Thwack to the future

20th November 2009 at 00:00
Ferris Lindsay believes in traditional education based on learning and discipline - `corporal discipline', as he likes to describe it. The DCSF wants his school closed down, but with one in five teachers claiming to support a return to the cane could his ideas gain currency?

Ferris Lindsay is a most unlikely outlaw. As he takes his three pupils through an English lesson in a makeshift classroom above a church, it is hard to imagine that this is a man who spent nine years on the run, dodging the authorities at every twist and turn.

His "crime" was to think he could teach without official sanction; his pursuers the Department for Children, Schools and Families, with Ofsted riding shotgun. The law on what constitutes a school has already been changed to ensnare him, but after a brief hiatus Mr Lindsay is again advertising for pupils and aiming to relaunch his "school". He is not going to give up easily. "I love teaching. It is my passion," he says.

Today Mr Lindsay's pupils are three of his own eight children: Joe, 15; Hannah, 13, and Dan, 10. Until half-term he was also teaching two other children, although both have since moved to other schools.

Discipline is the distinctive factor in Mr Lindsay's approach. Although he is anxious not to be defined by it, his attitude to corporal punishment - or corporal discipline as he terms it - is the issue that put him outside the law and ultimately brought the educational establishment down on him.

Mr Lindsay believes that teachers should be able to smack children. He believes it should only be exercised as a last resort, and always with parental permission, but should be allowed nonetheless.

He does not fit the mould of a standard-bearer for corporal punishment. Softly spoken and relaxed, the 50-year-old is far from a crusading demagogue. He is garrulous and fond of quoting, equally at home with Isaac Newton and Andy Warhol, with a tendency to ask rhetorical questions. But to his critics, his views on hitting children put him beyond the pale. Corporal punishment was abolished in state schools in 1987 and in independent schools 11 years later. He is not a completely lone voice, however: a TES survey last year found that one in five teachers supported bringing back the cane.

Before branching out on his own, Mr Lindsay taught at Cedar School, a 30- pupil independent primary in east London. Corporal punishment was an integral, though rarely used, part of the ethos at Cedar, and when the law changed to ban corporal punishment in independent schools in 1998, the school closed.

But when two of Cedar's parents asked him if he could continue teaching their children, he decided to set up on his own. The result was Tyndale Academy in Forest Gate, east London, named after the Protestant reformer who translated the Bible into English and was burned at the stake as a heretic. Over the next decade, Mr Lindsay taught a total of 33 primary-age pupils - a maximum of 12 at any one time - at Tyndale, a room above a Baptist church and the local library doubling as classrooms.

To circumvent the ban on corporal punishment, he restricted the hours he taught. According to Ofsted, an establishment where pupils were taught for 18 hours or fewer a week does not meet the criteria for full-time education that define a school and therefore was not subject to the ban. The then Department for Education took a slightly different line, believing 21 hours or more constituted full-time education for primary children. But whatever the limit Mr Lindsay made sure he fell below it.

"I was fully aware of the law and knew it wouldn't apply to an institution that fell short of being a school," he says. "We always made sure we were below the minimum hours."

Fees were pound;900 to pound;1,200 a term for primary children and pound;1,200 to pound;1,600 for secondary; for four years he managed to stay under the radar. Then, in 2003, Ofsted paid a visit. Although inspectors decreed that the quality of the lessons was good and Tyndale offered a broad and balanced curriculum, they also decided that it was offering full-time education. Mr Lindsay's habit of using break times as informal learning opportunities, said Ofsted, counted as teaching, so worked against him.

"I will never forget the Ofsted inspector at the top of the stairs saying `You teach them in their play time'," says Mr Lindsay. "I took that as a compliment, but that became part of the provision."

The inspectors also asked Mr Lindsay about his policy on corporal punishment. Confirmation that he used smacking, added to a suspicion that he was offering full-time education, set in chain a lengthy process that culminated in a change in the law last year.

The DCSF has always insisted that the definition of a school was not about hours, but efforts to extend the law to Tyndale ran into difficulties. Initial proposals drew protests from home educators fearful of being classified as a school. In the end, a new category of "independent educational institution" was created to cover Tyndale, effectively lowering the limit to 12-and-a-half hours a week for under-12s and 15 hours for over-12s.

Along the way, officials accumulated 11 boxes of documents on Tyndale, and in one year sent 399 emails and letters to Mr Lindsay. Although the Government subsequently claimed 1,000 institutions would be covered by the clause, no others have yet been identified.

Mr Lindsay says he had no wish to defy the law and therefore closed Tyndale over the summer. But now he has decided to relaunch and is advertising for pupils and handing out leaflets at street markets.

He is confident that he can provide a good education within the new limits. "I know there is nothing they can do if I have five children aged 11 to 15 for 14-and-a-half hours a week," he says. "There is a lot that can be done in that time if you are a well-motivated child with well- motivated parents."

The sticking point may prove to be that parents need their children to be occupied for more than two hours a day. And it is partly for that reason that he wants to teach secondary-age children this time round. Older children, he reasons, are less likely to need their parents at home to look after them outside school hours.

He may have been prepared to retreat on the hours, but he is not ready to concede any ground on smacking. Without recourse to corporal punishment, he believes teachers are deprived of an important disciplinary tool, and instead have to resort to methods that are ineffective or inappropriate.

