SCHOOL’S OUT WHEN WE SAY SO

Alice 2 - CopyA family holiday was not always my favourite out-of-school experience as a child; as much as I disliked school itself, at least I was free of it from 3.30pm onwards – though home could often be as unpleasant as the classroom; not having to endure a full twenty-four hours in the company of either family or fellow pupils meant the division of the day made a degree of sense. Come the school holidays, my day was essentially my own, with working parents and the freedom to roam; for this period of ecstatic emancipation to be curtailed always seemed unfair, and on the rare occasions when family holidays took place during the six-week summer break, it felt as though I’d been robbed.

However, this didn’t happen very often. Mostly, family holidays were scheduled in term time, meaning that even if the holiday contained the usual tensions exacerbated by the unnatural nature of two weeks in the sardine can, at least I was missing out on tedious lessons, playground Capones, and slap-happy sadists masquerading as teachers. If you’ve paid any attention to the headlines over the past couple of days, you probably know where I’m going with this.

It’s amusing to think that, if today’s rules had applied 35-40 years ago, my parents would have faced fines and possible imprisonment during my school days, both for taking me out of school for a fortnight and for ‘allowing’ me to take myself out of school. The latter occasions were those days when I preferred taking on my partner-in-truancy Stuart at PONG, playing air bass ala John Taylor to his copy of ‘Rio’ as he did his best Simon Le Bon (with a pair of his mother’s tights acting as makeshift New Romantic headband) or simply spending the afternoon up a tree on my own.

The fanatical obsession with endless exams, intense tests and putting pupils under all-day surveillance in the bureaucratic battle to ascend the league tables has placed both them and their parents under a strain I was spared, for which I am eternally grateful. I wasn’t viewed as a future financial investment by either parents or the State, which (as it turned out) was fairly shrewd foresight.

The legal victory on Friday of John Platt against the Isle of Wight Council following his refusal to pay a £120 fine for taking his six-year-old daughter out of school and on holiday during term time has been celebrated in some quarters as a triumph for common sense and two defiant fingers up at The Man. It is ironic at a moment when there is a continuous government emphasis on reducing the interference of the State in the lives of the individual that the State actually has more power to interfere today where some scenarios are concerned than it ever has previously. With regards to John Platt, he had managed to persuade magistrates on the Isle of Wight to overturn the fine, but the local authority appealed and took the case to the High Court. His argument was that it was not up to local authorities to decide what was best for his children, and this argument appears to have been vindicated following the High Court’s decision in his favour.

Of course, there is also the crucial truth that the travel agencies hike up their prices during official school holidays, aware that changes to the rules of the game mean parents now risk incurring the wrath of the watchdogs if they decide to holiday when prices aren’t so astronomical. Most don’t like making a fuss and adhere to the system, but for those who don’t, one has to ask what the child actually loses out on by missing a week or two in the classroom. All I can really recall about the aftermath of a holiday in term time is returning to school and being filled in on the latest gossip about who snogged who, who had a fight with who, and who went to the toilet in their trousers when a teacher refused them permission to go to the loo during a lesson. I don’t remember missing out on some vital piece of information that cost me dear come an exam, and (much to my chagrin) I was never absent from an exam due to a family holiday anyway.

Following the case of John Platt, there are now renewed calls for the law to be tightened. The Department of Education has pompously proclaimed ‘The evidence is clear that every extra day of school missed can affect a pupil’s chance of gaining good GCSEs, which has a lasting effect on their life chances.’ Really? Does that mean, even if they miraculously acquire a precious degree, they still won’t be qualified enough to make it as a zero-hours contract, unpaid intern for a corporation whose billions are funnelled through to the Cayman Islands via Luxembourg or Eire and only ever reach the pockets of fat cat shareholders based in Monaco? All because they weren’t present for a physics lesson one moribund Monday afternoon? Education, education, education, eh?

© The Editor

PLAYGROUND POLITICS

50s-kidsSome days I was Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest; the day I leapt from a tree I was Tarzan; I don’t ever remember the Lord of the Jungle limping away from a landing like I did that day, but I tried my best not to show it; my foot was killing me, though my cousin whose appearance from a distance provoked the flight from the branch had no inkling of this fact. Boys don’t cry. Another day, I was the Six Million Dollar Man, engaging in one more bionic jump from a great height, this time the platform held up by scaffolding on the first floor of a partially built house on my parents’ new estate; I hit a mountain of what I reckoned was sand (though it was probably unmixed concrete) and bust my lip. Again, I soldiered on through the pain barrier because that’s the way things were.

