Discipline
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Discipline

Discipline in schools, especially since the banning of corporal punishment, has been an issue close to the hearts and minds of teachers and parents.  Strong views on the merits and the moral acceptability of strapping pupils are held by opposing groups.  Since the banning of the strap in the 1980s it has been suggested by some that the lack of corporal punishment, and a suitable and effective alternative for the enforcement of discipline, has had a detrimental effect upon order in schools.  However, there is no returning to the previous position and it is likely that change in society rather than school discipline has affected the perceived change in children�s behaviour.

What is probably true is that the legendary �Lochgelly Strap� from Fife was much overused.  Various styles, thicknesses and shapes of this once essential tool of the teacher could be purchased and used by teachers under the guise of names such as strap, belt, Lochgelly and tawse, to treat every classroom ill imaginable.

In recent times most teachers who still remember the strap will tell you that they did not �use it much� or �I did not actually use it myself.�  I have in my possession five straps picked up over the years and indeed still have no idea how one went about purchasing the required leather!  Still further I strongly claim that I hardly ever used the belt while former pupils, on occasions, have indicated the opposite to me.   The strap has become one of the best remembered parts of a pupil�s school life.  Embellished memories bringing the subject into folklore  are not uncommon.  There was a certain pride in saying �I got the belt and could take it� or on the other side a comment, often, from girls that �I never got the belt�. 

Teachers were seen as strong disciplinarians and held in awe and generally respected.  Mrs Heather McLean mentions Miss Wares in this respect but notes her kind, professional side when she states that Miss Wares came to her house on Saturday mornings to keep her up to date when she had been absent from school for some weeks.

Mr James Wilson, a pupil in the Miller Academy from 1939 to 1945, notes the following regarding the use of corporal punishment and, of course, I have omitted the teachers names!

Mr �So and So� strapped all the class with monotonous regularity.

Miss �D� gave two of the strap to everyone who did not get 75% of the homework answers correct.

Miss _____  strapped unnecessarily and brutally.

Mr Wilson, himself, received �six of the best,� from Mr Ironside, in his last week in school for smoking in the toilets.  (Mr Ironside is not the teacher referred to above).

One former pupil, now a High School Teacher, admits to having been strapped with the rest of her class.  The Primary 2 class of around 50 were left for about 30 minutes and no one would own up to talking when the teacher returned to find an �unacceptable� noise!  With such large classes it must have been difficult to maintain discipline and at the same time give a good grounding in the various curricular areas, yet most teachers managed to do both.  Another teacher records how they were regularly belted by Miss Cormack for talking while she chatted to Stanley the Attendance Officer � �We were supposed to be learning a psalm!�  she states.  On other occasions she got the belt for eating an apple in class and for dropping a pandrop sweetie on the floor.

Former pupil  Elizabeth Manson, and herself a teacher, remembers being punished but not with the strap.  She remembers being punished by receiving a crack on the head with the ruler!  She does not state by whom but she does remember some of the teachers who she grew to respect and like.  She says, in response to a question regarding teachers who left an impression on her, �Mr Bruce, who taught maths must have left an impression � after all I have spent my life teaching the subject.  Actually the teacher I remember most vividly was Mr Shurie for whom I had great respect although he was quite strict.  Miss Isobel Milne came to Thurso in my last year and although she never taught me she was one of the first people I met in Wick High some four years later.�

One has to question the value of punishing a whole class and, indeed, it is almost certain that a large number of innocent children would have been badly treated in such circumstances.  It must also be questioned as to the correctness of punishing all children for not getting a required mark in school work done in the school or at home.

Effective alternatives to corporal punishment have, nevertheless, been hard to find and teachers in recent years have had to work hard to keep many children in check.  There has sometimes been a reluctance on the part of parents to accept the wrongdoing of their children and effective home discipline has often been lacking.  It is oft said, and I am sure true, that in �days gone by� a report of punishment at school led to a second �dose� at home.   It is now more likely to be the case that the parent will telephone the school and suggest that the child was either unfairly treated, was led astray by someone else or was only defending himself.   In many years of teaching I have been told �my child was led� but have yet to be told �my child was the leader in the incident.�

Alternative sanctions have included detention over breaks, detention after school, punishment exercises or withdrawal of privileges.  All have drawbacks and none is particularly effective where a pupil is intent on being disruptive.  Positive encouragement in the form of a system of rewards, at times, may be tried with some pupils but the usefulness of such a �bribe� may often be short-lived.  Praise and encouragement are certainly effective with some pupils though I am a sceptic as to the success of such an approach when applied to consistently troublesome individuals who disrupt the work of the school and the education of their peers.

It was with some amusement that I read the memories of Katrina Gordon (nee Watson) sent from Edinburgh.  Her achievement, she says, is that she is, �probably the only professional bassoon player to emerge from Miller Academy!�  Katrina claims to be ashamed of being party to keeping a �punishment exercise� book which recorded all the �poneeshment excorcizes� handed out by the �Germanic� Mrs Robertson in P6.  There appears to have been a certain kudos associated with having the most exercises.  It is claimed that Robert Bell had over one hundred exercises in one term.

Mr McIvor, Head Teacher, she recalls, was either in his office or �striding around the playground looking important.  I think from the way this memory is noted it is to be taken as a compliment.  Indeed, Mrs Gordon says, �I was impressed by his ability to maintain authority while still having a friendly smile for students and teachers alike.  Kids respected him greatly.  I wonder if the teachers did?�  As someone who worked for Mr McIvor, I am sure that the answer to the question is �Yes�.

