both the current trend for nostalgia and the ethos of teen-blaming which seem to pervade society these days. Many parents, some politicians and not a few teachers will doubtless cry for a return to "traditional discipline". What is this "traditional discipline"? It is often characterised as "a clip on the ear" or, more bizarrely, "six of the best". As any ned might reply: "B*****ks."

In Scottish schools, the 1950s reality for all children was that teachers had virtually unfettered power to attack them at whim. Most teachers probably used this power only infrequently and the law relating to physical assault existed then, as now. However, the fact is that, in a society which generally condoned the violence of elders, betters and husbands, no teacher was constrained in any effective way from "taking it out on the kids".

Ask any group of 40-plus or 50-plus Scots about their education and with a little prompting they will refer to incidents where teachers pulled children out of their desks by the hair or routinely slapped them with rulers or open palms.

I am aware of one pupil from a slightly earlier generation who before every maths lesson was in such a state of terror that she wet herself. This was in the 1930s but the teacher responsible might have extended hisher career into the postwar era had fate not intervened in the form of accidental death. My source tells me that the pupils in that particular Scottish school cheered loud and long when the news was announced at an assembly and which modern teacher or parent would blame them?

The phrase "it never did me much harm" often crops up. True, children were often protected either by their intelligence, their quick wits or their knowledgeable, protective or powerful parents. This fact is often tacitly admitted in such conversations: "D'you remember that guy . . . what was his name again? Oh yeah . . . Notverybright Workingclassboy . . . he used to get belted silly."

Could it be that the disenchantment with education of so many socially excluded ("working class") families has its roots in the brutality of some teacher, casually imposed on an earlier generation?

Before the politicians and media start calling for a return to the values and behaviour of the past, let's take a reality check from fantasy television and remember the whole truth and not the sanitised media version. The past may be a different country but in this case we do things better in the present.

Return to the 1950s? "That'll be the day!"

Peter Wright teaches in West Lothian.

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