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Behave or bend over for the slipper
UK Grammar School life in the 1960s
By David Kettering
I passed the 11-plus and went off to King's School in September 1963. I was two months short of my 12th birthday. King's was an old-fashioned boys' grammar school in the pleasant town of Macclesfield in East Cheshire. The school had been founded in the 16th century by Edward VI; hence the name. I had been told that King's was a strict school and that the slipper was in regular use. I was not unduly concerned. I knew that we would keep our trousers on for the punishment (a luxury not afforded me by my dad when he slippered me) and that they never gave more than 12 whacks, a restriction that did not apply at home.
I did not have to wait long to see the slipper in use. A few days into the first term two boys were talking while the Latin teacher was writing something on the blackboard. Mr W. turned round and beckoned the two chatterboxes to the front. There was total silence. The proverbial pin would have been heard if one had been dropped. We all knew what was about to happen. Mr W. opened a drawer in his desk and extracted a large black gym shoe. So that's what they use, I said to myself, more than a little surprised. It had never occurred to me that the "slipper" might be a big rubber-soled plimsoll. It looked a lot nastier than the carpet slipper that dad used.
One of the boys was told where to stand with his back to the class and ordered to bend over. He reached down and placed his hands somewhere between his knees and his ankles. His royal blue blazer was carefully folded back, the slipper was lined up against his grey shorts, it was raised high in the air, then "whoosh"; it flew through the air and landed on the seat of his shorts with a resounding thwack. The operation was repeated another two times. The boy seemed mightily relieved when he was told to stand up and make way for his conversation partner. The latter bent over as instructed and likewise received three hard whacks of the slipper. I was very glad it was not me. The whackings obviously hurt. Though neither of the boys cried, they both rubbed their bottoms ruefully as they made their way back to their desks.
I got my first taste of the slipper a week later, from the same teacher. I had forgotten to do my Latin homework on alternate lines, as had about a dozen of my classmates. I thought there might be safety in numbers. He surely couldn't whack us all. How wrong I was! We were made to line up in front of the blackboard and had to step forward, one at a time, and bend over for one very hard whack each. I discovered that trousers did not offer as much protection as I had imagined. The initial sting was extremely unpleasant, though it died down soon enough. I certainly did not fancy the idea of getting 12 of the best with that implement. After that I never again forgot to do my Latin homework on alternate lines.
The following week we had geography first period with Mr N., a notoriously strict teacher. He had already slippered two boys in our class for talking and both had cried. A few minutes after the start of the lesson there was a knock on the door. It was a boy from Mr N.'s form, a lad from the fifth year, aged about 15 or 16. He had arrived late and needed to enter the room in order to retrieve some books from his desk for the first lessons of the day. Mr N. allowed him to get his books. While he was doing so Mr N. opened his briefcase and removed a large white gym shoe. Remarking that the boy had been late once already that term, the teacher ordered him to put the books down for a moment and to bend over and touch his toes. The boy did as he was told, blushing profusely, perhaps due to embarrassment at the prospect of having his bottom spanked in front of a bunch of first years. Mr N. announced that he would be getting "six of the best". He was as good as his word. Six deafeningly loud whacks resounded around the room, shattering the silence. The poor lad left the room with tears streaming down his cheeks.
Before the term was out I discovered what it was like to receive six of the best off Mr N. I was walking along the corridor during break when an older boy came flying round the corner and collided with me, almost knocking me over. Without thinking I said "why don't you look where you're going, you f***ing idiot?" He immediately started to beat me up. I defended myself and we soon had a crowd of spectators urging us on. As luck would have it, the fight was broken up by Mr N. After listening to both sides he pronounced us equally guilty and said that we both deserved to be soundly slippered. He marched us off to his classroom, took his gym shoe out and ordered me to bend over. I remember a feeling of sheer dread as he was taking aim with the slipper. Time seemed to stop for a moment as I waited for it to happen. Then the sound of the slipper reverberated around the empty classroom as he walloped my backside. The pain was unbelievably intense. I cried so much that I hardly noticed my opponent receive his punishment.
