Old school cries

10th January 2003 at 00:00
Are today's children more badly behaved than in generations past? Sue Jones goes back as far as Ancient Greece to show that violence, truancy and lewd behaviour are nothing new

Children's behaviour, as we all know, is getting worse. The chief inspector, David Bell, complains of an increase in low-level disruption and the Department of Health estimates that 5 per cent of five to 15-year-olds have significant behaviour disorders.

Bemused though he might have been by such language, Roger Ascham, Tudor academic and tutor to the future Elizabeth I, would have agreed.

"Our tyme is so farre from that old discipline and obedience, as now, not onlie yong jentlm tive strike.

Young people in schools and colleges have long provoked fears of disorder and violence. Hostility between "town and gown" was endemic in Oxford and Cambridge and could erupt into full-scale riot. There were complaints of garish clothes, drunkenness, whoring, gambling and violent sports.

Before the reforming efforts of Thomas Arnold to produce Christian gentlemen, the great public schools were notorious for bad behaviour.

Magistrates read the Riot Act at Rugby in 1797 and soldiers were drafted into Winchester in 1818. In 1824 the East India Company seriously considered closing its college at Haileybury because the boys were out of control.

Old boys of the college, where students were given a general education and training in Indian languages before being sent to work for the Company in India, later remembered the failure of some masters to keep order."The flippant section of the class either amused themselves by reading novels, or enlivened the dictation by a running commentary of jocular remarks, or by shouts of laughter and applause, or by holding loud conversations on every subject except Sanskrit."

The crisis came when some boys exploded the lock on the main gate and part of the drains with gunpowder, and smashed windows and lamps.

Many charity schools were founded on the belief that the behaviour of the poor was degenerate and had to be reformed.

Throughout the 19th century memoirs and logbooks of Christ's Hospital, Greencoats and other schools in Hertford record incidents of boys fighting, breaking into the missionary box, mocking a religious minority (the Quakers), causing traffic accidents by frightening horses and smoking.

"Immediately after Divine Service on Sunday last some of the boys were seen to strike no less than six Lucifer matches on several tombstones and eventually to light a pipeI Mr Hodges reports that the boys are sadly deficient in the knowledge of the Scripture," says the logbook of Greencoats School for 1872.

Truancy was a recurring problem occasioned by Hatfield races or a circus or a minstrel show that bribed some boys to advertise the entertainment around the town in return for free tickets. Children of all classes could forge eloquent excuses.

"Having killed all his relations, he had to rack his brains for other expedients," recalled an old East India College boy of a fellow pupil. It became "necessary to go to London to have certain painful excrescences removed from his feet, and so facilitate his walking with due punctuality to chapel and lectures."

At the other end of the social scale but equally inventive were Laurie Lee's village children, recalled in Cider with Rosie.

"It was easy to start wailing when the hearse passed by, 'It's my auntie, miss - it's my cousin Wilf - can I go miss, please miss, can I?' Many a coffin was followed to its grave by a straggle of long-faced children, pinched, solemn, raggedly dressed, all strangers to the astonished bereaved."

Parents and governors could be less than supportive of those at the chalk face. All the East India Company students were under the patronage of company directors, making it difficult to expel them. Farmers, who supported rural schools financially, used them as sources of cheap labour. Parents sent their children to work or pawned their clothes.

"The average parent looks on the teacher as an enemy," complained A S Neill in 1918, while teaching in a village school in Scotland before setting up his experimental school at Summerhill, Suffolk. "If I hit a boy the parents side with him, if I don't hit the boy who hit their boy, they indignantly ask what education is coming to."

The long suffering headmaster of Greencoats fended off one horsewhip-wielding mother, bent on dealing with the boys who had snowballed her little girl, but lost to a "very violent and impudent" Mrs Walls after he caned her son for climbing out of the window. The school's Trustees censured him for "undue flogging," and awarded the boy two shillings compensation.

But if by now you're pining for the Golden Age of 20th-century civilised, selective education, consider Mick Jagger's memories of Dartford Grammar School in the early 1960s, as told to The TES in March 2000.

"There was real violence between the masters and the pupils. There were skirmishes on all fronts, with civil disobedience and undeclared war; they threw blackboard rubbers at us and we threw them back. There were paper darts, peashooters, catapults. It was like something out of a cartoon in a comic book.

"The behaviour patterns were entrenched; we abused them whether they were decent or notI "There was a whole culture of violence. It was fear and loathing in North Kent."

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