'Brought Up by Hand': A Secondary Education in Tile 'Fifties'

By Wade, Stephen | Contemporary Review, April 2003 | Go to article overview

'Brought Up by Hand': A Secondary Education in Tile 'Fifties'


Wade, Stephen, Contemporary Review


MOST Dickens enthusiasts will immediately think of Mrs. Joe Gargery in Great Expectations, who brought up Pip 'by hand': that is, administered the occasional slap to keep him in line. As I write this, a storyline in the long-running soap opera Coronation Street concerns a teacher who, goaded beyond endurance, struck a pupil and has appeared in court, his career ruined. Put these two references side by side and you have the modem dilemma about discipline.

Not so in 1958. Things were much clearer then. At my Leeds secondary modem school we were destined to be apprentices to help grind the wheels of industry, and being ordered and silent, compliant and deferential sums up the ideology. At times the rule of physical violence went too far, and was in the realms of stage farce, like the time a petty crime had been committed and the culprit would not own up. All thirty of us were slippered, lining up along the middle aisle of the classroom to await our fate.

Monday morning assemblies had the usual climax, after the hymns and the sports reports, the farewells and welcomes for staff: the list of victims who would be caned by the mortar-boarded and black-gowned Headmaster. With relish he would read out the names and then describe the nature of the offences and how hurt he was that vandalism of railway lines still persisted and that Teddy Boy habits were creeping into general school behaviour. A line of silent masters stood behind him, quietly affirming the rule of law.

By nine-thirty there would be a gaggle of wrong-doers rubbing red-striped palms and whining; or some would be playing at being Lawrence of Arabia and showing no pain. To return to class after a caning and appear to show no pain was a move guaranteed to place you in the top echelons of male esteem. A boy capable of that toughness would be allowed to stand on the outer circle of Harry Murray, Head Boy and hard case who had both charm and true grit.

A secondary modem school, created by the 1944 Education Act, was meant to nurture a military regime, and the teachers were generally ex-military men or people who had wanted to emulate Monty in the desert or Churchill in the bunker, and never had the opportunity. One bulky geography master, built like a wrestler, spent most of a term slippering lads and talking about volcanoes. Another man, an absolutely natural storyteller with the task of instilling rules of grammar and punctuation in us, recounted his war experiences with gusto. He was the man who liberated Berlin; he was beside the swinging body of Mussolini after the dictator was strung up; he was a Chindit with Wingate. In short, he was a wonderful liar who should have written novels.

The place was macho in the extreme. A boy had to have some kind of passion involving sport or violence, or it was torment from dawn until dusk. I would dread to think that a scene such as the one I witnessed at the age of twelve could happen in a playground now. This was a grand opera in which a huge, chubby boy with spectacles who lived for maths was badgered and teased for ten minutes, shoved around the playground until he finally turned, and when he turned, his one swing of a strong arm flattened the tormentor so that he was out cold on the asphalt.

You were supposed to take an unnatural interest in boxing and wrestling; you were supposed to run, play football, do circuit training in the gym. The more pathetic cases worked on the false bravado every day by giving endless rhapsodies on the appeal of fighters such as Chief Masambula or The Black Shadow. Westerns were fine too, as they were about tough men in white hats thumping bad men in black hats, or both types of hatted men shooting Indians. Most of my friends wanted to be Cochise or Sitting Bull, and we had wigwams and tomahawks for Christmas. My most treasured possession was a pair of silver six-guns in a holster.

In 2003, we are sometimes told by the die-hard teachers of another time that moral fibre was introduced into the pupils' constitutions by a crack across the head or a whack with a cane.

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