A young boy wrote to me a while ago through my web page asking what it was like going to school way back in the fifties. Apparently he was writing an essay on the changes in the school systems and needed more background.
As I attempted to answer his questions it made me realise just how much things have changed over the years. Here we are with unbelievable teaching aids, smaller class sizes and megga dollars being thrown into the education system and yet the children are not getting as good an education as I did.
Going over the differences I found that today almost everything is better for our children. The school buildings for the most part are comfortable, well heated and well lit.
I can remember huddling around the old radiator trying to keep warm and the kids with the poorer eyesight being sat under a light. The only teaching aids we had were blackboards and books. The books were so old and torn that we often had to check with a friend to get the whole text on a page.
So what was better for us?
Although it takes several forms the one plain answer has to be "discipline". I found myself explaining how we were expected to behave, not only at school but away from it too. For instance when I left home to cycle the mile and a half to school I had to be wearing my school tie and cap. The rest of the uniform was sort of relaxed because of the money restraints but we must be normally dressed. I watch some of the children today going to school and I have to wonder why there are no rules. Is it really acceptable to look like a hooker? There is obviously a lot more money being spent on the clothing so why doesn't the school have a say in what the kids wear or for that matter why don't the parents have a say in what the kids wear?
I digress. What I told this young boy was that if I was seen on my way to or from school without my cap I could get a detention. It was even more demanding for the kids who took a bus to school (public - no school buses). We carried our books in a school bag which was worn on our back with shoulder straps but it had to be taken off to get on a bus otherwise you could turn and hit somebody with it. If you were seen with your school bag on while on a bus it was a detention for you. Also if you were ever found to be sitting on a bus while any adult stood, you guessed it, another detention.
We had other out of school rules which were enforced although looking back I don't know how the teaching staff managed the task.
The rules for out of school behaviour at lunch time were complicated by the fact that about half of us stayed for school dinners (dinner at lunch time in England). The kids who went home were under the same rules as before and after school but those of us who stayed were not allowed to leave. This is where the complication came in.
You see the school I went to had grown too big for the huge old brick building and, to take the overflow, another building had been built about 2 blocks away across the main road and down a side street. We walked or ran between the buildings depending on what classes we took.
At lunch time we were allowed to travel between the buildings if our first class of the afternoon was in the other building but we were not allowed to frequent the corner store which was one block up the street. The 'homers' were allowed to go to the store because it was on their way. How the staff knew who to target I have no idea but there were many detentions handed out for the sake of a packet of crisps (potato chips) at lunch time.
The two building situation was the reason for one of the detentions that I got while attending that school.
We had been taking PT (Physical Training) in the Gym of the new building and the teacher kept us a few minutes too long. We had only five minutes between classes to get from one to the next and that included getting out of our Gym gear and into our regular clothes, (No showers) crossing a main road and climbing some rather treacherous stairs to the second floor. We could run up the stairs but not in the halls.
The two of us who had to be in the other building were naturally late and the teacher of the next class happened to be on time so we got the detention. I thought it was unfair and as usual my mouth started before my brain was in gear. I made the remark that it should be the other teacher who got the detention which earned me extra time on my detention. We learned at school that life is not always fair.
In school the rules were quite easy to understand
It was not a democracy. The teacher was king (or Queen) and if you did not do as you were told you suffered the consequences, usually the strap or a detention. Each teacher had his or her own favourite way of keeping order but the one I remember most is our chemistry teacher.
The chemistry lab was set up with benches running across the room with sinks and bottles of chemicals. We sat on high stools behind the benches which made it impossible for a teacher to approach unnoticed if you were not paying attention. For this reason he had developed an unbelievable accuracy in throwing a piece of chalk. If you were talking to someone behind you and were turned around you would be hit behind the ear with a chalk missile and I can tell you from experience it hurt. I never did find out where he developed the skill but what an arm. He would have been an asset to any cricket team but I never saw him play.
So why could we get a better education with so few teaching aids and class sizes as large as 45?
I figure that discipline has to be the answer. It is the only thing that was better for us.