At school, when an audience for death-defying feats was all-but guaranteed, the pressure not to revert to a cry baby was even greater. Children see everything placed before them as a challenge to be conquered and, left to their own devices, they test the limits of their physical and mental strength, preparing them for far greater challenges poised to come their way in the future, when climbing frames and fisticuffs are superseded by less simplistic solutions to a problem. To use a frightfully old-fashioned term, such obstacles and how one handles them are ‘character-building’. It’s as necessary a part of learning what it is to be human as picking up language from the adults surrounding us as we gaze out of our cribs, absorbing the ambience at the beginning of life’s learning curve. Put the brakes on any of these formative educational elements and one risks raising an inept generation scared of their own shadows and incapable of independent thought, let alone taking a risk. Perhaps that’s part of the plan.

A couple of weeks after it was announced by one school that they were encouraging a form of rugby during games lessons that excluded tackling, it was announced by another this week that they had banned that traditional playground pastime, tig. Reminiscent of the conkers-with-goggles concept pioneered by another school built from cotton wool a few years back, these latest curbs on the right of children to experience the rough & tumble chime with the general frowning upon notions of competition. We all participated in sports days, even those of us not of a sporty bent; my best performance was coming third in the 1974 sack race. I got a little certificate, but my final position was clearly marked upon it. Everyone wasn’t a winner because that’s life. Where would the Olympics be if every athlete to take part in an event was awarded gold?

How the teaching profession expects 16-17-year-olds to emerge from education capable of competing for jobs is beyond me. They will leave school utterly unequipped to deal with rejection, whereas those of us who were the last to be picked for the football team learnt that lesson early on – which is how it should be. The ramifications of shielding children from the harsh realities of the big bad world is evident now in the foot-stamping students who cannot accept an opinion that contradicts their own and therefore require safe spaces to suck their thumbs. This isn’t what mummy and daddy told them life outside of school would be like, for mummy and daddy are as complicit in their children’s arrested development as the teaching staff advised to treat all their charges as though they belonged to a world coloured in the same reassuring shades as a Ladybird book.

No one is suggesting the ideal model for modern schooling should be Dotheboys Hall from ‘Nicholas Nickleby’, with spank-happy Wackford Squeers laying down the law, nor are they suggesting children should spend their childhoods being repeatedly told they’re useless and will never amount to anything. But like so many areas of twenty-first century life (particularly Law), the balance has been tilted from one extreme to another, bypassing the middle ground whereby some form of realistic equilibrium can be achieved. Removing physical contact between children, whether on the rugby pitch or in the playground, is not preparing them for life outside of the school gates anymore than pretending everyone they meet there will have the cheery constitution of Rod, Jane and Freddie.

I sometimes feel as though all activities in school today must be preceded by a warning akin to those issued by BBC announcers: ‘We’d like to warn pupils that the following lesson contains scenes of grazed knees and scuffed shoes’, with an accompanying helpline to ring at the end, just in case some kids were traumatised by the experience of playing. If children are made of china rather than flesh-and-blood, why not take a leaf out of the country that produced such pottery and bind their feet before they can walk – or better still, bind their entire bodies? Each able-bodied child could also be provided with a mobility-scooter to preclude the prospect of injury, perhaps with a drip attached that can pump breast-milk into their delicate frames.

The only adults that jump from trees or buildings are those who indulge in it as a hobby – the so-called ‘dangerous sports’ brigade, addicted to keeping their adrenalin pumping; most avoid doing so because they did all that as kids, which is when it should be done. Deny kids that necessity and you deny them a brief and vital episode of fun before their absorption into the machine that renders them commodities and financial investments for parents, management and government. Mind you, if they have too much fun they might begin to question the system lying in wait for them, and we can’t have that.

