Sunday 6 June 2010

The Refractory Pupil

Here's a letter contributing to the debate on managing unruly school-children which continues to this very day. It's remarkble how - although we associate the Victorians with iron discipline - the same issues about teacher authority - about parents teaching their children not to respect teachers - are raised in this letter from 1901.

To the Editor of THE OUTLOOK
Elementary schoolmasters - or, at any rate, a great number of them - have a deep-seated grievance which deserves careful and whole-hearted consideration - a grievance which affects nothing more nor less than the very system of compulsory education. It is all very well to talk about this reform and that reform; but, after all, a great deal lies in the hands off the men who come into actual contact with the class for whom the school board system is run - the hundreds of children of all descriptions whose parents will not or cannot have them educated anywhere else. Many of these are tractable children, anxxious to learn, and well-behaved withal; others - and they are many, very many - are juvenile hooligans of an advanced and virulent type. And here the grievance of the master may  be said to begin.
    His cry is for authority - a freer hand. At present he is between the devil and the deep sea. Should he inflict the slightest corporal punishment upon a refractory pupil - a highly necessary action in some cases - he is placed between the enraged parent, who is determined to pursue the matter, on the one side, and the possibility that he may be strongly censured, or even dismissed by the Board, on the other.
     Well, what can he do?
      Every parent seems to drum into his or her children the fact that their schoomaster is merely a paid servant, supported by the money that they themselves pay. Naturally, the result of such a view as this is the utter overthrow of real authority.
      How can a master hope to do any good at all if his class does pretty well what it likes with absolute impunity? But I can hear people saying, why not "keep them in," and give them impositions to do? Impositions are all very well for children of the cultured classes, who are sensitive to punishments of this kind; but with children of the hooligan persuasion impositions are a mere farce. The punishment loses half its value when it does not appeal to the sensitiveness of the punished. The avverage child of, say, the Borough does not mind mere "stopping in," or writing lines; he does not see anything degrading about it. But give him a sharp reminder that he will feel and the ethics of punishment at once strike him as a disagreeable reality.
     I once visitted a board school in the South of London, in a neighnourhood which has a particularly bad name for violence and general bad behaviour. Never shall I forget the scene. The master was a mild, middle-aged man of undoubted abilities for teaching - but he was mild. Thhat sufficient for the youthgful hooligans of whom his class mostly consisted. They jeered at him when he reprimanded them, and when I asked him why he permitted such a state of affairs, and did not administer a sound thrashing to some of them, he replied wearily that it would be quite a fatal thing from his point of view. And on questioning him further, I gathered that his predecessor had been severely censured for striking a boy; and he had therefore sent in his resignation. Still, censure or no censure, had I been the master I should have given one or two of those little savages a sharp lesson. Even when the unhappy master dismissed his class they filed out making audible insulting remarks; some of them even  placed their finger to their noses and "booed" him.  I only hope that this school was an exception to the general rule; for the amount of work done appeared to me to be infinitesimal - a fact not due so much to the fault of the master as his helplessness as regards the judicious infliction of corporal punishment. Without this power he was pitifully weak, and his pupils were not slow to recognise this.
      Let us hope that the school boards will give this matter their earnest consideration as soon as possible. Some small regulation dealing with the matter might easily be framed in such a manner that certain restrictions in the infliction of corporal punishment were made. This would, I feel sure, do a great deal to check the growth of hooliganism by striking at the root, as it were, instead of waiting until the disease has had time to develop.
The Outlook, January 12 1901


  1. I must say that I am astonished by this because we tend to think that the regime in schools and in society in general was much stricter then.

    When young I knew an old gentleman who would have been brought up and schooled at the end of the Victorian era. He regaled me with stories of his childhood and I clearly remember him telling me about his school master who frequently caned his pupils. This punishment was no light tap, either: the beating was so vigorous, he told me, that the teacher's starched cuff would come adrift and slide onto the cane, whose movement would then toss it across the room. The child being beaten would wait for this to happen and rush to retrieve it, for which he would receive a small pecuniary reward!

    One also wonders why, if the children described by Mr Pearse were so rebellious, they could be persuaded to go to school at all, let alone stay there all day.

  2. Certainly one shouldn't take a single letter-writer as describing anything more than his views. I suspect the average Victorian school was quite disciplinarian and fairly free with corporal punishment. But it is perhaps instructive to find exceptions to the rule, lest we get too carried away with modern stereotypes. Truancy was certainly an ongoing issue for poor areas of London

  3. Indeed, and when teachers complain they must tread the delicate line between appearing to have genuine cause for complaint and merely seeming incompetent.

    As an aside, I assume you know the admirable Victorian Village at Blists Hill. It has a well preserved schoolroom and on some days, a teacher to explain how classes would have been conducted.