A school uniform may be resented by those with no choice but to wear it, yet the sullen adolescents slouching against bus-shelters this morning have merely exchanged one uniform for another – one day dressed in their regulation designer teenage attire and the next back in the straitjacket dictated by the educational institution selected by their parents due to its standing in the league tables. One mass-produced outfit trades on the illusion of individuality and the other is sold as a constricting concession to The Man, but both cynically feed the consumer appetite, either that of parent or child. The latter I sighted earlier today are now at the stage Alice Cooper once sang of – ‘I’m in the middle without any plans/I’m a boy/and I’m a man’. Envy them? Thought not.
The aforementioned veteran shock-rocker has regularly cited the inspiration for his biggest hit as being the moments leading up to the last school bell that heralds the summer holidays, moments he rightly recalled as being amongst the highlights of childhood. Even a childless person can’t help but notice those moments have been and gone for another year now, however; a sudden alteration in the apparel of the urban parade as of today is something one can’t help but notice, though I must stress at this stage of proceedings I have no midlife leanings towards the female variety resuming the route to the academy. Who would dare these days, anyway?
No, I was simply made aware that school was no longer out because of the proliferation of identikit brats cluttering the pavements in the manner of chattering wheelie-bins. Mercifully, most of my social media brothers and sisters have either avoided or have passed the proud parent bombardment, so I haven’t had to endure any forced smile mug-shots of their offspring in freshly-ironed and starched blazers this week. Not that I don’t feel sorry for those caught in the competitive crossfire of parental one-upmanship; in fact, I have no qualms in declaring I’d much rather have been a schoolboy then than now – even if then would seem virtually Victorian to today’s press-ganged classroom crew.
Assembly – the daily induction: a hymn to sing, a fable from the Bible, a round-up of results involving the numerous school sports teams, a slap across the skull from a patrolling teacher as swift punishment for talking, the occasional gust of wind provoking sniggering, and every once in a while a lecture on the evils of some vandalism committed by a villain nobody will name – all conducted in the chilly environs of a hall that can double-up as a dining room three hours later. Not long after the half-asleep multitudes are herded off to their respective classes, the unmistakable aroma of boiled slurry begins to seep into the space, though the belly will have to wait for the dubious gastronomic treats; lucky belly.
Those wooden rubbers designed to erase chalk text from the blackboard could very nearly have an eye out, as they would have said on ‘Blue Peter’ if the school experience had been realistically portrayed on the programme. As a teacher’s weapon, the wooden rubbers competed with a ruler or a register when deciding which would serve as the quickest means of altering a daydreaming pupil to the lesson when hurled in their direction. Running the gauntlet of staff sadism was a tricky business that, if done with the correct amount of cheeky chappie nerve, could ensure a legend that would last a lunchtime; if done wrong, detention alongside the swivel-eyed school yahoos awaited.
Those I knew who did as they were told and got on with their work probably enjoyed careers of clerical social-climbing and mobility once graduating from our glorified Borstal; they were fortunate they could do so while it was still possible. Their equivalents today can look forward to university (which was a rare privilege at my alma mater), albeit bankrupting their parents in the process and saddling themselves with decades of debt as their degree qualifies them for soul-destroying telesales that won’t even pay their astronomical rent, never mind entitle them to a home of their own. Some progress.
We are also intermittently informed by our tabloid press that today’s schools are hotbeds of violence – both physical and sexual; coppers are often on site; bullying initiatives are part and parcel of the curriculum; CCTV and weapons searches are apparently regular fixtures. Never had any of that at my school, but I fail to see how the violence could possibly be any more vicious and endemic than it was during my tenure. The most severe punishment a teacher can dish out to an unruly ‘student’ today is temporary suspension; they can’t administer six-of-the-best let alone a clip round the lughole, yet they could more or less indulge in any assault when I was at school, and it was sometimes hard to decide who were the scariest – the staff or the more psychotic pupils.
Okay, so institutionalised violence emanating from the staff-room may have been outlawed, but pupil power has its own downside. Not that any parent would want to accept this could be the case at their own child’s school – after all the trouble they went to when moving into the right catchment area and ferrying their offspring to the gates in Chelsea Tractors? No wonder they react to any fictional portrayals of school that dwell on this violence with such fury. ‘Grange Hill’ was the bête noir of parents for the first few years of its existence; surely characters such as Gripper Stebson were pure fantasy? Yet, the kids recognised this council estate Flashman in an instant. Only when the cast were applauded for the ‘Just Say No’ campaign did the show achieve the parental pat on the back.
I doubt schooldays were the best days of anyone’s life, merely an introductory episode to the equally joyous workplace or dole queue; I certainly don’t look back at mine with any fondness, that’s for sure. Yet, at the same time, I wouldn’t swap places with the poor sods enduring it today. I would imagine the environment they currently inhabit is a good deal less intimidating than the one I inhabited at their age, but the prospect of joining a workforce with the longest hours in Europe and diminishing rewards at the end of it makes one wonder why the whole lot of them aren’t bunking off. Mind you, that would put their parents in prison, wouldn’t it? I guess not all new laws are bad.
© The Editor