Monday, 14 April 2014

Schools Out! (For the count)

The little concrete prefab hut still stands in the field that used to be the playground for what was once Sowerby Infant School. The prefab was one of my first classrooms and it had windows you could look out of, though there was little to see, unlike those of the classrooms in the main school building, which could only be reached by the teacher’s long hook. When the bell went for playtime and after we’d filed out into the yard, mayhem ensued, but in lessons silence reigned except by invitation.

In my time the old grammar school had become the Thirsk & Sowerby Junior School, which took on ages seven to eleven, at the end of which time we took the old Eleven Plus exam, the sorting hat of its age, which divided us into grammar or secondary-modern by delving into the workings of our mind. I know that I got one question wrong and that question was “What is the shortest distance between two points?” In those days there was no such thing as multiple choice and having never heard the expression before I was at a loss to conjure up the required form of words. Conferring with classmates afterwards only one inky swot had written the right answer but he couldn’t recall where he’d heard it.

I was caned three times in junior school and apart from one instance when I was bang to rights – talking out of turn – I maintain my innocence to this day. The teacher who administered the punishment – in full view for maximum effect – was later revealed to be a predatory paedophile with a taste for the boys in his charge. They've always been there. Otherwise, like all but a very tiny minority, we did exactly what was asked of us and performed our tasks in near silence. The windows in most classrooms were too high to be able to see anything but rooftops; only the windows of the newly erected Portakabin looked over the sports field but they were at the back of the room and any craning round would be instantly detected.

And then on to big school, with windows everywhere which, for some, proved irresistible, especially on upper floors as the view stretched all the way to the Hambleton Hills, the steep-sided slip face of the small rift valley of the Vale of Mowbray. Thirsk Grammar and Secondary Modern School was the first place I encountered aggressive misbehaviour and disrespect for teachers and almost all of it emanated from a recent addition. Before the raising of the school leaving age caused a proliferation of ‘Rosla’ blocks another Portakabin was pressed into service to contain, rather than educate, the remedial class.

Still a few years away from being as inquisitive as I later became I never questioned the etymology of ‘remedial’ and the word became a shorthand for the sort of unruly, troublesome, hulking teenagers you would go to lengths to avoid. Nobody wanted to get on the wrong side of ‘a remedial’ including many of the teachers. The poor sod who was their form master had clearly drawn a short straw indeed and was looked on with pity by staff and pupils alike. One year he didn’t return; we all assumed he had died from the strain.

So, for my entire school life apart from the odd high spirited heckling or the occasional ink fights (remember them?) disruptive behaviour was kept in check by a combination of stern but dedicated teachers and the notion that both teachers and parents were in cahoots to keep us in check. Those big side windows were a constant distraction and what pictures they showed but on the whole we sat in rows and shut our mouths and learned our lessons. Nobody wanted to be thought of as a remedial. But in my final years I saw the fa├žade begin to slip and this slide into indiscipline had a name. Comprehensive.

The loser has to teach Year Nine...

Now, many decades into that experiment is it any wonder that much of what passes for education in British schools is reduced to crowd control? From what was once revered around the world – we used to laugh, heartily at the dire state of education in the USA – we have descended into the pitched battle described in a recent report by Professor Terry Haydn of the University of East Anglia. Turning the behavioural clock back is likely to be a near impossibility but unless something is done to restore classroom discipline we may as well accept that all state schools are remedial schools now.

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