Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Slip Sliding Away

I was listening to a Hertfordshire headteacher speaking up on the radio for the benefits of shutting schools during these rare spells of snowy weather, in opposition to what he described as the dreary view that shutting schools and workplaces down cost "UK PLC" too much money (I loathe both the expression and the concept of "UK PLC"). This good man said he was aware that parents could be faced with difficult childcare issues, but that people should focus on the benefits of enjoying the weather --should, indeed, grasp a rare opportunity to play with their children, making snowmen, and so on. He mentioned that at his wife's (private) school a snowball fight between staff and pupils had been arranged.

This reminded me of my own Hertfordshire primary school (the one which I have in common with Lewis Hamilton i.e. Peartree Spring Junior, Stevenage). Back in those ancient times, the headmaster had a ritual on frosty days. He would take a bucket of water outside, and sluice it down the length of the playground, to make a slide. I repeat: to make a slide. This was the official slide, down which we were free to careen if we dared, each passage polishing it into ultimate slipperiness. However, any other sliding anywhere else on or near the school premises was an offence, punishable by a summary caning. If you've never been caned, or threatened with caning, you have no idea how effective this is as a deterrent.*

That headmaster was an unusual man, and I've never quite decided whether or how often he transgressed into territory that would nowadays have ended in court proceedings and disgrace. An ex-Commando, a "professional Yorkshireman," and an odd mix of creative leader and repressive bully, he had the opportunity to found and run a new state primary school that was unusual in many ways.

For a start, we were streamed by ability -- highly unusual at primary level. Also, bantam chickens roamed freely around the school grounds, as did several peacocks; a "pet" fox was kept chained in a kennel (seriously, I'm not making this up). The school constructed its own swimming pool, with contributions from parents. Above all, we were encouraged to be competitive: our school teams were expected to win, and I myself was entered for -- and won -- several national painting competitions. We had a school song, a school creed, and were divided into four competing houses: Churchill, Bader, Hilary, and Schweitzer. Those names alone tell you a lot about the school ethos.

I can still remember vividly the day in 1965 when Mr. Anstock decided our top-streamed class (which included his own son) was not attaining a high enough standard in mental arithmetic. He took over the class, and patrolled menacingly up and down the aisles between desks, armed with a cane. He would periodically tap someone's desk, and ask a mental arithmetic question: "Six fives?"

If the question was answered correctly, he moved on. If it wasn't, the cane came down hard on the desktop in front of the trembling 10 year old. You can imagine how this felt. Many kids were in tears. Unforgivable, bullying behaviour. It was only in later years that I wondered how this might have felt for the teacher whose class had been commandeered in this way.

And yet, he was also a very caring man, and took an intense and genuine interest in his charges. I recall the day when, playing football, I dislocated my thumb. It's very disconcerting to find your thumb transposed into the middle of your palm. Mr. Anstock personally walked me home, chatting all the way about natural history, which he knew to be my personal passion.

I have mainly good memories of my primary school. It had suited me, and I was the sort of able child it was designed to foster. In later years, I realised that others -- in particular those in the lower ability streams, or those with a rebellious streak -- had hated the place, its all-encompassing rituals, the staff, and in particular the man (and his cane). On reflection, it's clear the school was a project, a sort of work of art, but one that only appealed to those prepared to take their part in the strongly-coloured, well-defined vision of its creator.

All gone now. Literally: I understand the school fell into a decline and disrepair, and was demolished and rebuilt ten years ago.

* Corporal punishment was common in British schools until it was banned (in state schools) in 1986. For one transgression in the secondary school woodwork shop (throwing a chisel into a benchtop, if I recall correctly) the teacher had me bend over at the front of the class, and gave me a mighty whack on the backside with a handy piece of 2" x 1" timber, which snapped, sending half of the timber spinning up the aisle between the benches. Ouch.


Mauro Thon Giudici said...

You where fortunate. My teacher (a female) being far more sadistic made me kneel on corn grains for a couple of hours for a similar thing. Don't think it is a great form of education. However it made you decide what was worth of. Eventually I decided to do even worser but managed to be more careful :-D

Mike C. said...

I can see we're in danger of getting into Monty Python territory here (quite appropriately, the "Three Yorkshiremen" sketch ...)!

That does sound grim, Mauro. I'm by no means a supporter of corporal punishment, but it's clear the punishment, if not the crime, sticks in the mind. It's curious to think that "beating" and "schooling" were more or less synonymous for centuries.

Mauro Thon Giudici said...

Well it was somewhat formative. Made me more diffident from any teacher, a thing that I do not regret. This brings me back to the full sense of your post.
I am not sure that all this excessive care for the safety of our little creatures is genuine. Closing the school for a little bit of snow (as they did here in Italy) seems more an attempt to get rid of any possible liability. But again we are getting into the Monty Piton's domain.


monkeypuzzle99 said...

