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Research and statistics: United Kingdom

"Top CP schools": the Friends Reunited evidence

by Steve Donne Davis and C. Farrell

Friends Reunited was one of the great success stories of the early World Wide Web in the UK, and at its peak it reached 11 million members. Its main purpose was to enable long-lost former schoolmates to get back in touch. This proved an extremely popular formula.

However, it also provided a space for members to write personal memories of their old school. This is what interests us here. The website's creators unwittingly supplied the social and cultural historian with a rich source of informal first-person accounts of British school life, especially in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

The 'memories'

These narratives were mostly short, typically two or three sentences. Any one of them alone would count for little. It is the cumulative effect of several people recollecting the same schools in the same period which gave this research resource its power.

By studying these reminiscences, we can build up a useful impression, not just of what it was like to be at school at a particular time and the kinds of things that happened, but what students thought and felt about it or, at least, what in retrospect they now think they felt.

Two caveats might be entered. First, this is obviously not a scientifically representative exercise. The people who chose to join Friends Reunited may not be typical. And of those who did, only a self-selected minority bothered to record any "memories". Furthermore, the evidence by its very nature is of anecdotal rather than statistical significance.

Second, personal recollections can be notoriously unreliable. People do misremember events. They may even succumb to the temptation to embroider their stories. That is why this website normally eschews uncorroborated anecdotal evidence.

However, it is suggested that in the case of Friends Reunited there is to some extent a self-regulating "peer review" mechanism against this. That is to say, a contributor is unlikely to write something ridiculously untrue about how things were at such-and-such a school at a given period, since he or she will know that others who were there at the same time would probably write in and challenge it. This is not an absolute guarantee against fraudulent claims, obviously. But it probably means that, taken in the round, the evidence does have a degree of what lawyers call "probative value".

The new Top Fifty

The table sets out our "Top Fifty CP schools" -- those with the most mentions of corporal punishment, out of the schools we have looked at so far. We have not read through every single page of F.R. reminiscences for every school in the country, of which there are tens of thousands.

However, hundreds of hours were spent researching this, and the majority of secondary schools in England and Wales were looked at. (We have not dealt with Scotland or Northern Ireland, which have quite different systems and traditions.)

A possible criticism of this table is that it takes no account of different school sizes. By taking the absolute number of mentions found, one is arguably discriminating against smaller schools which may have had a high rate of CP pro rata to their student population. It should be possible, but it would be a lot of work, to dig out from old reference books the number of pupils at each school 30 or 40 years ago and arrive at a relative rather than absolute figure.

It may also be that certain schools would appear in this list if they did not have their own very popular and lively alumni websites. There is now a fair number of these, and they have probably to some extent "siphoned off" memories that might otherwise have appeared in Friends Reunited. Examples might include Battersea Grammar SchoolEXTERNAL LINK: opens in new window in London and the remarkable St Augustine's RC SchoolEXTERNAL LINK: opens in new window in Manchester.

Some conclusions

What conclusions might we tentatively draw from these historical data?

The first thing that leaps out at the reader is how much fun many students appear to have had at school. Whether they learned anything or not, they do in many cases seem to have been having a good time, contrary to the picture often presented of schooldays as a largely miserable experience.

When the subject of corporal punishment spontaneously arises (bear in mind that nobody has asked the contributors to discuss this subject), more often than not the tone of voice is one of wry amusement or, at least, a cheerful acceptance that that is how things were in those days. Negative and bitter comments do crop up occasionally, but they are very much in the minority except at a tiny handful of manifestly exceptionally bad schools.

In contrast to the impression sometimes given in today's grimly earnest atmosphere of "political correctness", most students who received CP clearly did not think they were being "abused" and still do not think so now. Where there are grumbles, they are usually about the perceived unfairness of an accusation rather than about the mode of punishment.

Particularly noteworthy is the significant number of contributions paying tribute to admired teachers despite (or occasionally even because of!) their enthusiastic use of the cane or slipper.

The fact that there are relatively few negative comments about corporal punishment is not perhaps so surprising when one remembers that, generally speaking, it was not teenagers themselves who wanted it abolished. Certainly, many F.R. contributors said they thought CP was a good and positive feature of their schools, whether or not they mention receiving it themselves.

A second series of conclusions relates to schools' use of CP. The most obvious is that corporal punishment seems to have been used most extensively in boys-only schools. Only about ten of the schools in the Top Fifty are mixed-sex, even though mixed-sex schools are and were more common than single-sex schools. This is not the same thing as saying that most mixed-sex schools didn't use CP. On the contrary, most of them did, albeit mainly on their boys. But the evidence tends to suggest they used it on average rather less often than did boys-only schools. Maybe CP really was, culturally speaking, the overwhelmingly "guy thing" that some of us have always suspected.

Schools in large conurbations feature most often in the list, with a remarkably high proportion of schools -- no fewer than 35 out of the 50 -- being in Greater London (which has only 14% of the population of England). This appears entirely to discredit what was at one time the "conventional wisdom" in the teaching profession that CP became more prevalent the further north you went. If anything, the opposite seems to be the case; more accurately, perhaps, one should say that school CP seems to have been predominantly an urban phenomenon.