Detentions are often meaningless for small children, who have often forgotten what they are being punished for by the time it comes around, he says. Work should be seen as part of education and not something to use routinely as a punishment, he says. "A smack, moderately applied, means (the behaviour) is dealt with quickly."

Mr Lindsay claims that he has not used corporal punishment for 14 months. But he retains the right to employ it. Parents are asked to sign up to his disciplinary policy, and if they change their minds their children will be exempted, although they are requested to move to another school at a convenient break in the school year.

For Mr Lindsay, teachers administering corporal punishment are not acting in loco parentis, but with the specific delegated power of the parents. He does not smack children because he is a teacher, but because a child's parents have given him express permission to do so.

"That is not a loophole; it is a principle. Teachers should never have that right, but parents should," he says. He believes it should also be used sparingly. "If it (corporal punishment) is used as cake that is terrible; if it is used as medicine it is not. It is not in the diet, and if a teacher is using it all the time, that is wrong."

He also objects to what he sees as the rewriting of history whereby teachers who administered corporal punishment in the past are now viewed as brutish thugs who relished the chance to thrash children.

"They are changing the goalposts and it is their right to do that, but it isn't their right to say that every caning teacher in the past was Wackford Squeers," he says, referring to the brutal schoolmaster in Nicholas Nickleby. "We weren't all beaten to within an inch of our lives, and if they say that in the 1970s teachers ruled by fear I just want to say, `Actually, this is what happened'.

"I recognise that some of this is almost from a bygone age, but the rules of the game have changed. I was caned several times at school. I didn't like it but I never felt it was unfair. Some of the things we do were unremarkable years ago."

But there is more to Tyndale than corporal punishment. Mr Lindsay describes himself as a "Bible-believing Christian" and Tyndale has a strong religious ethos. Bible passages are used in English lessons, and it permeates most subjects in the curriculum.

This has not proved too much of an obstacle in ethnically diverse Forest Gate: of his four original pupils, one was Hindu and one Muslim, while many of their successors were from non-Christian faiths. He also emphasises the Christian duty that children owe to their parents - and parents to their children.

"I want to attempt to honour Christ explicitly wherever possible, without shoving it down anybody's throat," he says. No one is told to pray, for example.

"I just want to present the truth as I have understood it and leave it between them and God. It is not my place to make little Christians."

His is an unashamedly traditional teaching style. Although he uses a wide range of resources - he cites regular trips to nature reserves and a recent visit to the National Gallery to see Seurat's Bathers at Asnieres as examples - the emphasis is on knowledge.

"I don't want them to experience long division, I want them to know long division," he says. "I want them to be excited about knowledge, whatever they are doing.

"When I teach geography I want them to use a word that is absent from many geography books. I want them to look at the beauty of the world; I want them to use the word majesty. Isaac Newton said, `We think God's thoughts after him', and I want them to have a sense that beauty is one of God's gifts."

He says parents choose the school for a variety of reasons: some because he runs a small and well-disciplined institution, some because their children have had to leave other schools, and others because they wanted more structure for their children.

Mr Lindsay trained as a sociology teacher and taught in state schools for four years, becoming head of social and religious education at a secondary in Newham before switching to the independent sector.

He admits he is not a great believer in state education. He argues that once the state starts providing a service, alternatives are squeezed out. He approvingly quotes the Earl of Shaftesbury's comment on the 1870 Education Act, which provided for universal primary education, as "the greatest moral change that England has ever known".

Although he teaches across the curriculum, he tends to bring in specialist staff for advanced maths and science. He also works as a private tutor and is in particularly high demand among parents putting their children in for the 11-plus or entrance exams for independent schools. He spends Saturday mornings teaching English as a second language to adults.

He is happy to admit that part of his motivation in trying to reopen Tyndale is that he needs the work. He is considering doing part-time supply teaching, even though he would miss the freedom he enjoys with his own establishment. "Would I be limited? Yes, I would. Would I be frustrated? I don't know," he says.

His battle against authority has brought him some notoriety and an unwanted "15 minutes of fame". But he is a reluctant campaigner. He recognises that his experience has implications for others, however. He says he is not looking for an excuse to defy the system, merely for a way of continuing to teach.

"We are working very hard to maintain the freedom of small institutions to operate legally," he says. "It's not as if we are being naughty boys and girls who found a loophole; we felt that it was clearly within the law."

All he wants, he says, is an educational system that claims to value diversity and prizes parental choice to let him carry on teaching. "I'm 50 now, I'm not going to spend time fighting," he says. "But if I can retain this little patch of ground, then eventually someone else might be able to stand here.

"I am not claiming to corner a market. All I want is for it to be recognised that good things can happen outside of the state and independent sector."

History of a `school'

  • 1999: Tyndale Academy opens with four pupils.
  • 2003: Ofsted visits and confirms use of corporal punishment.
  • 2004: Ofsted report passed to Government; Mr Lindsay told to register as a school or face prosecution.
  • 2005: Government concedes Tyndale is not officially a school.
  • 2008: New category of "Independent Educational Institution" created for Tyndale, restricting the hours children can be taught before corporal punishment laws apply.
  • 2009: Tyndale temporarily suspended; Mr Lindsay advertises for new pupils.

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