Over the course of the next five years the slipper had a major impact on my behaviour at school and on my attitude to schoolwork. It was something I preferred to avoid if I could. I am sure my classmates felt the same way. Avoiding it was not, however, so easy. It was the standard response to any form of indiscipline and was used for all sorts of offences – arriving late, talking, not paying attention, not handing in homework on time, doing homework carelessly, copying homework, being in an out-of-bounds area, running in the corridor, not being correctly dressed (e.g. not wearing the hated cap on the way to school), going through the main gate reserved for teachers and prefects, crossing the road that divided the school in half (we were supposed to use the footbridge built at great cost because the road was dangerous), getting less than the pass mark in an end-of-term test, cheating in a test, forgetting one's recorder for a music lesson. The list was endless.
On average I would say that in the first three years two or three boys in my class of 35 were slippered each week. I got it regularly. Most of the time we were given between three and six whacks but it was not unusual to get eight or nine. The maximum (12) was given sparingly – perhaps two or three times a year. In the fourth and fifth year things changed slightly. In the run-up to "O" levels discipline became even stricter. Slacking was not tolerated. Tests were more frequent and were marked more rigorously. Hormonal changes were kicking in and some of the boys seemed determined to challenge authority at every opportunity. The result was an awful lot of sore bottoms, as the teachers strove to maintain order and push us through our exams. Slipperings were even more frequent in those two years and were generally rather more severe.
The whacks were always hard. Sometimes one could hear the sound of a slippering through the wall in the adjacent classroom. The procedure varied slightly, depending on the teacher. Some of them made us bend over and touch our toes. Some preferred to have us bend over with our hands on our knees. Some made us bend over the back of a chair or over the teacher's desk. Some whacked tremendously hard; some less so, though none of them went easy. There were no token whackings. Obviously some were stricter than others in terms of what we could get away with. Some would tolerate a little talking; others would reach for the slipper as soon as any chatter started. Some would let us off with a warning the first time homework was not handed in on time; for others, that automatically meant six of the slipper with no excuses accepted. It was the same if we arrived late. If you were lucky you might get away with it once a twice but if you were late three times in a term you were guaranteed a sore bottom.
One teacher I remember in particular was Mr H., our English teacher in my second year. We referred to him by his nickname "Tab". He was young (around 27, I would say) and very athletic. He was an accomplished disciplinarian, renowned for the ferocity of his slipperings. I remember the day when he quizzed two boys who had handed in homework that was absolutely identical, errors and all. Not obtaining any satisfactory explanation, he said "Very well. I propose to settle this in the usual manner. Six of the slipper each. Come out to the front!" The two miscreants walked forlornly to the front of the class. There was a little confusion because the first boy forgot that Tab was left-handed and bent over in the wrong direction. Clearly not impressed, Tab told him to stand up again and remarked "You ought to be familiar with the procedure by now; we've been through it often enough." The boy bent over again, this time on the correct spot at the beginning of the aisle that separated two rows of desks. That way Tab had plenty of room for his prodigious backswing. The slipper was lined up on the seat of the boy's trousers and his bottom was duly slippered. All six whacks were delivered at maximum velocity in the space of about three seconds. Tab's rapid-fire technique was extremely effective. The boy jumped up in the air clutching his bottom and yelling loudly. His partner in crime then bent over and suffered the same fate. Despite his strictness Tab was an immensely popular teacher. He rarely had to slipper the same boy twice.
All the teachers had a slipper, including two lady teachers whom I encountered. And all of them used it from time to time. Some of course used it more often than others. The slippers varied considerably. Some teachers had a black gym shoe, others used a white one. Some had lace-up models (with the lace removed normally). Others had slip-ons with a gusset insert. Most were rather large (size 11 or 12, I would say). Some of the teachers had pet names for their slippers. My English teacher in the fifth year called his "Hotspur". I remember Hotspur well. It was a huge white plimsoll with the canvas round the heel cut away so that the teacher could get a better grip. Hotspur was thoroughly dilapidated and looked ancient enough to have belonged to Shakespeare himself. However, the business end was intact.
Hotspur certainly lived up to its name. I had one particularly painful encounter with Hotspur in the fifth year when my English teacher, who had been given the nickname "Percy" for obvious reasons, caught me one lunch time nipping across Coare Street instead of using the bridge. That afternoon, as we filed into the classroom for an English lesson, Hotspur sat menacingly on Percy's desk. We settled down in our places and a deathly silence descended on the room. The rest of the class were doubtless wondering whose backside was about to be set on fire. The tension was palpable. They must have been very relieved when they heard Percy say "Kettering. Come to the front, please." I felt myself blush as I walked to my doom. Percy grasped Hotspur by the heel and made a brief speech explaining why I was being punished. Then he ordered me to stretch forward over the end of his desk, folded back my blazer and delivered six terrifically hard whacks across the seat of my trousers, bringing tears to my eyes. After that I always used the bridge.
