Back in the 1970s, I attended a state school in a middle-class area of north London. At the time, there were whispers that London schools might abandon the use of corporal punishment, but that certainly had not happened in my mixed-sex school. Teachers were allowed to slipper boys and girls. Only the headmaster and his female deputy were allowed to cane. Canings weren’t frequent, and it seemed only boys were caned, although I’m not sure why girls weren’t. I think it was allowed, but I never heard of it being done.
Occasionally, when we didn’t have a lesson in our schedule, we would be sent to the dining hall for private study. These sessions would be presided over by a teacher, sometimes two, or sometimes prefects would supervise in their place.
One autumn day, my third form history class was sent to the dining hall for private study because our history teacher was absent because he had flu. When we got there, another class a year above us was already there, again because their teacher was away with flu. I was fourteen at the time. We were supervised by Mr A, a new member of staff who looked like he had joined the school straight from teacher training college.
Mr A told us he had to leave us for a few minutes and instructed us to carry on with our work. If he really thought we would all continue working in relative silence when he wasn’t there, he was very much mistaken. Some of us soon started wandering around the room to chat with our friends, and the noise level soon rose. This was silly because there were occupied classrooms on either side of the dining hall. As luck would have it, one of those neighbouring classrooms had our deputy headmistress, Mrs T, taking an English class.
Mrs T burst into the dining hall and shouted for us to be silent and to get back to our places. Moments later, Mr A returned. The two of them had a conversation that lasted several minutes while we all got back to our work. Mrs T then called for all those who had been out of their places to stand up. Only one girl and two boys immediately stood up, so Mrs T went round the room pointing at individuals she recalled seeing standing and chatting away from where their work was. They were told to stand up.
As Mrs T got close to where I was sitting, I felt quite nervous. I know I should have owned up, but I reasoned she wouldn’t be able to recognise everyone and I might just get away with it. I felt her eyes on me as she approached and, sure enough, she pointed at me and told me to stand up. By the time she had finished, there were eight of us standing, five boys and three girls. We were ordered out to the front of the room.
Mrs T spoke to one boy, and he hurried off out of the dining hall on some sort of errand. A girl in my class, Sylvia, whispered the word ‘slipper’ to me and I nodded. Meanwhile, the rest of the boys and girls quietly got on with their work, occasionally looking up at the eight of us at the front and smiling furtively. Sure enough, the boy returned a few minutes later with a large navy-blue plimsoll in his hand. Mrs T took the plimsoll from him and handed it to Mr A. It seemed she had decided our fate, but he was to be the executioner.
Mr A called one boy forward and told him to bend over and touch his toes. With the boy suitably positioned, four hard strokes were applied to the seat of his grey school trousers. The boy then stood up, rubbed his backside and was sent back to his place. Mr A then worked his way through the remaining four boys. I had never been slippered at school, but from the slipperings I had witnessed in the past I’d say Mr A knew enough to hit hard, but he did seem to focus on just one spot. Watching boys getting slippered was something of a sport amongst most of the girls, and we weren’t that unhappy at watching the scene being played out right in front of us. We’d have been even happier if we knew what was going to be done with us.
Mr A actually offered the plimsoll back to Mrs T, but she declined. There were no more boys for him to slipper, so I began to feel nervous, as did my two companions. Then Mrs T turned to us three girls and beckoned for one of us to step forward. None of us moved initially, but Sylvia gave the third girl a poke and she stumbled and almost fell over, which Mrs T interpreted as the girl volunteering to be first.
Mrs T told the girl to bend over and touch her toes, which she did. In those days, we wore fairly tight-fitting like grey skirts and this first girl, I can’t remember her name, certainly presented a good target for this young male teacher.
“Equal guilt, equal punishment,” Mrs T said, in case Mr A had thoughts about being more gentle with the girls.
Certainly, the girl got slippered just as firmly as the boys. When she got up, she gave her backside a rub, and I could see her eyes were quite watery. Then both Mr A and Mrs T looked round for the next victim. Sylvia seemed anchored to the spot, so I went forward and bent over. I couldn’t quite reach my toes, but no one seemed to mind. I reached down as far as I could, which left my fingertips about two inches above my toecaps. I didn’t have time to think before the plimsoll smacked hard across my bottom. It throbbed painfully, and seconds later another smack banged into the central lower part of my bottom. Somehow, I was able to keep both feet firmly on the floor without lurching forward, despite the very firm smacks being delivered. Mr A didn’t waste time, and a few seconds later, my punishment was over and I was on my way back to my place. I desperately wanted to rub my bottom, but chose not to in front of all those boys.
I stopped and looked around when Sylvia got her slippering. She seemed to take it without any drama, and I wonder now whether she chose to go last to make things easier for me and the other girl. We never talked about it and now I’ll never know.