LIFE AT SCHOOL AND THE LIFE OF THE SCHOOLCategory: Education
The two phrases — life at school and the life of the school — are so close together that one would expect them to be, if not synonymous, yet clearly descriptive of the same thing. How far is this true?
Life at school is a simple objective phrase which promises no more than an account of the way boys and girls spend their time at school. Basically, each day is divided into seven or eight periods; and, most of these, for most of the secondary years, are spent in the company of the same thirty or so boys or girls. For one period a day there will probably be a slightly different grouping for mathematics; and at the top of the school there is likely on the arts side to be a good deal of coming and going between pupils taking different combinations of subjects. But that is all in a single-sex school. It is this constancy of being together and doing the same things together, often for years on end, which makes the form the all- important unit. There simply is not time for any other grouping to establish anything like the same hold over the feelings of the boys and girls.
And in a co-educational school there is a corollary: in some important respects it is not the form but the half-form which is the really important grouping. For physical education and for
craft work the boys and girls of a form separate, and between them these two subjects will account for about a period a day. It is com- ’ mon, too, for boys to tend to be in higher maths sets than girls; and where a system of options operates, for there to be more girls than boys to choose a second foreign language in place of “double science” option.
These divisions accentuate wrhat would in any event be important — the tendency of the boys and girls of a form to crystallize into two distinct groups. In the fifteen and sixteen-year old group there is a marked difference in the list of subjects which turn up most frequently in conversation — among boys, games, cars and motor-bicycles occupied the high place which “boy friend” took among girls. There is a period in grouping up, and it falls within the secondary school years, when boys and girls spend a great part of their time in almost entirely different private universes.
This has at least one important consequence, given the form system and a co-educational school, which is often overlooked. The effective group in which one’s friends must be found is apt 1 to be fifteen, not thirty strong. One girl who was transferred from a girls’ school to a co-educational school at the age of thirteen was quick to point this out to her parents as a serious social disadvantage.
Other factors at school accentuate the quite natural dichotomy between the social life of boys and girls.
The lay-out of the buildings, for instance, plays its part. There must be separate boys’ and girls’ lavatories; their cloak-rooms are usually kept separate and placed close to the lavatory block; this often leads to separate entrances and so to a tendency for boys and girls to go their own separate ways as they leave the form room. And cloak-rooms are notoriously social centres for gossip. Then, too, the discipline and “welfare” of the school is apt to be divided in its upper reaches between the senior master with a special responsibility for boys and a senior mistress with a special responsibility for girls. There is often, too, a feeling among the staff that close friendship between boys and girls may easily become too close so that half unconsciously, the set of school life may be turned in favour of an apartheid which would in any event come naturally enough to boys and girls of fourteen and fifteen.
Secondary education for boys has a much longer history than for girls, and consequently many institutions and customs of general secondary school life not only derive historically from boys’ schools but are more naturally adapted to, boys’ interests and ways of life. They have been copied and modified to suit girls’ needs in girls’ schools and co-educational schools; but it is easier to look at them first where they naturally belong.
Traditionally games rankled almost on an equality with lessons as a feature of school life. They were indeed often spoken of by authority as lessons of a most important kind — moral lessonsj which
induced such virtues as courage and unselfishness, not only on the playing field but in all the relations of life. The traditional “Godfearing, games-playing Englishman” was almost exclusively a player of team games — that is why tennis and golf were long frowned at as school games. He played for his aide, his house, his school against other sides, houses, schools. Tribal spirit was cultivated as a good in itself. The team games were ball games and, par excellence, cricket or football in one or other of its two forms. At best a grudging acknowledgement of other forms of sport was made. Schools had their “Committee of Games”, or some similarly titled institutions, which regulated the degree of deference to be allowed to this or that activity.
The undisputed hegemony of ball games over all other forms of physical skill was challenged by the new race of physical education specialists who began to appear in schools a generation ago. They believed that they had something of value to offer to every boy, and that the exclusive claims of cricket and football prevented many boys who lacked the special gifts required for them from developing the physical confidence which could be theirs. Field and track events began to be serious items in a school programme; canoeing and sailing and rock-climbing made their appearance — greatly to the benefit of many who in the past would have missed these opportunities and never risen above the miserable level of a “pick-up game”. School physical education programmes began to come under a new kind of scrutiny which posed two questions. Is there a sufficiently wide choice to elicit from each his best? Is sufficient thought given to introducing those forms of physical recreation which are most likely to be actively carried on into adult life? The revolution has gone far, but it is by no means complete as yet.
