Schools take a caning

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 April, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 April, 1994, 12:00am

THERE is one sure way to gain the attention of my two daughters, to tell them school horror stories.

Tales of being ''whacked'' at the age of eight or nine by a slipper-wielding headmaster, emerging from his study with a smarting backside and even smarter snigger on my face are guaranteed to keep them in raptures.

For corporal punishment has always been the nasty but often humorous core to English schoolboy culture echoed in everything from Tom Brown's Schooldays through the Just William books of Richmal Compton, to Jimmy Edwards the cane wielding, handlebar moustachioed horror of the 60s television series Whacko.

This obsession that the only way boys can be made to behave is through pain is supposed to be the stuff men are made of - it also probably explains the continuing penchant for the practice so loved by the loopier members of parliament.

When I graduated to the upper school it was dominated by an austere giant of a man called Poskitt. He kept a strap in a locker in his study and corporal punishment at his hands seemed to bring on all the fears Michael Fay is currently going through in Singapore.

Poskitt retired to be replaced by a much more diminutive figure and one could once again risk the wrath of the senior teachers - it wouldn't hurt that much anyway.

I recall this now because of the English fascination with corporal punishment and the retrospective analysis of the life and times of a former Eton headmaster Anthony Chevenix-Trench, who took over that venerable institution in 1963. According to a new book he has been revealed as a barbaric whacker who enjoyed nothing more than wielding the birch followed by the odd tipple afterwards, no doubt to steady his nerves.

The thesis of the book by Tim Card, the school's former vice-provost, the equivalent of a bursar, is that a conspiracy of silence over the beatings at this most curious of institutions kept the real reasons for Chevenix-Trench's departure hushed up for years.

Chevenix-Trench is even said to have claimed it was ''a good thing the NSPCC [National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children] does not know anything about it.'' Given that Eton was the school of many of the great and good in British society (and no doubt a few in Hong Kong) it was not surprising to see a split developing this week between those who knew him as a whacker and those who saw him as little short of a guardian angel. There was even a claim by one former pupil that he had not quite passed his initial entrance examination but was told he would be allowed in on one condition - that he was beaten.

Another, TV editor Nick Fraser, recalled how he was once beaten by Chevenix-Trench for being caught staying out late in London. He was slapped over the seat of his trousers six times and then the headmaster broke down, very drunk and burst into tears saying how much he hated such beatings.

ETON is an easy target. It represents the epitome of English elitism. The school is currently planning to dig a huge rowing trench on empty fields a few kilometres from where I live. The opposition to this scheme is without a shadow of a doubt the more intense because the plans come from this perceived bastion of impeccability.

Of course Hong Kong has a part to play in all this. About 10 per cent of all public school places in Britain are now occupied by pupils from Southeast Asia, thanks by and large to effective recruitment campaigns around the region. These pupils bring in an estimated GBP150 million (about HK$1.7 billion) a year.

The British, despite qualms about the standard of state school education, are actually turning away from them. The number of pupils in independent schools has fallen for the third year in succession. Boarding numbers declined last year by nearly 5,000, while overall numbers, thanks to a small increase in day pupils, fell by 4,500.

Fees in Britain's public schools have more than doubled in the past 10 years, far ahead of inflation, allowing schools to compete with each other to build new pools and sports facilities, computer centres and upgraded accommodation. But the amount spent on new and improved buildings and equipment fell last year by nearly 10 per cent, suggesting schools have finally realised that the boom times are over.

If the figures continue to fall it looks as though the hard times will be with us again, this time without the beatings.