I was thirteen years old in 1979, when Pink Floyd’s double album “The Wall” came out. When my friends and I first heard “Another Brick in the Wall”, we didn’t need to ask what Pink Floyd meant by “no dark sarcasm in the classroom”. We were all too well aware. At the time, sarcasm and humiliation were part of the relationship between some teachers and their students. (Not all, by any means, but plenty, all the same.) Corporal punishment was the ultimate consequence for bad behaviour – the threat of the cane hung over us. You didn’t answer back in those days, because you knew what would happen if you did. Amazingly, it would be another 7 years before corporal punishment was outlawed in state schools; shockingly, it would be another 19 years before it was completely banned in private schools as well. In the 1970’s it was seen as pretty much normal practice for a head teacher to beat a child with a hard stick. These days we would view it as completely unacceptable – if it happened, the head teacher would be sacked. It amazes me how much our viewpoint on this has changed, within my own lifetime.
In 1992 the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child came in force in the UK, enshrining a series of rights for children into law. In 1994, the UK signed the Salamanca Statement, which stated that the inclusion of children with disabilities in state schools should become the norm, rather than the exception. It is hard to believe that these things have not always been with us; but actually they are relatively recent changes. With changing attitudes about the way that young people should be treated, and the demise of physical punishment in schools, a change had to happen in the way that we educated children as well. When teachers no longer had the ‘ultimate threat’ to back up their authority, and when they were asked to keep all children in their classrooms, they had to learn to gain control in other ways. With inclusion seen as a benefit rather than a burden, the teaching profession had to start to think creatively about engaging all young people with the process of being educated. The old fashioned methods that had been normalised – the ‘one size fits all’, Floyd’s “dark sarcasm in the classroom” – could no longer be used.
It is worth remembering that many young teachers coming into the profession today were not even born when corporal punishment was banned from state schools. Some of them were not born when the idea of inclusive education first became a reality, either. It must be hard for young teachers to imagine a time when small children were beaten by their teachers, when children with disabilities were kept out of mainstream schools, and when horrid words like ‘mong’ and ‘spaz’ were the common parlance of the playground. It is all too easy to moan about political correctness, from the comfort of 21st century attitudes. It is tempting to complain about how children these days know their rights, yet they don’t understand their responsibilities. But this is to deny the fundamental changes in society, and particularly in the way that we treat children, that have taken place over the past half century. When I think about the education that my own children receive, and I compare it with some of the schooling I had as a child, the gulf between the two is unimaginable. If you are ever tempted to reminisce about the good old days, when children knew how to behave, remember this. The good old days were bad old days for many, so really there was no choice. We had to tear down the wall and start working with the kids.