1950s >> 1955 >> no-615-november-1955

Trouble in School

Few of us have seen a jungle but all of us know, from the adventure stories we read in childhood, what a jungle is like. It is a dark, dangerous agglomeration of weird flora and horrid fauna, where the natives are permanently hostile. Fang, claw and poisoned dart lie in wait and savage, malignant creatures leap, crawl and slither everywhere, all to the accompaniment of war-whoops and gibberings.

And that, according to recent accounts, is how things are in school these days. At the same time as “The Blackboard Jungle” was first shown in this country, the News Chronicle (early in September) published “ Jungle in the Classroom,” a series of three articles in which Dr. John Laird reported on London’s secondary modern schools. Five of these schools comprised Dr. Laird’s jungle: they are, he claims,, typical of the rest. In them, children run amok; teachers are resisted, ridiculed, even assaulted; educational standards are almost incredibly low. About 30 per cent, of the children leave school “unable to read much beyond the level of an eight-year-old child, and unable to write a letter that would be easily deciphered.”

Not surprisingly, there were indignant denials. “Sensational and one-sided,” wrote Sir Ronald Gould, of the National Union of Teachers; “fantastically distorted . . . absurdly untrue.” the Secretary of the London Head Teachers’ Association. An official of the London County Council affirmed their view; so did most of the teachers who sent letters to the News Chronicle. Few, however, dealt with the facts, and certainly none mentioned that Dr. Laird is not the first to have said all those things: little more than a year ago a novel called “Spare the Rod” painted a similar picture of secondary modern schooling, and wrung from the Times an admission that “ it probably has some truth in it.”

The secondary modern school is the lowest, most prolific unit in the State educational system of this country. It looks after the children between 11 and 15 who have not passed scholarship examinations, whose parents cannot afford private school fees or don’t care anyway. It sets out to impart the minimum of necessary knowledge and inculcate a number of basic social attitudes. To say that is not to accuse the ruling class of conspiracy, but simply to point to what education means in any society; the equipment and adjustment of the young for what they have to do.

Our educational system has been shaped by the needs of twentieth-century Capitalist civilization, and its success is gauged by the extent to which it meets those needs In the last few years public attention has been drawn to illiteracy almost solely on account of the conscription of boys (no-one seems to worry over illiteracy among girls. who are not conscripted: this writer’s guess—he is not without knowledge—is that it is worse). Dr. Laird says: “. . . We are still turning out from our State schools a very large number of children who in speech and writing recognizably belong to a ‘ lower order ’ ” —and quotes a “typical example” from a boy of fourteen:

Miss Rodgers backs the bred and milk the cows and mack ches and buter then she chocks the dinars.

Dr. Laird’s estimate of a semi-literate 30 per cent. is close to the findings of the Ministry of Education committee in 1948. After careful investigation, the committee estimated that among children of school-leaving age:

1.4 per cent were illiterate;
4.3 per cent, were semi-literate—i.e., had a “reading age” of seven to nine years;
30 per cent, were backward readers, with a “reading age ” of under twelve years.
(“Reading Ability”: Ministry of Education, 1950.).

However, it would be wrong to suppose that so much illiteracy is something new—a fresh outcome, as it were, of State education. While the position was better before the war, the percentage of semi-literates and illiterates has always been high; before 1914 the Army taught a large part of its volunteer intake to read from the ABC stage. Indeed, though no figures were taken then, there was probably more illiteracy 40 or 50 years ago than there is now—concealed by teachers who were paid by results.

Several theoretical reasons for illiteracy can be advanced. Dr. Laird’s conclusion is that insufficient time is spent reading in the junior schools, and an American has published a book called “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” which blames it on changes in teaching methods. The fact remains that almost any adult can teach a child to read. Few adults expect to do so because the teachers, after all, are the experts—notwithstanding that every year there are possibly another 70,000 girls and boys who, after a decade in school, are still “backward readers.”

For the truth is that the State educational system does not really work, except in the roughest, sketchiest way. It is efficient enough when it seeks out and creams off the brighter, quick-eyed children for “selective” education to fill the managerial, technical and professional jobs. But when it comes to the education of the great majority of working people, it is revealed as a ponderous, incredibly wasteful machine for securing an all-round bare minimum: an enormous open bath up-ended near a bottle, so that some at least will go in.