The transfer of the prefect system from a predominantly board-’ ing school situation, which is where it had its origin, to a predominantly day school situation has by itself changed the nature of the job to be done and made it far less important. It was not to deal with the classroom situation that prefects were appointed. The classroom is the teacher’s kingdom. In a day school over four-fifths of the pupils1 time is spent there; in a boarding school there are about ten hours a day which are spent neither in lessons nor in sleep. Some of this, of course, is spent in the equivalent of home-work, and for some of it masters are present and on duty; but in the main, this time is the prefects’ opportunity and responsibility. There is a real job to be done, and on the whole it is well done.
There is a contrast between day and boarding schools not only in the time during which prefects are on duty, but in the nature of their work. Almost of necessity in a day school their job has to be defined in terms of general supervision. It is a rather impersonal job. They are in a way like masters deprived of their forms. In a school the masters like the prefects have a general supervisory duty in corridors and playing fields which is impersonal, officious; but with the forms they teach, especially with those they teach frequently, their role is not only didactic and supervisory, but it is also pastoral. It is personal and warm. So, too, in a boarding school the prefect’s role is rooted in his house. It is his home as well as his sphere of duty. He has a personal concern to bring on and encourage the younger boys; they too are members of the same house and older and younger stand in a reciprocal relation of rights and duties to one another. The prefect operates in a society which, though bigger than a form, is still small enough (fifty would be a fair everage number) and close enough knit to be a real society. Most of this the day school prefect misses. It is a real loss. His job is not, perhaps, half the job it is made out to be. How and by what means do masters and teachers maintain, discipline? The good disciplinarian, the sue cessful master or prefect, rarely has to punish. It just does not occur to people to disobey. There is no formula on which he relies; his secret is part of his personality. There are schools, too, in which punishment is rarely necessary. It is a little easier to see why they succeed than why individual teachers or prefects command respect. Good organization, an orderly life, plenty to do, good teachers, clear direction, the certainty of fair play — these are the components of a well-run, well-disciplined school.
But sanctions are always there in the background, and punishments exist and are used. Corporal punishment is so much part of the folklore of English education, and so incomprehensible to most other modern countries, such as the United States, that it would be wrong not to mention it. It still exists in most English schools; it is even applied in some schools, though rarely to adolescent girls. Fifty years ago in most schools all masters and, in boarding schools, all prefects would have been allowed to use the cane. Now fewer people are allowed to use it, and it is much less frequently employed. And on the whole there is a self-consciousness about its employment, a psychological uneasiness, which is entirely new. Few would claim today that it had any positive value; it would be defended only as a deterrent. But it would be wrong to suggest that most teachers would be prepared to see it abolished.
A closer look is needed at the crude contrast between a seven-hour day school and a fourteen-hour boarding school one. Sometimes, indeed, seven hours is all that the day school can provide. In the countryside school buses fit in their contract journeys in time to allow them to keep their next contract to deliver the factory workers back to the villages. There is no margin for any after-school activities except for those few who live near the school itself or who have access to private transport. To take one example: a small country comprehensive school of over six hundred pupils has fifty boarders and less than a hundred boys and girls who live in the immediate neighbourhood. The other three-quarters come from thirty different villages spread over eighty-four square miles of country. This is by no means an exceptional state of affairs. At the other end of the scale some of the predominantly boarding schools (usually independent schools), which take a proportion of day boys, expect them to follow the full boarding school regime, using their homes in term time only for bed and breakfast, and perhaps for Sunday dinner.
In between stand the great majority of town day schools. There is a good deal going on after school hours on most days of the week. The range of activities is large — orchestal practice, play rehearsals, chess clubs, athletic training, art clubs, debating or photographic societies, a range restricted only by the interests of the staff of the school. Societies often run in duplicate, like holiday trains, to cater for junior and senior pupils. There is in theory something for everybody. But in practice only a minority use what is provided. As far as modern schools are concerned, only a quarter of the senior boys and girls take any appreciable part in school societies, just as only a quarter of the boys end up by playing in a school team. And, on the whole, it is the abler boys and girls who make most use of what is offered. “Out of school” activities do not in fact compensate those who are bad at school work or indifferent in games for their ill success in these departments; far more often they supplement success in the one with participation in the other. This is known to be true in modern schools; it is likely, as far as one can. judge from observation, to be true also of grammar schools and independent schools. This is not to decry in any way the value of what is provided — all work and no play would make Jack a dull boy, and English schools are rightly proud of avoiding this pitfall. It is, however, clear that a considerable fraction of the boys and girls on a school find little satisfaction in any aspect of secondary school life.
(From Understanding Schools by D. Ayerst)