Rebel YELL

31st October 2008 at 00:00
Punks in the classroom would have spelt trouble a few decades ago. But one teacher and former member of the scene is giving pupils a unique lesson from history. Hannah Frankel reports

To the untrained eye, it looks like anarchy. Primary pupils are jumping up and down, their arms flailing wildly in the air. They are listening to The Damned, the Seventies punk band, whose music is neither quiet nor refined. It's not a renowned cross-curricular learning tool either.

But that is exactly how Rita Pike, a teacher at Our Lady, Star of the Sea Catholic Primary School in Seaforth, Liverpool, is inspiring seven to 11- year-olds at a weekly after-school drama club. If it is madness, it is controlled madness.

Rita was an avid member of the punk scene back in its heyday (1976 to 1977) and now harnesses the appeal of the era to teach everything from literacy to history and art. It also makes pupils think outside the box and empathise with different types of people, she says.

"In Liverpool, you needed some bottle to wear drainpipe trousers and killer heels down the street in the Seventies," she says. "We got a lot of abuse. People would shout out about my `prostitute shoes' or say that I must have got dressed in the dark. My brother was so embarrassed by my bright red hair that he used to make me wear a hat."

Rita still cuts quite a figure at the front of the hall. The 53-year-old sports a smart red bob, black Vivienne Westwood glasses, with bright pink lipstick prints along the frame, and silver sandals.

"I've always been into style, outfits and clothes," she says. "I know it sounds shallow, but I agree with Vivienne Westwood when she said, `Appearance is everything'. It's part of my self-expression."

It was that love of fashion, and not the music per se, that led her into the punk scene. Together with her best friend from Manchester Art College, Rita would spend endless nights at Eric's, a Liverpool club owned by Roger Eagle and made famous by early performances by the Beatles followed by various influential punk bands. The Roxy punk club in London's Covent Garden was another favourite. She has contributed to books about both clubs.

"We had some mad times," she says. "It was fantastic." Rita worked in a margarine factory and various office and youth-related jobs before turning to teaching in 1987. She has worked at Our Lady School for the past 20 years, always using those past hedonistic experiences to give pupils a different dimension on life.

The children are already surprisingly knowledgeable. They are well versed in all the "wacky hairstyles", "funny spiky hair" and "ripped clothing" favoured by many punk fans, and are quick to practise the "pogo", a simple bopping dance that even the most badly co-ordinated person can master.

Next, the pupils get into role to try out some essential punk attitude. They imagine the characters and mindsets of the people involved, plus the language and clothes associated with them.

But it does not stop at punk. The pupils have introduced Rita to their favourite music from their MP3 players, which includes everything from jazz to Ramp;B and hip-hop. She has also explored Andy Warhol and the Sixties counterculture with her Year 6 pupils, as well as the Beat Generation of poets and writers.

"It's an excellent route into literacy," she says. "I show the pupils my own fanzine to illustrate just how easy it is to make your own publication - just write it, print it, photocopy it and there it is." They also look at punk and protest songs as part of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's post-war British history module, comparing the old social context with today's underground music scene.

Punk was often known as the Dole Queue Rock because of the rife unemployment and strikes in the Seventies, Rita explains to the pupils. "Children love exploring how the fashion developed from people not having any money; how they had to create or modify their own clothes with rips, dustbin bags or safety pins because they couldn't afford anything new."

But can primary school pupils really relate to a short subculture that existed more than 30 years ago? Rita gives an emphatic yes. "The girls love the fashion angle and the boys are attracted to the anarchic side of punk and protest," she says. "They enjoy the shock element in a society that doesn't shock easily today."

That doesn't mean it gives the pupils a green light to misbehave or become anti-authoritarian themselves, Rita is keen to point out. As long as there is a healthy debate exploring both sides of the argument, and the consequences of some of the more wayward behaviour, there is nothing inherently bad about studying the punk movement.

"The rebellious ones identify with me because they know I've been there myself - but I know their tricks too," Rita says. "It's good for them to see that teachers have a life outside of school. Plus, it reinforces the message that it's perfectly OK to be different.

"It filters through to the parents as well. When I used a Velvet Underground track in a play recently, parents were queuing up to ask if they could borrow it."


Punk started to develop around 1974 with the arrival of the Ramones and the New York Dolls in America; the Sex Pistols and The Clash in the UK, and The Saints and Radio Birdman in Australia.

The fast, hard-edged music was often matched with politicised, anti- establishment lyrics. Its followers were typically young, rebellious and anti-authoritarian, taking their fashion lead from the SEX boutique in London, owned by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.

By the end of 1976, it was a recognised musical movement and a force to be reckoned with. By the Eighties, even faster, more aggressive styles of hardcore punk were emerging, leading the way for new pop punk bands, such as Green Day, at the turn of the century.

The Sex Pistols came to embody much of the punk era in the UK, especially when they released "God Save the Queen" during the week of the Queen's silver jubilee in 1977. It reached number two in the British charts, but the BBC refused to play it - partly because of its controversial front cover and partly for its "anti-monarchy" lyrics.

They also immortalised Bill Grundy, the TV presenter, when they appeared on the Today show in 1976. When Johnny Rotten, the lead singer, mumbled "shit" under his breath, Grundy insisted that he repeat the word. It went downhill from there. Grundy encouraged the band to "say something outrageous", which they duly did. Several times.

Grundy could be seen muttering "Oh shit" as the credits began to roll. He was suspended for two weeks and the Today show was axed two months later.

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