Authoritarian Schooling: A Catalogue of Damage compiled by David Gribble





Loss of self-respect






Jenifer Smith's M. Phil thesis for the University of Southampton is called An Exploration of Teaching in Action, and is an inspiring account of what teaching ought to be like. For the last twelve years she has been training teachers at the University of East Anglia. This is one of her memories of her own schooling.

The rules are something I remember most clearly about my own school and the consequences of obeying rules and of breaking rules. I remember the sinking feeling if I thought I was going to be told off, especially if it related to academic failure, and increasing contempt for what seemed to be totally trivial rules and for the children who were so disapproving when I broke them. At my secondary school there seemed to be any amount of rules about uniform and how it should be worn, and where and how we should be. I disobeyed the rules in the tamest of ways but it seemed to shock my peers. There was also a restrictive atmosphere of rules which terrified me because I would be shouted at and which, it seems to me now, restricted how I learnt.


Eleven years old. Monday. Silent reading presided over by the headmistress, iron grey hair wound in hoops round her head.

I forget to bring a reading book. I am not allowed in the library at break time. In desperation I ask the girls in the cloakroom. One, whom I have often heard praised for her choice of reading, offers me a book. I take it gratefully.

We sit in rows; each desk an island. I look at the book. Biggles. I don't think I've heard of that before. I open the page and begin to read and after two or three lines my heart sinks. I know not only that this is a book that I will not enjoy, but that it is a badly written book, and the careful tread of the head mistress comes closer, looking to see what we are reading, exchanging a word or two here and there. I pray she won't stop by me.

Perhaps I am crouched too closely over the book. She stops.

'What are you reading, Jenifer?'

The silence of the classroom is cracked open by the loud contempt if her voice. She is appalled by me.

The class is riveted

expands with the delight of another's discomfort

is warm with the pleasure that it is not they who are singled out.

Her voice addresses the class on and on.

And all this time my heart and mind are raging. I am holding back tears. I am shouting from within at the contemptible woman.


I couldn't have explained I had forgotten my book and then asked to go to the library.

I couldn't reject the book I'd been lent and find another.

I couldn't explain what I thought about the book.

I couldn't explain the injustice of her behaviour.


Rules are not all written or even spoken; rules of conduct in the classroom, expectations about what was a worthy activity, restricted what I learnt and, more seriously, how I learnt. I changed my view of myself as a potential learner.

It was at this school that I think I must have developed an image of myself as the fool.