Reading Tony’s memory of Roy Hattersley’s history lesson took me back to a conversation with my late father-in-law after one of those fly-on-the-wall teaching shows late last century. I think it was in the early days of naming and shaming and may well have been about The Ridings, billed at the time as ‘Britain’s Worst School’ (which must have been helpful for precisely nobody involved it). He thought the teacher was too polite to the children and showed weakness by saying please and thank you so we had a bit of a discussion on the matter. I’m musing therefore on language, school, good manners and the passage of time.
I’m not the politest person on the planet, as my nearest and dearest attest. I adore being around people with lovely manners and make many resolutions to learn from it. I’m OK in formal mode, but as soon as the guard goes down I’m all about the smart remark so I’m forever apologising. That being said, I do expect roadworthy manners from children and am a stickler for the pleases, thank yous and sorrys that oil social wheels. What I can’t do, try as I might, is to enforce (or even consider) the kind of insistence on modes of speech that make every transaction seem like theatre.
Let me explain. It is undoubtedly the case that school is school, bus is bus, street is something else and home has a language of its own. All of us need familiarity with many argots to prevent us looking like nitwits, pace the apocryphal story of Peter Mandelson assuming mushy peas were guacamole in a Hartlepool chip-shop. But those languages should be linked and authentic. It’s not the surface or the accent that matters, it’s the content, the precision and the actual communication.
Good manners and accessible language are kindness in action. Being clear, available and engaged with your listener shows you respect their humanity. Please and thank you are never out of place no matter how annoying the furious teenage interlocutor. We have to set an example.
However, manners are used too often for division in this class-ridden society. Codes of behaviour in the in-group are designed to create an out-group and schools should have no truck with this. Requiring children to remember a complicated set of verbal rules, rather than guiding them with a few civilising principles, will lead to exclusion both metaphorically and actually. Interpreting, discussing, re-forming and re-shaping language so that communication is clear and easy is a kindness, especially when it helps a youth learn the norms of the good life. A school’s commitment to kindness is evidenced in the language it speaks: unpretentious, welcoming, honest and hopeful.
This Tallis 50 archive might last for centuries and I wonder how our language will communicate with the future. There’s been an interesting example in the system just this last year or so: the case of Kate Clanchy. Her book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, a memoir of a 30-year teaching career, first won the Orwell prize and then was cast into outer darkness when offence at some of her language surfaced. The gap between acceptable and unacceptable appeared like a chasm following an earthquake, shaking everyone involved, seemingly overnight.
I’m interested in this. I’d been a bit envious of Clanchy’s success as I’ve had a book on a back burner for a bit, but can’t quite get it into a publishable state. I can’t do a The Secret Lawyer or This is Going to Hurt, no matter my natural facility for the flip, the glib and the downright sarcastic. Why? First: even serial headteachers like me stay in one place for a bit so subjects of my memoirs, no matter how anonymised, would be recognisable. Second: no civilised society should accept the ridicule of children or their use for personal gain. I’m not saying this is what Clanchy did or intended. I’m observing that linguistic manners and social expectations suddenly changed and what was tolerable one year was intolerable by the next for perfectly acceptable reasons. Read afresh, it looked brutal.
That’s why the complaints of the present about snowflakes and cancel culture and well-you-can’t-say-anything-these-days are so misguided. Language changes, and the discipline of kindness requires critique, review, reconsideration and redrafting. Good manners are kindness in action and they are based on care for the dignity of the human beings around us. They are always expressed in kind language.
A thousand years ago when I was clawing my way up the greasy pole I was summoned to a classroom for purposes of behaviour support. Old-school in every possible way, the colleague therein presented me with an unrepentant urchin who couldn’t be bothered with poetry that morning. I extracted him, but further assistance was sought. ‘While you’re here, take away that fat girl in the corner who won’t stop crying.’ Such language, theoretically acceptable when the colleague was trained, had rightly become reprehensible even by then and would lead to disciplinary proceedings for a teacher now. In the same way that we belatedly understand what fossil fuels have done to the planet, we have finally started to grasp the desperate power of language to separate, to undermine, to distance and to wound. And if that’s how adults feel, imagine what it does to children.
Kindness is a discipline in itself. The other kind of discipline expresses kindness. My father-in-law was wrong: please and thank you are the very foundations of the very best behaviour.
The following interview with Richard Cox and George Taylor was recorded in 2018. Thanks to both them for sharing their memories of the early days of Thomas Tallis School. You can listen to the recording or read the transcript below.
My name is Richard Cox. I went to Thomas Tallis. My first day was the sixth of September 1971, the day that it opened. So I was one of 120 original boys, no girls then, that went to Thomas Tallis. It was at a time when there was a shortage of secondary source spaces and there was a plan to open up Thomas Tallis, further down the line, in Kidbrooke to cope with the the demand of the new people coming onto the Ferrier Estate. But, in September '71, the school hadn't been built and we had to spend two years at Briset Road. So, that was my introduction to Thomas Tallis.
I've never been a student at Thomas Tallis but my son is a friend of Richard's and he started on the same day in '71. Because my son was coming to the school, I took an interest in what was happening. And I was a parent governor for a number of years. I stayed a parent governor for about three or four years and then my daughter came to the school.
