The old Rector would walk across the village green from the primary school each Friday morning. There would be reading of the catechism from black Books of Common Prayer and then, if he was satisfied with progress, some pages read from C.S. Lewis.
The only memory of those mornings, and there must have been many of them, was a vague sense of resentment at having to read the funny language of the catechism. No-one I knew went to church.
However, anyone may have felt, there was perfect silence even in this most boring of moments, to have messed around would have brought great wrath down upon our heads.
At secondary school in Devon, a similar attentiveness was expected. One morning the science teacher was explaining the components of granite, pointing to each as he held up a large lump he had gathered from his garden. Quartz and feldspar did not capture the imagination of Tony, who sat on the back row talking to his neighbour. Without warning, the granite flew across the room, bounced on the desk just in front of Tony, taking a chip out of the formica, before hitting the back wall and falling to the floor. There was a stunned silence and the class continued.
It was a different world from Sebastian Faulks’ evocation of life in a London comprehensive school in A Week in December, (which is hopefully a gross caricature, because were the description of Radley’s teaching experience even partly realistic, such a state of affairs would be a scandal):
At his first school, he’d twice been suspended and sent to anger management courses. Eventually, a senior colleague took pity and explained the principle of control. ‘Never lock on. Never engage one-to-one. You can’t win a battle of egos. Speak softly. Stay respectful. Answer without sarcasm, and if they won’t co-operate, don’t rebuke them. Never, ever raise your voice above a four out of ten.’
It took some practice. Radley didn’t approve of the system because he felt it admitted that the teachers had ceded control to the pupils. The kids were allowed to come in late to lessons; and after having once been threatened with a sexual harassment suit, Radley never again asked a girl pupil what had kept her. They were allowed to talk pretty much unchecked throughout a class, though if you could quell the noise by a soft and a generalised appeal that was all right; what was not permitted was to single out the talker by name. They were allowed not to work if they didn’t fancy it, though they could be gently reminded once. Swearing was permitted, unless it had racial or sexual overtones: Abir could call Radley himself a bastard but couldn’t call Mehreen, who sat next to her, a bitch.
The corridors between lessons were a hard-hat zone, best avoided. The tiny first-year girls of barely four foot tall clung like shadows to the wall as raging fat six-footers of both sexes surged past them, heavy bags swinging, shouting down the length yellow and blue corridors.
In an anarchical society, it is the rich and powerful who will always triumph. Affluent parents will move their children to private schools, or will move to neighbourhoods with the best state schools; it is the less wealthy who will be left behind to cope whatever way they can.
Perhaps Faulks’ description is nothing like what really goes on, perhaps.