The education with Dennis Richards

A long career in education and you get very used to the pendulum theory. What goes around, comes around. Happily, however, I feel I can reasonably predict that some aspects of my past educational experience will not return.

Friday, 8th June 2018, 11:04 am
A BBC programme is looking at a group of pupils trying to pass tests to get into Grammar Schools.

Corporal punishment, for example.

Having achieved the heady heights of a deputy head role in a London comprehensive in the eighties, I was mortified to discover that I would be required to administer several strokes of the cane to miscreants’ nether regions.

My mentors in the role were “Major Jack”, a terrifying part-time soldier in the Territorial Army and Van the Man, whose previous career was a policeman in Apartheid South Africa.

Both carefully selected their favourite pieces of bamboo cane and tended them with the same care, with which a Test cricketer will look after his favourite bat.

Their styles, however, were very different. Major Jack favoured the “this is hurting me more than it is you” kind of approach, convincing his prospective victim that he felt sorry for him, before belting the living delights out of him.

Vic showed no such tenderness.

He showed a worrying enthusiasm for the task, even taking a run up towards the target area, when he considered the offence to be particularly villainous.

You will be relieved to know that I was considered by both my mentors to be singularly useless, and unnecessarily merciful with cane in hand, several times leaving the students totally bemused as to whether the punishment had actually been carried out or not.

It was a common practice in at least one Harrogate school at the time. Shortly after I took up post here, several former students related with huge pride that they had “the slipper from Mr S”.

None of them bore any kind of grudge and all held him in great respect and affection. In fact it was almost a badge of honour, like selection for the school football team. That of course was then, and this is now. It was, in the end (no pun intended), of its era, and a hideous way of treating adolescents. It may work as a piece of nostalgia to look back on.

At the time it led only to resentment and anger. It won’t return. And I don’t think employing three office staff to collect the dinner money will either.

Nor will the old O Level/CSE divide.

But there are occasions when my confident predictions go awry. A BBC 2 documentary series about education in Bexley Heath is currently part way through. “Grammar Schools: who will get in?” The series was triggered by the Government’s decision to invest £50m in expanding the number of grammar school places.

This is one of those topics which divide people at a very deep point in their personalities. There aren’t many in the “Don’t know” category. I confess I am a bit surprised to see the subject under discussion again. Having watched the first episode I did have a déjà vu feeling. It is identical to a documentary I saw thirty years ago about education much closer to home than Bexley Heath. In 1959 there were 1,300 grammar schools. Now there are just 163.

I did pass the 11+ but my best mates didn’t and I lost touch with them forever.

They went to the unlamented secondary modern schools. I had the full works. Teachers in academic gowns, Prefects, and Founders Day. And the inevitable Latin motto. “Turpe Nescire”. (It is disgraceful to be ignorant about things). I thought it meant it was shameful to be a bit dim. But that was then, and this is now.