Teachers are not to blame (though many readers of Dr. Laird’s articles thought they were). Most teachers begin with ideals; some are drawn by genuine love of children, and some are pushed in by parents who want them to have a respectable job. Their training has nothing like the length and intensity of the training for other professions. The majority receive a general training, with an emphasis on one or two “main” subjects, over two years. Of this, several months are spent in teaching practice and several months in holidays; the course of lectures in the time remaining is hardly comparable with the University training of a public- or grammar-school teacher. The educator, after all, must himself be educated.

It is reasonable to assume that there are more than a few schools where the children run riot, as Dr. Laird describes. In the past “school discipline” has been synonymous with lots of caning: perpetuated as a tradition in “The Gem” and “The Magnet” and, of course, “never did anybody any harm”—except that it has been a near-euphemism for a lot of brutality. It is this aspect of the Chronicle articles that has caught the public interest most of all. Most people wonder—with good reason—what has happened since the days of the schoolmaster who

“. . . had several canes of various lengths and degrees of thickness. While administering punishment he got as red as a turkey-cock and occasionally rose up to give greater effect to the blows. Some boys were so frightened that they couldn’t learn their tasks at all, and others so reckless of the punishment they knew must ensue that they intentionally neglected them.”

The real change has been in the scope and content of popular education. As has been remarked, all educational systems serve the needs of particular sorts of social organization, and they change when those needs change. Thus the education of the ruling class of this country, which has a different purpose from the education of the working class, has changed hardly at all in a hundred years. On the other hand there is the secondary education system of Denmark, which until the last third of the 19th century was academic and aimed at producing gentlemen farmers, and changed within a few years to a fiercely patriotic mode of training as Germany rose to become a military power.

In the early days of compulsory education in Britain, the school curriculum did not go much farther than reading, writing and arithmetic. Classes were much larger; the teacher seldom left his eyrie, and some of the teaching was “farmed out” to older children who had mastered the work. Then, as the petrol engine and the electric motor ushered in “light industry’’—particularly in the south of England—in the 20th century, different needs appeared. The working day was shorter but full of new strains and tensions, factories were cleaner, leisure itself becoming mechanized; education adjusted itself by extending the field of teaching.

The process has continued, until a secondary modern school today holds a variety of subjects and activities. Girls, no longer taught housewifery in service, have classes in it at school; manual work, physical exercise and social activity—all of them directed towards specific social ends—are important parts of school life. Indeed, the architecture of schools has changed to meet this different pattern—most post-war schools rival picture-palaces in their splendiferousness and beehives in their agglomerations of cells. The change is still taking place; at the present time, industrialists and economists arc pressing for more and more technical training, to meet anticipated future needs.

In all this, the teacher can no longer sit at his desk demanding immobility. The activities are more personal, the work less mechanical, and the relationship between child and teacher much different The teacher’s dilemma, however, is that the world for which he educates children still demands obedience and respect for betters, and wants to see them inculcated in school. But for that, it might not matter so very much when children danced ring o’ roses round their teacher, as Dr. Laird saw them doing.

The answer to these difficulties is not further reform of the educational system. Indeed, educational reformers have had their way to a large extent and not changed the secondary modern school very much (not even by changing its name) from a place where workers are trained to be workers. Most reformers speak of an educational system in which every boy and girl becomes—thus Olaf Stapledon, at one time—“a complete individual personality and a good citizen of the world.” It sounds very good, but it couldn’t happen in the world of Capitalism, where in fact a prime aim is to make every, boy and girl loyal citizens of their own national segments of the world. And as for the complete individual personality . . .  the supporters of Capitalism, including Dr. Stapledon, wouldn’t like him at all.<

The real point is to change the world itself. Education is the product of society; only a different and better society can produce a different and better sort of education. A world organized so that human beings come first will educate its children as human beings, not as prospective clerks, factory workers and soldiers. Dr. Laird’s real grumble—and the grumble of his opponents— is that our schools are failing to educate them for that latter purpose.

Robert Barltrop