School punishments

Speaking strongly with a student because of his persistent aggravation of his peers, aggravation that had particularly upset one student, I was aware of a sense of his indignation. Perhaps the strong words were the wrong strategy to have pursued with him, education has changed beyond recognition since my schooldays. Next time, I’ll attempt a dialogue in a place away from the sight and hearing of other students.

At our village primary school, punishments were casual. The teacher would lick her index and middle fingers and literally slap people’s wrists, or perhaps keep them in at break time. There was a cane, but it was never used. Perhaps there was no need for a punishment regime when a single slap would mean everyone went home and told their families, leading to a sense of embarrassment that was greater than any punishment.

At the secondary school I attended in the depths of Dartmoor, punishment was much more systematic and lacking in human empathy. The first level of sanction was the docking of pocket money, 10p-15p of the weekly 50p might be withheld if behaviour for the week was not considered to be in accordance with school expectations. At the next level, there were punishment duties, I once had to clean the school gym and games room for three days in a row because I had broken the school rules by borrowing another boy’s football boots. At the highest level, there was the cane, administered by appointment with the school principal, an experience I always avoided.

What was obvious to the boys was that the arbitrary rules and use of the cane did not change behaviour, but rather sowed the seeds of deep resentment. It was resentment that found its expression when a group of six boys attempted to burn down two of the classrooms. The fire made my sixteen year old self wonder about rules, discipline and punishment.

No matter how strict our schools were, they were considerably happier experiences than that enjoyed by many people elsewhere. A colleague tells of the sufferings of his mother who came to England from Ireland in the 1950s. She had attended a convent in Dublin, a residential institution where life for the girls was harsh. She would recount having to scrub the floor and being beaten across the back with a stick by one of the religious sisters because the floor was not considered clean enough. She received £30,000 in compensation from the Irish government redress scheme, a sum that could never ever remove the pain of her memories.

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