Ah, the icy slide in the playground, I remember it well. I was at Peartree Spring (Churchill House) from 1967 to 1971 and it did me no harm.

I remember Mr Anstock. Harsh but fair. Nobody messed him about. If every school had one there would be a lot less trouble with teenagers today. I remember he gave me the task of taking the pool temperature every day. On day three I broke the thermometer. He was not happy but I think the only thing that saved me was the fact I went and knocked on his door and admitted it straight off. I remember he shouted a lot and waved his arms but there was no putting it back together.

He drove a mustard coloured Rover 3500, a classic in it's own time, and had a daughter in my class called Oonagh. Although the cane was a threat I don't remember anyone ever being on the receiving end.

Mr Ruston, wagging a ruler inches from your nose whilst saying 'six sevens boy', getting closer with the ruler, 'six nines boy', getting closer, 'three nines boy', terrifying as a youngster but my mental arithmetic is second to none. It sounds like he learned the technique from Mr Anstock but crikey, it worked.

Mrs Wales, a lovely lovely teacher.

Mr Braithwaite, whacked me once with a plimsoll for talking in class, shan't forget that. There was no messing about in his class. Blackpool FC supporter. Liked to throw the blackboard rubbers about which wouldn't happen today.

Mr Childcroft, lovely gentle man, a real gentleman. Very musical and a kind man.

Friday afternoon assembly, there was always a piece of classical music on the tiny record player in the school hall. Totally bored at the time but if I hear one of those pieces today it takes me straight back. 1812 overture or William Tell overture being just two.

The many many wildfowl running round the place. We thought that was normal at the time but later found out it wasn't. And the two foxes by the staff room that stunk to high heaven. It certainly wouldn't be allowed today.

Mrs Hendry taking cricket lessons. Odd woman but very good at cricket.

Swimming a width in the pool and getting a certificate for it. It was only 8ft wide if I recall.

Some good memories of a different time when headmasters and teachers were respected and obeyed.

Jean M. said...

I share the same nostaglic memories (Jean Moore as was) and more besides - the Autumn Fair with what seemed like an enormous number of cartoon-poker-work 'calendars' (Mr Davies I believe?); caterpillar hunting in the numerous hedges around the grounds; playing stoolball and the smell of freshly cut grass; ice-capped milk and the ‘Christmas Party’ with, literally, buns and jelly. It was an amazingly good Junior School preceded by an equally special Infants – I remember being absolutely nurtured (Mrs Foreman I believe?). Thanks Mike and MonkeyPuzzle99 for the memories - made my day!

Mike C. said...

Jean, I forgot to add my memory of the Autumn Fair -- Miss Hendy and you girls making coconut ice and treacle toffee! I have never since tasted its like...


Jean M. said...

Gosh Mike you have a good memory. Yes, a 1950’s house on the corner of Hydean and Peartree Way. Having decided to move out from London, Stevenage was my parent’s choice; a brave attempt to bring their two daughters up ‘in the country’. In many ways they succeeded as it did feel like the country to me with endless hours playing in Siansean Spring Woodland, the small wood on Hydean Way. The Wood’s name was revealed to us in a letter from Miss Tabor of the Stevenage Development Corporation dated October 1966; my father kept everything! Thinking back it feels like a charmed existence, evenings and days spent in total freedom, only being ‘called in’ for meals and bedtime. Perhaps it was that firm foundation, Peartree Spring School and room to explore the world, that underpins the enthusiasm I still feel for each day, even with the encroaching aches and pains! And, yes, thanks for asking, life has worked out really well for me. I now live in what is understood as the ‘real’ country (South West) with room to graze a few sheep, keep chickens and grow veg, yet in many ways it will never compete with the ‘space’ I felt I had as a child!

Best wishes


Mike C. said...

"Small wood"?? That wood, plus the other immense forest behind Peartee Way, plus the vast plain of Peartree playing field, plus the open prairie of The Valley (and the indian territory of The Canyon and Whomerley Wood) stretched over half the planet!

Such good fortune, to grow up in a special time and place.


Susan Douglass nee Dixon said...

I was also in Mike and Jean's class at Peartree Spring and have many happy memories. My family moved to Lancashire in 1964 and I couldn't understand why my new school didn't have foxes and a totem pole!
I was Susan Dixon and lived in Valley Way.

Zouk Delors said...

Surely those who never felt the cane, but only lived in fear of it, best understood its deterrent effect?

I played football for my own primary school against Peartree, who were known as a "hard" team - especially my opposite number, who later became a police officer and then, as I'm told, a "security consultant". Gerry (Anstock), the ex-special forces man, would have been proud of him!