In the early days, there were only four teachers. There was Mr. Turpie who everyone will know and love. We've lost him recently, which is a big shame. But we also had Mr. Richter and Mr. Evans and Mr. Martindale. So they were our four teachers. Mr. Evans specialised in general science, Mr. Richter was English and Mr. Martindale taught maths. Mr. Turpie was geography. And we had a temporary Head for one term, Mr. Davis. And there was a Mr. Edwards who was the deputy head at the time and he taught history. So we didn't have a broad curriculum. In those days, we didn't have any sports facilities like you've got now. Fantastic sports facilities. The students here are very lucky in that respect. But we just had to get on with it. So it was very a big learning curve for everybody. In those early days we had a fantastic basketball team. The first intake got to the last eight of the national competition. And we played against a school from Hampstead down here in the old building. The gallery was packed with teachers and students watching us. It was a really close game. We lost it, but the sporting achievements were fantastic. And of course, in those early days, the school produced Pat Van Den Hauwe, do you remember him? He went on to play for Tottenham and Everton. He was in the year below me. Yeah, that's right. He had a brother called Rudy but I don't think he was that great. But yeah, what Tallis gave me was the friendships, the social interactions, because all of the people that I grew up with are still my friends. I mean, we've been friends for 47 years. So it's a, it's a big deal for me. I left school with virtually no qualifications. But we all make our way in life and some of us went on to great things. I've just retired. I'm not complaining. I've had a good life. Thomas Tallis set me on my way. There was a big reunion about 15 years ago. The teachers were there and it was as if we were really good friends. I mean, we used to call them by their first names. I'm not sure you get that anymore. I went on to form friendships with some of the teachers outside of school with rugby. So a lot of the teachers here came to play for Charlton Park and that's the rugby club that I was taken to by one of the teachers who played there, so that set me up for life. They treated you like adults, and they encouraged you. And they let you get on with things. They let you learn. They let you use blow torches and things like that in the metalwork classes. You didn't have to worry about health and safety. Everything was common sense. And they kept you on the straight and narrow. It was like a family atmosphere.
Well I'm afraid I'm going to pour some cold water on it because I haven't got very many positives. Some of the experiences Richard is telling you about were anathema to a parent of my age. First name terms with teachers and so on and so forth. My son, like Richard, what was it...? O Levels...?
We were so far behind. For the first two years, we did virtually nothing. Because we didn't have the building. We were in Briset Road, a very confined space. We just did the basics so when we came to Kidbrooke Park Road, it was catch up. And they tried to bring people in, they tried to cram but it didn't work. There were only a handful of people that went on to do O Levels. Most people did CSEs. So the academic achievement was non-existent. Of course, you didn't have league tables, you didn't have the pressure of trying to achieve in 1976. You could walk out the front door, and you could get a job. You didn't have to worry about qualifications. You could write to a bank and say, "I'd like to come and work at the bank" and you'd get a response or a nice letter back saying "Come and have an interview". And they'd give you a job and there were jobs aplenty. From a personal perspective, I didn't feel cheated. It's only later in life, that you feel cheated when you realise that you haven't had the education that you deserve, when the promotions are not there at work. So that's interesting.
I can really reiterate a lot of what Richard said in relation to my son who suffered at some stages from word blindness and something else. Turns out, far too late, he was discovered to be dyslexic. But like Richard, this particular group, and the group that he's talking about, all went on to degrees of some kind or other, mainly by their own efforts after they left school. My son struggled for some time. He did get a good job at the local town hall. But he came home one day and said, "Will you sign these papers?" He went to work on a kibbutz for six months, and then it turned out to be a year. And then he walked across the bottom of Africa. "Is he going to settle down?" He did. And would you believe he got a flat with another school friend on the Ferrier Estate. I helped decorate it. But the positives are not very great. I mean, looking at it now, it's marvellous. I do remember when the governors interviewed Mr. Lark. And I was greatly tempted to ask him if he could do a Byrd song at the interview when he had his bag with all his music in it. I wished I'd asked him "What do you intend to do to tie in the school to Thomas Tallis the organist?" Taking up what Richard said about the family atmosphere, having left school with very few qualifications as they did, my son or my daughter, both have had success. My son is now retired, in fact. He was a police inspector when he retired. My daughter had, and we've still got it, a coat that she made here. It was in a glass case in in the foyer of the school. And she now has a beauty business. Very successful. I have nieces, not nephews, actually, who passed through the school and all of whom took degrees at various universities. I have great nieces who came to the school and both of those went on to a degree education. So whatever it was, was planted in those early days. Whilst it might not have benefited the originals, it's benefited a lot of other people since.
Well, I feel I've been cheated in terms of facilities you've got now because we never had those opportunities. In Briset Road we had a very tiny gymnasium. There was also a big sports hall but it had a concrete floor and was very cold. Looking around at the facilities here, the basketball arena, the dojo, the studios, the gymnastics hall. These students are so lucky to have those facilities. And there isn't anything that can stop them from going on to achieve. They can, if they want, be the best. They've got an opportunity to be the best.
Through my own son. I know the affection that he had for the school because he won't have anything set against it. He held the long jump record at the school for a long time. It probably still stands. But that brings up another point. When the Inner London Education Authority went against all competitive sports, and you've got children who are good at competitive sport, but a little bit weak on the academic side, they've got something to wave their banner about. As Richard said about basketball, my son played basketball with Mr. Turpie. But again, we missed out as parents where our children didn't get what we thought they should have got.
I've got no regrets about coming here like Russell (George's son), I wouldn't say anything against it. It was a great, great school.
George kindly donated some photos of the school being built from 1971: