The Savage Classroom

Last session, for the first time in many years with a Higher English class, and to coincide with the 50th anniversary of both the novel and the teacher, I decided to study Lord of the Flies, Sir William Golding’s classic text.

For anyone who happened to miss it at school, or for those who haven’t read it since, allow me to give you a brief reminder of the plot: a group of English public schoolboys find themselves completely isolated after their plane has crash-landed on a remote island while they are being evacuated from a vaguely suggested war. There are no surviving adults, and the boys, aged between six and 12, have to fend for themselves.

The island they find themselves on is the archetypal tropical paradise, with palm-fringed beaches, blue lagoons and abundant sources of fruit.

Their initial pleasure at finding themselves in a world without adults is short-lived, however, and their inability to organise themselves means that, within a short space of time, things have descended into a state of anarchy.

Near the beginning of the novel, one of the characters remarks with heavy irony: “We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages. We’re English; and the English are best at everything.”

Too late, of course, through the saintly figure of Simon they discover that the human capacity for violence and self-destruction is never far beneath the thin veneer of civilisation and that, yes, even Englishmen are capable of behaving like savages.

I knew a teacher once who was having terrible trouble with a difficult class, and a particular group of 14-year-old boys within it. Most of them were loud, many of them had learning difficulties of one kind or another and some of them had what might be euphemistically described as turbulent home lives.

The teacher believed that the best way of dealing with them was to be tough, and to prove that he wouldn’t stand for any nonsense – the “zero tolerance approach”. If they were loud, he would be even louder; he would soon knock them into shape, and his tortured shouts could be heard throughout the building, if not the whole school.

Unlike Golding’s story, the rest of this one is fairly predictable. Of course, the class loved his confrontational teaching methods (except the quiet, acquiescent pupils around the fringes whose lessons were a misery and who never had the opportunity to speak), and they thrived on it. It was the kind of challenging, aggressive behaviour they spent so much of their time practising and honing to perfection, so there was no way he was going to win this particular contest.

“They’re just like savages,” he said to me in despair one day as I arrived to answer an emergency call, and without a hint of irony.

Peter Peacock, the Education Minister, provoked some outrage a few months ago when he reacted to the news of a dramatic increase in the number of violent classroom incidents by calling for more detailed information. It was considered by many to be a classic political manoeuvre, defusing a highly emotive situation and stalling for time, while he weighed up his options. The consequent appointment of a so-called “discipline tsar” did little to appease those who are already convinced that behaviour in schools has deteriorated to the point of anarchy.

Despite the criticism, however, the minister was right. We need to look behind the statistics, and separate the increasing but small number of acts of aggression and violence from the kind of indiscipline which arises when the environment or the circumstances are inappropriate: classes which are too big; classrooms which are too small and overheated; teachers who stubbornly refuse to change the teaching methods they thought worked 30 years ago; or teaching and learning which takes a “one size fits all” approach.

All of the above can be changed, some a lot more easily than others. Human nature is a different matter. As Golding, who was a teacher himself for a number of years, so cleverly realised and articulated, we are all capable of hurtful and unreasonable behaviour – and even at the extremes, what might be described as savagery. But not everyone who is capable of savagery is a savage, and we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that, for the most part, our schools are actually havens of reason and respect.

There are no easy answers and the most useful thing we can do is seek a better understanding of the issues. In the words of the American humorist H L Mencken: “For every human problem, there is a neat, simple solution; and it is always wrong”.


This article was first published in TES on 15 October 2004.


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