It would appear that while �striding� around Mr McIvor would come upon a fight and end it with a very earnest lecture along the lines of, �I will not tolerate pupils of my school fighting in public.  You must remember at all times that the reputation of Miller Academy is at stake.�  Mrs Gordon offers the view that what Mr McIvor was really insinuating was that the behaviour was fit only for students of Mount Pleasant or Pennyland School.  I am sure the thought never crossed his mind and anyway such a statement would be thoroughly untrue! 

Another ex-pupil from more recent times, Mrs Anne Baird, who attended the school from 1968 to 1975 admits to cheating in one of Mrs Cossar�s spelling tests and chatting in Miss Gordon�s sewing class.  A brave pupil indeed to do the latter and she was justifiably punished but being called a �humbug� and made to stand in the corner with her back to the class was maybe a little on the harsh side.  Anne was just one of several who remembered �Granny Gordon�.  She might have been a hard taskmaster but nevertheless taught a generation of girls to knit and sew, skills now lacking in many.  Denise McLean (Wade) says she remembers, �Sitting in the knitting and sewing class with �Granny Gordon� who took us one at a time to learn to sew on the one and only school sewing machine.�  She recalls knitting a yellow teddy bear and making squares to make a blanket.

There is a tendency to think that all pupils in the years before the ending of corporal punishment could be kept in check by strapping and all were acceptably behaved.  This was clearly not the case and Rector Ironside was aware of this.  He wrote in 1932 of having a mason repair the inside wall of the boys� shelter at Mina Villa.  This shelter, he said, was not suitable as it was not possible to see what was going on inside it.  He ventured to suggest that the first intimation that staff would know what was going on therein would be when the boys, by their mischief, brought the building down upon themselves.

As early as 1874 there is a report in the school log stating, �Home work much neglected� and in 1875 �Home lessons� were not being carried out because outdoor amusements were so inviting to the scholars that they infringed upon the time for study.  Truancy was a problem then, as it is sometimes now, and it would appear that the authorities, as at present, were concerned by non-attendance but did not necessarily do anything to enforce the rules.  The log states in 1875, � Several boys have been absent all this week and some of them without any valid excuse.  The School Board of this Parish has hardly done anything yet either to compel attendance or to secure regularity of attendance.  Home lessons have not been prepared since the reopening so well as before.  Progress this week only moderate.�

The above is very like the present situation where the government, through the local authority, has attendance tables and targets for attendance but no �Wheeper In�.  The post of Attendance Officer disappeared a number of years ago as a cost saving measure.

Not all truancy was easy to identify nor was it long term.  Often parents did not know what was going on and never found out.  Finlay Swanson freely admits that in his last few months in school, in 1933, he would miss classes and had a careful plan not to be caught.  He says, �If I was late I would stay in the toilet until the end of the first period, then join my class for registration.  Obviously I couldn�t do this if the registering teacher had us for the first period.�  Mr Swanson admits getting the strap from Mr Bruce but he says, �not for school work.�  One has to wonder what he was up to!

Not all those supplying memories admitted to achievements, things to be ashamed of or punishments.  Norna Mackay felt there should be things she would be ashamed of but couldn�t think of them!  However, I was amused by her punishment on one occasion.  For inattention she was tapped on the head with a metre stick (or should it have been a yard stick?) which broke.  She indicates that since she felt little or no pain it must have been cracked.  What is interesting, and somewhat amusing, is that a male class member stood up and said, �You never hit a lady.�  Much to her embarrassment and surprise it would appear that she was the one who was sent to Rector Ironside!

When Farquhar MacDonald took over as Rector in 1887 he was little impressed by the attendance of pupils and having tested all the classes in reading in February of that year he concluded that the reading was bad in the great majority of cases and in some instances slovenly.  He saw this as a problem of application and behaviour and stated, � Pupils must be made to speak out and taught to be more active in their movements.�

Even crimes such as theft were not unknown in what is often termed the �good old days� when children were supposedly better behaved and more mannerly than in recent times.  A log book entry for 1934 records;

On Monday a pupil from Miss Jack�s class was punished by Mr Gunn in my presence (Mr Ironside�s presence) and with the knowledge of his father.  I warned the father that there was a grave risk of the boy being taken from his charge should said boy not cease his present series of thefts.  It is admitted that the boy stole 6d from a fellow pupil on the first Friday of November and again on the second Friday of November when he was found out and punished by Mr Gunn.  On the fourth Friday of November he stole rock and being found out confessed that about a year ago he stole a gold watch from Miss Coghill, who, as a matter of fact, had suspected him of having done so but kept her suspicions to herself for lack of evidence.� 

An entry in the West Public log in 1904 refers to behaviour and though the method of constraint and discipline is not indicated, there clearly had to be some form of retribution for the actions alluded to in the entry.

�There has been fair progress during the week.  In class I the girls attend badly and with them the progress is very slow.  In class III some of the boys are hopelessly bad and at least six or seven of them would require the constant attention of the teacher to the exclusion of the remainder of the class.�

A glance through any school log of past years will no doubt indicate that pupils today are little different from their earlier counterparts and we pay the present pupils a disservice by suggesting that their discipline and general behaviour is generally worse.