Ask anybody over fifty what constitutes the biggest change in education between then and nowadays, and most people would reply "discipline - or lack of it". Without doubt, pupils were subjected to a far greater degree of discipline and were expected to behave in a far more submissive and modest manner. Failure to do so often resulted in corporal punishment and the cane. It is behaviour and discipline at school about seventy years ago in Westmorland that ex-pupils are recalling this week.
The cane...aye. Four across each hand, four on your rump. And we used to get it quite regular, for little things like this... they'd set you an exam that you had to do five sums. Well, what you did of course was, knowing who was good at it, you used to glance over at him - 'What's so and so?' And then you used to put it down. Well the teacher knew when you weren't as good as that and out you had to come in front of the class, four on each hand, wham! And I was fighting at woodwork one day and we both had to come into the study and out in front of the class, four on each hand and four on your rump. And I was supposed to have pulled faces at Headmaster, I got another four on each hand. One of the boys stuffed a pillow down his rump. Well, of course the first time he hit him with the cane, the pillow split, and he had to take it out and there was a wailing went on!"
Other teachers owned a cane, but seldom used it:
"Caning was allowed but not encouraged. Its use was looked upon as a lack of ability on the part of the teacher. The children were mostly quiet and attentive simply because it was the custom, it never entered their heads to be anything else."
Just as many of our special schools face closure, it is interesting to note that mentally handicapped children, known as MDs or mental defectives, were educated then in ordinary schools alongside normal children as a matter of course; most childen accepted them and helped them to live as normal a life as possible, but bullies who occasionally attacked them in the playground were always harshly dealt with and beaten.
"It was very good for the normal children in the class in a way to realise that there were these children that had to be tolerated and cared for, and they were very patient with them on the whole. There were always one or two bullies who tried things and they would be punished. The teachers kept a careful watch over their MD's."
Occasional disciplinary problems seemed to occur in places where local children mixed with offcomers' families who had come to work in an area. However, one teacher who refused to resort to the cane eventually brought reason to triumph over punishment: "I found out that most children will respond to reasoning rather than to punishment and I used to find out that punishing the children didn't bother them as much as it bothered me. I was the one that suffered. And I used to go along with them sometimes.
"The only schools where there was any difficulty were Holme, Staveley and Shap and looking backwards on these three places, the three villages where they have works and people have come from outside, from Wales or Scotland or Birmingham or somewhere to work in the factories or the mills or whatever they had there. And they were just a little rebellious but nothing much. I think really the masters who used the cane or strap made it difficult for anyone like me who didn't use one because they thought I was soft. But its surprising how they accept authority, you don't have to bully them into it."
However, just exactly what constituted naughty behaviour varied from school to school and from teacher to teacher:
"This would have been about 1931 or 32, I saw my colleague marching across the park saying, 'I know where those three have gone and I know why. They've put plasticine in their hair and now they daren't go home and they've gone to wash it in the river!' Three untidy boys with spiky hair! That's about as naughty a thing as anybody ever did."
A striking example of the respect and fear with which children regarded school rules, especially punctuality, are well illustrated in one man's recollection of what happened in the park at Ambleside when the church clock struck nine as children were helping circus folk to put up their big top:
"As soon as the clock was striking the chime, you all had to be in your lines... I remember one time in particular when Sanders Circus was there . . . we used to help. A group of boys was helping to lay one of these big poles when suddenly the clock began to chime nine - that was it! Their instinct was to let go of the pole and run. Unfortunately the pole came down and hit one of the workers and broke his leg!
"It was discipline then, real discipline you know; but you took it because you knew it was fair, there was no picking on you, it was really proper discipline. And it also worked the other way. They had a thing called 'press the button' which was mental arithmetic; he'd fire a question at you, and you might start at a quarter to twelve, the first one that gave a correct answer, well off you go, which made you mentally alert. It was a great thing, you see; that's the other side of the story."
One teacher who started work in the 1920s found that the childrens' practice of speaking out in class today has changed everything in the classroom:
"I don't think I could handle a class in the same way - but I could handle it. I think I'd probably need six months' breaking in period like a student-teacher's year - because children of today can speak. Well, we weren't allowed to, you had the children there, but you don't speak. The teacher knows, you know. You don't argue with the teacher, if the teacher says it is so, then it is so. We daren't answer back. In fact many times they didn't even speak to us - take a signal, you worked to signals. That's really terrible now, when you think about it. There were one or two rebellious children I suppose but I think mainly as a result of discipline... if you got a sort of bad-tempered teacher, well, you got one or two in the class that used to make it their business to make a bad temper!"