It was probably thanks to Hotspur that I got a Grade 1 in English Literature "O" level. At the end of the term we were due to have a test on our set books. The pass mark was 25 out of 50 and we were warned well in advance that we would get one of the best for each mark below 25, subject to the usual maximum of 12. Having discovered how good Percy's slippering technique was, I was determined at all costs to avoid another meeting with Hotspur. I read "Great Expectations" and "Macbeth" three times in the course of the next weeks. As a result my name was not one of the eight that Percy called out when he handed back our test papers. One by one, the boys were ordered to bend over the end of the teacher's desk and their bottoms were soundly spanked -– between one and 12 whacks, depending on their test scores. Several of them cried.
The punishment was always given in a solemn atmosphere. The mood was deadly serious. There was no laughing and joking. The rest of us sat there in silence, glad that someone else was getting it and not us. Doing it in front of the class undoubtedly enhanced the deterrent effect because we got a regular reminder of just how painful it was. The whacks were given hard and were meant to hurt. Boys often cried when they were slippered, even big lads of 15 and 16. After six of the best we had a sore bottom for the rest of the day. In the evening I often had purple, slipper-shaped marks on my behind. These could last for several days and would be inspected and admired by the other boys in the changing room when we had gym or games. I never got the impression that any of the teachers enjoyed using the slipper. They were very businesslike about it. It was done quickly with a minimum of fuss. I am sure they tried to be fair and only gave punishments that were deserved and proportionate to the offence committed. Most of us perceived the regime as fair and reasonable.
For serious or repeated misconduct we were caned, either by our form master or by the headmaster. I was caned six times at King's. On the last and most memorable occasion I got eight strokes off the headmaster, who was known as "God" because of his divine and omnipotent manner. This occurred on the last day of the second term in my Lower Sixth year, when I was 17 years old. My offence was failure to attend the annual Founders' Day service in a local church. Caned for not going to church? That sounds outrageous. In fact there was more to it than that. I sneaked off on the way to church and went to the pub instead. Then I lied about it in a vain attempt to avoid punishment. So I had no cause for complaint when I was invited to bend over the back of a chair in God's office. He proceeded to give me eight very hard strokes across the seat of my trousers with a long, thin, flexible rattan cane with a crook handle. It was excruciatingly painful and I was sobbing like a baby by the end. That afternoon I found sitting down extremely uncomfortable. I had livid stripes that were unpleasantly sore for two days and took about two weeks to fade completely.
I think I got a good education at King's. The regime was harsh but fair. My experience of corporal punishment at school did not traumatize me or make me aggressive or resentful. It did, however, teach me a healthy respect for authority. I learnt that rules were there to be obeyed and that if I did not stick to the rules the consequences would be unpleasant. Some of the rules may have seemed petty and unnecessary (such as the requirement to wear our caps on the way to and from school and the ban on entering through the main gate). But most of them served an obvious purpose. For example, the strict ban on crossing a busy road when a bridge had been built for the sake of our safety was undoubtedly justified, as was the punishment for flouting it. The rules about arriving on time, not talking in class, paying attention, handing in homework on time, and so forth, meant that the teachers could teach in an orderly atmosphere and the whole class could make good progress.
More controversial is the question whether it was appropriate to use the slipper as a motivational tool to encourage boys to study. The practice was well established and the final week of each term was commonly referred to as "sore bottom week". Each teacher set us a test in his or her subject and boys who did not attain the pass mark had to line up at the front of the class and bend over one at a time for the slipper. There are arguments for and against the use of corporal punishment for that purpose. All that I can say is that I know from experience that it is a very effective way of persuading students to revise for exams.
All things considered, I think that corporal punishment is a valid means of maintaining discipline in schools. I am not saying that it should be brought back but I am not convinced that there was a strong case for abolition. On balance I think it is an appropriate disciplinary tool. It has three great advantages: it is simple, it is quick and -- above all -- it is effective.
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