The Top Fifty are by no means all schools in tough areas attended by those who failed the 11-plus. A significant number are grammar schools, which taught the more academically-inclined (but, it seems, not necessarily better behaved) pupils. (It does occur to us that F.R. reminiscences might have had an unfair bias towards grammar schools, since their former pupils will by definition tend to be better educated than average, and this might make them more likely to write about their experiences. If this is so, the volume of CP at Secondary Modern schools is probably under-reported.)

We have not deliberately left out the independent (private) sector. Contrary to what some might expect, however, only one school in the Top Fifty is a private (fee-paying) school. Private schools contain less than 10% of the school population nationally, but have tended in the past to be much more sharply associated in the public mind, or at any rate in popular culture, with corporal punishment than state schools. It seems likely that this was always a myth. On the other hand, private schools as whole might, for various possible reasons, be somewhat under-represented in total F.R. participation.

This might be particularly true of boarding schools. (People tend to think of boarding schools when private education is mentioned, but many private schools in fact have few or no boarders.) Other anecdotal evidence suggests that CP was particularly prevalent at boarding schools, and it would be surprising if this were not so, since their students were there 24 hours a day and thus by definition had three times as many opportunities to misbehave and be punished as day students. Why then do more such schools not appear in the F.R. recollections? The weight of such schools in the overall picture is undoubtedly overstated in the public imagination -- boarding schools never did have more than a small percentage of the total school population, though they did educate a wildly disproportionate share of the country's elite -- but we think also that former students of schools of that kind are more likely to have their own networks (annual dinners, newsletters, etc.) which predate F.R. and that they may therefore have been somewhat less likely to use F.R. at all.

Secondary schools in England, even of the same type in the same area, clearly varied enormously in their use of CP. This confirms earlier surveys, such as STOPP's analyses of punishment books from certain local education authorities in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Formal canings certainly did take place in many schools up until abolition in the state sector in 1987, but a few never used the cane at all, many used it only infrequently, and a substantial minority used it a lot. There is some evidence that this was also true as far back as the 1950s, but here the data are much thinner on the ground.

The evidence also suggests that "unofficial" CP was much more frequent than the more formal kind. In these recollections, informal slipperings or spankings are mentioned rather more often than ceremonial punishments in the headmaster's study. There really does appear to have been a great deal of this going on in schools of all kinds. The classic "Beano" cartoon image of a slipper-wielding teacher, bending the errant pupil over his desk at the front of the class for an instant whacking, turns out to have been a quite accurate representation of reality in many schools.

More depressingly, at a few schools, spur-of-the-moment casual violence by staff seems to have gone unchecked on occasion -- typically a student being punched in the arm, smacked in the face or clouted around the head by an out-of-control teacher. We do not regard these regrettable phenomena as proper corporal punishment, and have not included such alleged incidents in the figures.

Terminology notes:

Secondary schools generally cover the age range 11 to 18 but there are exceptions in some areas.

Grammar schools are, or were, selective state schools (often, but not always, single-sex) for the more academically inclined student following an exam or an IQ test at the age of 11 (the "11-plus"). However, some former grammar schools which have "gone comprehensive" (see below) still retain their old name, so nowadays a school's true status is not necessarily apparent from its name. Some others - though none in our present list - have "gone independent" (i.e. fee-paying) and are no longer part of the state system at all.

Secondary modern schools, which may be single-sex or mixed, are for those who "fail the 11-plus" in areas which retain selection at age 11, i.e. students who are not selected for grammar school.

Comprehensive schools (often, but not always, mixed-sex) in principle accept students across the full ability range without selection on academic or any other criteria. These are nowadays the norm in the majority of places. Some call themselves high schools or even, misleadingly, colleges, but these terms have no particular meaning in the English system.

Local education authorities (LEAs) are responsible for running public education in a given geographical area -- more or less equivalent to US school boards. There are about 120 LEAs in England and Wales, with widely varying population sizes (Scotland and Northern Ireland have a completely different system). The LEA determines policy for the schools in its area and, until corporal punishment was abolished by national law in 1987, this included making policy -- or, in some cases, deciding not to have any policy -- on the use of CP. Since our data refer to before 1987, we have ignored more recent local government reorganisations, such as the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority in 1990.

Whacking, a word we have borrowed from school students' own colloquial vocabulary, is used here as a generic term to describe any kind of deliberate corporal punishment, irrespective of the instrument used, including with no instrument at all other than the punisher's hand. American English tends to use "spanking" for this purpose, but "spanking" in British English has traditionally had a narrower meaning, referring only to punishment with the hand.

The slipper is something of a euphemism: in most cases it was actually a heavy tennis shoe or gym shoe (or "dap" or "pump" or "plimsoll"), more often known nowadays in British English as a training shoe (or "trainer") and in American English as a sneaker.

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Copyright © C. Farrell and Steve Donne Davis 2002, 2016
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