I have just finished reading Kenneth Roy's In Case of Any News
, his last book written in diary form during the final weeks of his life in the autumn of 2018. It's a poignant account, unsentimentally told, of the discomfort and indignities of his terminal condition, mitigated by the excellent medical care he received in hospital and the constant presence and affection of family, former colleagues and friends. He also used the opportunity to reflect on aspects of his life over the years, his childhood, schooling, work, personal initiatives, successes and failures. One of these that snagged my attention was his account of his disastrous experience as a pupil at Denny High School in the 1950s.
It's a heartbreaking account, although one that made him ponder why he reacted the way he did while others did not. After happy primary school years under the encouraging eye of Miss Brotherstone, who would later follow his career with keen interest, and where he had sat, as was the fashion in those days, in the second top seat in the class, he was thrust into the A stream of Denny High. It should have led to a successful scholastic career. Instead it was a rude awakening. Sadly, it was two women teachers who caused him the most pain, one with her sarcasm, the other with her particularly vicious wielding of the tawse.
Very soon he was bunking off school big time, using his meagre lunch money to pay his fare to Glasgow or Falkirk, and wandering about in his school uniform until the authorities brought the matter of his non-attendance to his parents' attention. He returned, kept his head down, did what he could to catch up, but he had been too long away and the whole system had scunnered him too deeply. He left at 15, as soon as he legally could.
We Scots tend to believe that once upon a time we had an educational system to be proud of. One that was essentially democratic, that was not based upon wealth or privilege, but offered an opportunity for 'lads o' pairts', and it was generally lads, from whatever background, to benefit and flourish socially and intellectually, if you had the ability. It didn't always work.
My Highland grandparents from crofting families in the late 19th century both lost their fathers relatively young and had to leave school as soon as they could to learn a skill and go to work. My grandfather's teacher begged his mother to let him stay on, but their means were such that it was a luxury too far. My grandmother, as we discovered almost by accident late in her life, had even started learning Latin at school, and could remember some of it. Not for numpties, Latin.
I tried to unpack aspects of Kenneth Roy's experience. The assumption is those women were simply bad teachers. Possibly they were. Were they war spinsters, not necessarily happy in the choice of employment available to them? Once you married you had to leave teaching and spinsters tended to be despised. Was it a fear of being found wanting in comparison with male colleagues that turned them into monsters? A teenage boy wouldn't understand that.
I had an aunt who taught all her life. In England she never used physical punishment. Back in Scotland she said she only had to use the belt once and could put it away in her desk for the rest of the session. But that was how she had to show who was boss before she could get down to the business of teaching.
I remember George Friel's depressing novel of teaching in the same period, Mr Alfred MA
. A classroom was no place for the oversensitive. Children were expected to be disciplined and they and their parents tended to accept whatever treatment they were subjected to. I have heard older people say that if they told their parents they had got the belt in school they would get another row at home. At times the school atmosphere could be one of mutual hostility and fear. Clearly there was something wrong at Denny High, since the headmaster was later sacked and the more vicious of the two women teachers toned down her severity. Sadly, it wasn't enough to help Kenneth Roy.
I attended four different schools during my childhood, two primary, one combined primary and secondary, and finally an Edinburgh grant-aided girls' school. None exists anymore, although two survive in a different form. The first was a private venture run by two English ladies in a house in Falkirk. I was four, wore a uniform with a pudding bowl hat and attended classes in a purpose built building at the back of a large garden. The school folded soon after. I understand it was because the ladies' credentials did not satisfy the Scottish Education Department's teaching requirements.
My next school was Wallacestone Primary in Polmont. A long walk from home. Probably only a mile, but it seemed long and I walked there and back alone, in season picking rose hips from bushes along the way. I have no unhappy memories of it, apart from tripping on a cinder heap by the pavement one day and arriving home with three streams of blood running down my leg. I don’t remember severe punishments. Not even the belt. The teachers were mainly women, benignly in control. We rarely saw the headmaster. He kept to his room with its warm open fire. I left when I was 7.
