Sunday night saw me at our circuit church for Choral Evensong led by the choirs of two local Anglican churches. It was a splendid evening of singing and reciting the traditional General Confession and the Creed, in all the glory of their eloquently arcane language. I was immediately transported back over 55 years to my time spent at a Church of England boys’ junior school where learning to recite the Catechism was an absolute requirement. On Sunday I stood and hardly needed to read the words from the Book of Common Prayer – I knew them already! I could recall ‘we have done those things we ought not to have done’ and that we needed to be mindful of the ‘devices and desires of our own hearts’. We knew our place – we were ‘miserable offenders’.
The ability to be able to recite from memory chunks of text first produced in 1571, if updated, seemed to be an expectation at my school, and no doubt many others. Woe betide the pupil who stumbled over the words or forgot them. I can’t recall how we were punished if we failed. In my case my response to this curious requirement (in my view) was coloured by the fact that as a Methodist child taken to church twice a day on a Sunday, I could not recall us ever saying these words. So I believed I should be exempt. Nevertheless to avoid whatever humiliation was coming my way for non-compliance I duly learnt the words, clearly just so 55 years later I could say them at a service I suddenly decided to attend.
At my junior school corporal punishment was often meted out in response to poor behaviour – typically a slap on the back of the legs that really stung. We could also be punished for poor academic performance although I think that was rarer. But even at the age of 10 I thought it odd that a school which was built on Christian principles of love and compassion could resort to physical hurt as a means of controlling its pupils. Perhaps I was just naïve, and of course my school’s approach was the norm in the early sixties. We have moved on since then with prohibitions placed on schools about such punishments. However the Government’s latest proposals about school discipline do emphasise the use of ‘reasonable force’ to enforce discipline so we need to be alert to turning the clock back a notch.
As I write this I can see again one teacher’s face as he slapped a boy next to his desk in front of the class. I can’t recall his misdemeanour, but I do remember the tears and the humiliation etched into the boy’s face, and the teacher’s slight smirk as he told the boy to return to his seat. Let’s not see any return to these times. We know it doesn’t work.