I spent my schooldays staring the glass out of the windows. The poverty of expectation suffocated aspiration. The punitive discipline blunted everything about us. Teachers yawned their way through lessons. I had been imprisoned for a crime I had not committed. I hid from bullies and sports masters in music and art rooms, inventing Utopias and plotting escapes.
As I sat under the apple tree
A birdy sent his love to me
And as I wiped it from my eye
I said, Thank goodness, cows can’t fly
Every generation of schoolchildren is a law unto themselves. They create exclusion and inclusion zones that define their place in history. Membership of cliques is determined by gender, race, class, pop, fads, haircuts, shoes, vocabulary, inflection, scatology, and a host of subliminal attributes. Driven by explosions of hormones, the capricious attraction of these tribes is compelling.
Adam and Eve and Pinch Me
Went down to the sea to bathe
Adam and Eve were drowned
Who do you think was saved?
Published in 1959, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren was the first comprehensive survey of juvenile vernacular in the British Isles and beyond. Iona and Peter Opie compiled this beguiling anthology from centuries of oral history, and it tracked the transition of a rural society to an industrial nation. The book is an anthropological tombola of fruity Anglo Saxon, clothed in the naivety of a Look At Life documentary.
Tell tale tit
Your tongue shall be split
And every dog in Liverpool
Shall have a little bit
Children are fragile and impressionable. The purpose of feral language is to carve out a position for the individual and sweet-talk peer groups. To be liked, trusted and picked for the team is bliss. To be ostracised and ridiculed is devastating.
Mickey Mouse was in a house
Wondering what to do
So he scratched his bum-tiddly-um-pum-pum
OUT GOES YOU!
Children are not afraid of language. Words are mercurial playthings for expressing needs, feelings and ideas. Academia forces their verbal gymnastics and glorious fantasies into blinkers. Insecurity about what is ‘correct and incorrect’ instils a fear of the written word, which many adults drag around with them through life. However, vocal rebellion against formalised language has spawned an exhilarating lexicon of banter, jeers, torments and quips.
Splishy splashy custard, dead dog’s eyes
All mixed up with green snot pies,
Spread with stinky-pooh nice and thick
Swallow it down with a bucket of sick.
Guy Tarrant is an artist and teacher whose work explores authorship and behaviours. Confiscation Cabinets at the V&A Museum of Childhood features 150 objects impounded in schools over a 15-year period. School is the first great leveller. Some pupils kick against it. Others make the best of it. Few are liberated by it. Every treasure in this collection represents a struggle for identity and fizzes with the frisson of being found out. Disruptive behaviour is a cry for love. Ownership of – or just association with – something forbidden can do wonders for self-esteem.
Like the phrases in Lore and Language, items in the exhibition have been cannibalised to make a statement about the messenger and an impression on the receiver: erasers are scratched into love tokens, a fake credit card is drawn on a scrap of cardboard, stay thin with paper diet chips, school stationary is up-cycled into playing cards, pencils are chewed into totem poles. But they also have a therapeutic function as comfort blankets and diversions for children who feel alienated, frustrated and bored out of their minds.
Young blades at Shakespeare’s grammar school cherished their stilettos. Urchins in Dickensian schools brandished knuckle-dusters. Playground thugs in the 1950s fondled flick-knives in drainpipe trouser pockets. Bart Simpson loves his slingshots. The weapons in Confiscation Cabinets are home-made boys’ toys as quaint as they are chilling: a tennis ball incendiary bomb, a tube train hanging strap, a breath freshener flame thrower, a table leg cosh, an axe with splintered handle and slate chopper, a Sellotape finger trap. Violence and neglect are so ubiquitous in so many children’s lives, is it any wonder they defend themselves with aggression?
Mobile phones are confusing confiscation boundaries. Young people have intravenous relationships with their phones, and over protective parents regard them as umbilical chords. Some schools have banned phones outright, and seen reductions in teacher baiting, cyber-bullying, muggings, porn surfing, and malevolent online postings. Other schools have discovered that prohibition is counter-productive, and encourage students to use the computing power of phones for interactive learning in the classroom and to self-regulate recreational activity.