Next I attended the old Bathgate Academy, where my father was appointed Rector, the former Scots word for a senior secondary headteacher, in 1954. His job had some status. Alasdair Gray once joked that headmasters of the period were the closest provincial Scots got to an 'aristocracy'. That wouldn't last. We lived next the school in a large Edwardian house, built in 1903, surrounded by half an acre of garden. The school, originally founded from the profits of Caribbean trade in 1833, dominated the top of the town with a tall square clock tower which also housed the school bell. As a school it was a tougher proposition. We were minnows, of course. There was a janitor, Mr Ferguson, who wore a uniform suit and cap and, regularly on patrol, blew a mean whistle when he noticed misdemeanours, usually playground fights among the boys.
The belt figured prominently. I was in a class of 40. Our teacher was Miss Henderson, a kindly woman for the most part, but one boy, always at the bottom of the class, was belted nearly every day. It wasn't pleasant to see, but it passed for normal. I don't remember what he kept being belted for or what good it ever did him.
I was belted once. The gym teacher was talking to a colleague and we were all standing in lines round the gym waiting for the lesson either to start or finish. We chatted amicably among ourselves the while. The next thing we knew he was raging at us for making a noise and went round the class belting everyone except a favoured one or two girls. I was outraged, but when I went home my father laughed it off. The teacher had gone to him and confessed what he had done, obviously concerned what I might say when I got home, possibly regretting his outburst of temper. I was not in a forgiving frame of mind, however, and still am not.
But there were also the hard guys. A boy in my class called Harry Bryce once taunted me in the playground that he bet my dad 'couldnae belt'. One day, soon after, he got into trouble and was sent with other malefactors to my father who gave them six of the belt each. Harry came to me afterwards, blowing on his hands, but, without a shred of resentment, remarked that actually my father 'could really belt'. Respect. I was stunned. I also remember Harry for a four-line rhyming poem he got into the school magazine celebrating the exploits of a footballer called Alfie Conn who enabled Hearts football team to win the Scottish Cup in 1956. It boosted his ego no end.
My father was uncomfortable with his children attending his own school. And so, in 1956, I started commuting into Edinburgh to one of the four Merchant Company schools in the city. No more playgrounds with football games to dodge through on your way into school, a private garden for recreation and no corporal punishment. I felt I had reached the promised land. Yes, there were sarky teachers, and unpleasant ones, and fearsome ones, like the male head of classics, but they were mostly benign. I was happy there and made friends for life. But it cut me off from former schoolfriends, some of whom ganged up on me before I left, calling me a snob. It also cut me off from boys.
We have never solved the problems of mass education. I taught for a while, but was never happy in the role, not even when I taught for a couple of years in a girls' boarding school in England. I was too anxious and self-conscious. And latterly, in a West Lothian comprehensive, I felt my career hung by a thread. My experience of fee-paying schooling was looked on by some colleagues with disfavour and I had a great deal to learn about the full range of pupils I was dealing with and how to handle them. No-one tells you how to do it.
In addition, teaching seemed to have become a go to complaint zone for disaffected pupils and belligerent parents alike. It was deeply stressful and I often felt everything I had learned was no longer relevant. I wasn't alone. Many well educated colleagues moved sideways into learning support or administration or left teaching altogether. A sad reflection on the profession’s loss of status and respect.
The old selective system was considered discriminatory, but the comprehensive system isn't functioning any better. At the end of his career in the 1960s, my father suffered for his lack of enthusiasm for it, and our current standing in international league tables is not impressive. A Polish pupil in one of my classes remarked that the Scottish system was like 'playschool' by comparison with Poland. That hurt.
Young graduates seem reluctant to teach if they can find an alternative. Internet learning may be the way forward. The Finnish system seems to be worth studying. Personal interaction requires an atmosphere of mutual respect and clear boundaries. No-one wants a return to physical punishment, that old battleground of mutual hostility and contempt.
To buy a copy of
In Case of Any News: A Diary of Living and Dying by Kenneth Roy, Click here