© The Editor

THE BACK OF MY HAND

DennisSometimes I fancifully imagine the state education system waited for me to finally leave school before they outlawed corporal punishment on their premises. The facts bear me out. I exited education in 1985; caning and other forms of physical teacher-on-pupil chastisement were abolished in 1986. Okay, so I might be exaggerating my small pond reputation as a trouble-maker, but it does seem retrospectively coincidental. I actually managed to evade the cane, which now seems quite an achievement; but I was cunning. However, that didn’t prevent me once being led into a darkened room by a teacher, where I was ordered to bend over, and a term’s worth of pent-up frustration of being outwitted by a smart-arse shit was unleashed in the form of a hard plimsoll on my backside. That was the ritualised form of punishment; there were more spontaneous acts of violence on the part of the staff during lessons, of course – objects being hurled across the classroom, tables being shoved into the midriff, heavyweight registers whacked on the back of the head – all perfectly legit and an accepted response by an exasperated or simply sadistic teacher to a pupil he regarded as disruptive or merely annoying.

In the public schools, regular beatings were regarded as character-building as sport, especially in the days when pupils were being groomed to govern the colonies; so entrenched was the practice that prefects could administer a thrashing of a younger pupil on behalf of a teacher, viewed as a perk of the prefect system. Parodied and satirised as a key aspect of public schooling in literature, films and on television (anyone remember Jimmy Edwards in ‘Whacko!’?) it was no wonder it took longer for the law to be extended beyond state schools – 1998 for England and Wales, 2000 for Scotland, and 2003 for Northern Ireland.

The birch was the most commonplace implement for punishment in schools up until the advent of the cane in the late nineteenth century, eventually being outlawed throughout British educational establishments in 1948, though controversially retained on the Isle of Man until the mid-70s. The cane became rarer as a form of school discipline in the 70s, usually administered only by the headmaster and gradually superseded by the slipper. By this time, buttocks bearing the brunt of the impact were no longer bare, probably to the disappointment of those teachers who paid good money for their own bottoms to receive a far harsher treatment from a lady of their choice. A greater awareness of the physical as well as psychological effects on a developing body and mind played their part in the eventual ending of corporal punishment in schools, and the subversive sexual element of the exercise was probably a factor too.

I haven’t even mentioned the unlicensed activities of playground bullies, but we’re talking adult-on-child here. Away from school, parental punishment was less regulated and more impromptu, if just as predictable. Strangely enough, being aware of what the consequences could be rarely stopped an act guaranteed to provoke them; a deterrent? Not really; but it did have some effect, looking back. It certainly made any affection towards my father difficult, knowing what he was capable of; and I have always found it hard to forgive and forget, quite frankly. The memories of running away from a six-foot ogre in anticipation of a red handprint on my legs loom large in my childhood recollections.

It is true that successive generations of children experienced a less violent form of physical retribution from a parent as chastisement fashions changed; my parents came from the era when a father removing his belt and whipping his child was a common occurrence, giving rise to the ‘it never did me any harm’ cliché as justification for dishing out their own punishments, ones in which the hand was regarded as a more humane alternative to the belt. The backside was generally the target area, with the head and ears reserved for special occasions. Mostly, the casual nature of these smacks reflected the minor misdemeanours I committed; my mother would routinely smack me in public and nobody would have considered her guilty of child abuse. Dennis the Menace always ended his weekly adventure bent over his father’s or teacher’s knee with a slipper or cane poised to descend upon his bum, after all. Did I really deserve it, though? I was no Dennis as a child, certainly not in comparison to some of the kids I went to school with; but that was the language of child-rearing as spoken during my formative years. I wasn’t to know then that within twenty or thirty years the language would be outlawed forever. I wasn’t to know then that I belonged to the last generation of children who would receive it both at home and at school.

One could say there’s a fine line between ‘acceptable’ chastisement of a child by a parent and actual abuse, though the majority of parents know where the line lays. Any government interference that robs them of authority over their own children’s punishment stinks of the state adopting an in loco parentis approach. The last major poll surveying parents in 2012 found that 63% disapproved of a smacking ban.

I suppose there’s an argument to be made that being exposed to such rough justice from an adult at an early age toughens you up and eradicates any brattish tendencies, just as parents and teachers telling you you’re a waste of space and will never amount to anything could galvanise you into proving them wrong. We now have a generation of young adults who bypassed all of that, whose idea of punishment at home was the naughty step and at school, suspension. They’re the ones we saw throwing wobblers in supermarkets back in the noughties as their hapless parents had to stand and watch. They’ve also been repeatedly told how special they are, something that won’t necessarily prepare them for the gradual realisation they’re not. Imagine when they get to university and how they’ll cope with something that contradicts their opinion of themselves and the world around them. Oh, we’re already there.

© The Editor