Was It Always Like This?

July 26, 2008

Back here I explained that the earliest record I could find of the sort of school I’ve been writing about was in Berg (1968), an account of life at Risinghill, one of the first 1960s mixed comprehensives. There were tough schools before then, there always will be tough schools, but, as far as I could tell they weren’t tough because of the rejection of discipline and academic expectations.

The following quotation acknowledging how tough some schools are, written before the Battleground Schools came into being is from a noted educational philosopher:

Some schools, of course, are in such a sorry state that there is little more that can be done than to have policeman in to stop riots, caretakers to keep the place clean, doctors and dentists to look after physical health, and psychiatrically trained teachers to care for the `mental health` of the inmates and to do something about providing the `socialization` which they are so obviously lacking. The conditions of schooling and the attitudes of the inmates make talk of `education` almost as out of place as a fashion parade on a dung-hill. Teaching in such `blackboard jungle` types of institutions requires special gifts and probably special training. It is more like a commando operation than an educational exercise; for the problem is basically that of establishing conditions for normal education to take place. Even so it is remarkable what can be achieved by sympathetic and hard-headed teachers in such circumstances. Education is so much a matter of confidence and enthusiasm; words like `tone` and `spirit` are necessary to convey the feeling of the contagious atmosphere in which it can take root and spread. But there are some environments which ensure the contagion will not spread very far.

Peters (1966)

This might suggest a reference to Battleground Schools if the author hadn’t provided a couple of references to books about the schools he had in mind. Both are incredibly revealing about education in tough schools in the early 1960s.

The school referred to in the comment about “environments” where the “contagion” of learning will not spread is from Partridge (1966). This book has a similar thesis to Berg’s, that selection and corporal punishment must end to usher in a new age of socially just and emotionally sensitive education, replacing the brutality of existing schools and the monstrous teachers within. However, whereas Berg wrote about a clearly terrible comprehensive with a weak headteacher as if it was a utopia, Partridge writes about a rather impressive and well-run boys’ Secondary Modern as if it was hell on earth. Partridge’s school might have been tough in his view but his complaints that the discipline is too harsh, that too much effort is spent on the high achievers, and the curriculum is too academic, indicates that he is not talking about a forerunner to today’s Battleground schools. His first description of the children includes the following passage:

One of the duty teachers blows long and hard on his whistle: every boy on the playground “freezes”. On the second short blast they move to form columns along the edge of the playground and facing the teachers who stand or walk up and down in front of them. When every boy is in his class line they file off in turn into the School by a door leading into a main classroom block. Prefects stand at the door and pull a boy out if they think he is misbehaving. The boys pour into school and make for their classrooms, where their form teachers will be waiting to call the roll and collect dinner money. This takes perhaps five minutes and then the boys troop down to the hall for morning assembly, herded down by the prefects and the teachers like so many sheep.

A picture further removed from the chaos in the corridors of today’s schools is harder to imagine.

Peters’ other reference, this time corresponding to his comment about the remarkable achievements of “sympathetic and hard-headed teachers”, is Farley (1960). This is a superb read, which fits Peters’ description (the full title inside the front cover is “Secondary Modern Discipline With Special Reference To The Difficult Adolescent In Socially Depressed Industrial Areas”). Much of it could have been written today, for instance, the descriptions of appalling and criminal behaviour outside of the classroom. It is also hard not be initially disheartened by the author’s frequent suggestions that it is best to try and build relationships with difficult students which sounds like the failed strategies of today. However, it soon becomes clear that, while the children of the underclass may be much the same outside of lessons, what you can expect from them in classrooms has changed massively. His description of the favoured behaviours of a class “playing up for a teacher” runs as follows:

  1. Asking awkward questions – “Please, sir! What’s a harlot?”
  2. Banging furniture about, squeaking chairs, etc.
  3. Grinning insolently at the teacher.
  4. Making unpleasant smells.
  5. Making a noise by pretending to help – six boys dashing to pick up a book, knock over a desk and inkwell.
  6. Muttering under the breath.
  7. Making smart remarks.
  8. Refusing to take the cane (on the increase).
  9. Hiding equipment, chalk etc.
  10. Raucous laughter, jeering, moaning.
  11. Refusing to do work.
  12. Arguing and interrupting.
  13. Pulling faces.
  14. Annoying other boys in range – pins, kicks etc.
  15. Flicking pellets (a hardy annual).
  16. Unco-operative attitude when asked to do something.
  17. Threatening gestures and stances.

Now bear in mind that this is meant to be the worst behaviour a teacher might encounter, if they are new or really hated by the class. You may wish to compare it with my description of the equivalent situation today. Other advice also indicates the difference in expectations between now and then, such as a warning to watch out for “Insufficiency of rubbers [erasers] for drawing etc., necessitating communication between pupils”, or the suggestion that “If it is your bad luck to have a tough class, do not try and sit down and mark books, or lean on the radiator.”

As I said before, Farley’s repeated calls to understand and sympathise with troubled pupils might resemble some of today’s behaviour advisors. However, he makes it clear that his sympathy has limits, and these limits are narrowly drawn compared with today’s “anything goes” mentality of appeasement:

Talk to the class roughly on these lines: “Listen, lads, [he explains elsewhere in the book why mixed education is a bad idea] I’ve got a certain amount of work to get through and so have you. I’m not looking for trouble, neither am I going to avoid it. If you want to start irritating me, then you can hardly expect me to remain in a reasonably good mood. Don’t think that you’ve had a raw deal if you find yourself in a situation you don’t like. I’m not worrying you unless you force me to.” If after that “one of the boys” starts up again then say, “All right, Brown, go on, act like an infant and then when you’re treated like one you’ll start standing on your dignity and getting nasty. I don’t expect you to be an angel, or a statue, but if you can only learn the hard way, then that’s how it will have to be. Frankly I’d rather treat you like a growing man than a little school kid.” If he still continues, cane him good and hard! … Usually it won’t come to the level of caning Brown, but if you must cane him, do it, because if Brown gets away with it, the rest of the class, although probably liking you as a person, will not respect you as a teacher; in their eyes you are a weakling.

There is no escaping the conclusion that while students haven’t changed much in four decades, the expectations of schools and teachers have, and for the worse.


Berg, Leila, Risinghill:Death of a Comprehensive School, 1968, Penguin Books

Farley, Richard, Secondary Modern Discipline With Special Reference To The Difficult Adolescent, 1960, Adam and Charles Black

Partridge, John, Middle School, 1966, Victor Gollancz Ltd

Peters, R.S. Ethics and Education, 1966, Allen and Unwin



  1. Perhaps you might stop spamming your blog link on other blog’s comments?

  2. Sorry, didn’t realise you were boss of the internet.

    If anyone objects they are free to edit them out. In much the same way as if you put any further off-topic comments on my blog I will delete them.

  3. I read this list (and your other one in the link) to my 15-year-old daughter. She says the behavior in her shcool is just like this. This year, however, she’s moving to MY school, where students WOULD be first suspended (and EXPELLED after three suspensions) for behavior this bad.

    Both were EXCELLENT posts! Your list on the other page has captured even more exactly than this list above exactly how a lot of students act.

    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas (in the Middle East)

  4. […] what evidence do we have? @OldAndrewUK pointed out a few interesting books from the 50s and 60s which talk about life in ‘tough schools’ where the worst behaviour […]

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