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.