The Channel 4 series Educating Yorkshire provides a dramatic insight into a state secondary school. The warm, frank and boisterous relationships teachers develop with students are hugely supportive and challenge dissent and apathy. The aim of the school is to produce ‘happy’ citizens. Some children require months of intensive help before they begin to believe in themselves. The agony and the ecstasy of staff, pupils and parents overcoming difficulties is powerful stuff, but are the levels of conflict, stress and heartache in our schools inevitable?
Children are insatiably curious and have an instinctive appetite for learning. The talented will always fly, but so many kids are processed, chewed up, and spat out by the system. I work with many ‘grown-ups’ who have never fulfilled their potential, or even dared to live their dreams. The villain of the piece is our approach to education and the sclerotic supporting infrastructure. The blueprint – years of subject-led cramming tested by an exam at the end – was created by 19th century academics as a preparation for university. But in those olden days when the world moved at the speed of a horse, people were chained to their vocations.
The digital age moves at the speed of light. We need to rethink what intelligence is and the value of knowledge. In these times of diversity, pluralism, personalisation and frenzied innovation, education is still hamstrung by conformity and standardisation. Education should encourage a spirit of iconoclasm – not compliance. Instead of educating children for certainty, let’s inspire them to become fluent in volatility and pursue lifelong learning. We have no idea what could be lurking inside the head of a kid who has been exposed to virtual reality, nano-technology, and mobile communications from conception. We should set teachers free from clunky government directives and examination targets, to become provocateurs, catalysts and mentors.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently reported that England is ranked 22nd out of 24 western countries for literacy, and 21st for numeracy. 8.5 million adults in England and Northern Ireland have the numeracy levels of a 10-year-old. 22% of 16 to 19 year olds are functionally innumerate. 17% are illiterate. One-in-five pupils drops out at 16. The reaction of the establishment has been predictably anal, proposing even more back-to-basics teaching and tests.
This year a YouGov survey revealed that 32% of children have considered or attempted suicide by the age of 16. 29% of the respondents admitted self-harming. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) estimates that 80,000 children in the UK suffer from severe depression, and 54% cite stress at school as the main cause. Teachers’ worries about implementing syllabus and school inspections impacts on students. The demands of social media, fear of failure, anxieties about employment, dealing with broken homes – added to the maelstrom of adolescence is tough and many young people lack the emotional resilience to cope.
Every government introduces the Big New Idea to solve the education riddle, but most children are still extruded through the same old die. The UK’s most successful national wealth-creating characteristics spring from illogical, irrational and counterintuitive collisions of skills and entrepreneurialism. Teaching should not be about stuffing children’s heads with information, but liberating their imaginations. Children are voraciously creative but narrow minded target-driven education irons it out of them. Supposing every subject was integrated through innovation, ingenuity, creativity and play. This approach could sit above all specialisations and shape the National Curriculum. The Arts have gone through a thousand cuts; trivialised and marginalised. But music is massive part of youth culture, and taught holistically it could weave amazing learning curves through maths, science, physics, aesthetics, history, politics, psychology, semiotics, relationships, business, biology, anthropology, design & technology and foreign languages.
Albert Einstein loathed school. He found it dull, mechanical, inflexible, and felt intimidated by the pedantic teaching and rigid discipline. He was a disruptive, disobedient, anti-social, tongue-tied student who failed test after test. His violin was confiscated because he mucked about in class. Einstein developed a technique he called fanatical freethinking (that’s day dreaming to you and me) and went on voyages into his imagination. He was hounded by Jew haters, written off by professors, and finally expelled for forging sick notes. The most fulfilling part of his education happened after school through scientists, mathematicians and physicists who introduced him to new experiences. On receiving the Nobel Prize Einstein said that the driving forces behind his intuitive leaps of intellect were music and sailing.
So let’s consign disobedient and targets and school uniform and delivery mechanism and standardisation and behave and PowerPoint and drop out and centralised and expel and normal and detention and grades to the waste bin, and replace SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP with STAND UP AND EXPLODE.
Thanks to Guy for permission to use his images. Confiscation Cabinets continues at the V&A Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green until June 1st 2014