There’s a row of boys slouched outside the headmaster’s office, some propped up against the wall, others squatting on the floor. Several are due in my next class but they are not giving me eye contact.
‘Tom – what’s happening?’
He shrugs and turns away.
‘Are you coming to the lesson?’
Tom appears occasionally at my lessons but he’s probably got a job elsewhere and is definitely not taking any exams which must make his time at school seem pointless.
A lad opens the headmaster’s door and seems downcast until he turns the corner and punches the air with his fist. And I get it! These boys are waiting to be caned. Yuk. The rattan stick, which I assume is a cane, was propped on the wall behind the headmaster’s desk on my last visit, but whatever goes on in his room is the stuff of legend. There’s much I want to know.
Do girls and boys both get beaten?
Are they hit on the bottom or the hand?
Do they have to bend over the desk like Billy Bunter did in the BBC comedy about Greyfriars school?
Does he give them six of the best or is it just one whack?
The headmaster is a small, inoffensive man who sometimes stands outside my windows and puts his thumbs in his ears and wiggles his fingers. I’m surprised he doesn’t stick his tongue out at me too, like young children do in the playground. Kevin is often sent to his room for general school disruption and staffroom gossip says that the headmaster once chased the very large Kevin round his office waving his cane, but Kevin just ducked out of the way and laughed.
One evening, talking with a friend’s father about my challenges in keeping order in the classroom, he strongly advises corporal punishment.
‘I was caned every day at school and it never did me any harm. Can’t you hit them?’
How I long to reply.
‘If you had to be hit every day it can’t have done you much good.’
I’ve never sent anyone to be caned – students who come in after caning seem chastened, their resentment lingers and they are not ready to take part in lessons. But I’ve been in other classrooms where teachers have hurled wooden blackboard rubbers at the back of the class, smacked knuckles with a ruler and twisted ears to get attention and it seems to work.
My discipline methods sometimes go wrong. I once told Andrew to leave my room after he was banging my saucepans with wooden spoons.
‘Andrew calm yourself down – why don’t you just walk down to the lake!’
The class busy themselves making Cornish Pasties then I notice that he’s gone.
‘Where is he?’
“He’s gone down to the lake, Miss.’
Oh Gawd – Andrew has special needs and I just hope he doesn’t take the instruction literally. Fortunately he returned at the end of the lesson to collect his school kit bag.
A rolled up newspaper is my simple way to get order with a targeted tap on the shoulder but that stopped when one day someone put a rolling pin inside – I thought it seemed heavier!
Occasionally I implement an adaptation of Mr Spock’s Vulcan nerve pinch from Star Trek. It’s secretly called my Vulcan Grip and the undetectable technique involves pressing my thumb firmly between the muscles of the upper arm of a large badly behaved boy who towers above me.
‘Your behaviour is unreasonable and dangerous. Please stop it!’
All the time I am smiling, while quietly giving instructions. The arm squeeze looks gentle but it really hurts, usually ends the trouble and helps me keep a busy class cooking safely. It’s not something I like doing, but some boys enjoy disruption and I would rather they got on with my lesson and learnt to cook.
Caning was abolished in 1987 in UK state schools.
A survey of ILEA schools in 1976-1977 showed that 1 in 5 girls were caned at least once that year.
Teachers have legal powers to use reasonable force to remove disruptive students.