At my primary school in Wembley in the 1960’s we had a system of stars and stripes. Stars were issued for good work or behaviour, and stripes for bad. Every morning at assembly, we were asked by the headmaster Mr.McComas whether anyone had any stars or stripes to read out. They were issued by all the teachers, and the stars were on pink slips like as if one tore the perforated edges of one from a cheque-book, and the stripes were green. A comment was written on either, and it would be signed by the teacher. A star could be for “good work”, “model behaviour”, “helpfulness” and so on. A stripe could be for “disobedience”, “forgetfulness” or “noisy behaviour”. One could get a double-stripe for “gross disobedience”, and very occasionally even a triple-stripe. A form stripe could be issued if the whole class were making a noise, as indeed a form star could for exemplary behaviour.


It all went towards a totting-up system for the three school houses… Cornwall, Edinburgh and Kent… and a cup went to the best house each term. Edinburgh were the goody two-shoes in my time, and Cornwall… the house I was in… were the no-hopers! A star would cancel out a stripe, and the slate was wiped clean each term.


Any boy who got a third stripe had to see Mr.McComas in his study after assembly, for the cane. We never knew if the girls got the cane too or were just spanked, but they’d always have red faces when they returned to class. I think it was generally accepted that caning was for boys.


The other teachers were Miss Poulton (kindergarden), Mrs. McInnes (year one and two), and Mrs. Liddell (year three and four). Mr. McComas himself took the ‘seniors’.


I got three stripes in a term just once, in my final year, for forgetfulness, forgetfulness and for forgetfulness (I forgot three different things), so I had to see the headmaster after assembly. I was quaking in my shoes and short trousers because I was a good, quiet, shy boy who only wanted to please, usually. I forgot to bring in some homework, then I forgot to take something home and then I forgot my PE kit. I was quite a dreamy child, and I was also apprehensive in my final year about moving to a bigger school, and that’s why I was forgetful, I suppose. So, for the one and only time I accumulated three stripes and had no stars in between, to cancel them out.


The teacher who issued the third stripe would accompany the child to see the headmaster, in this case the witch-like, spiteful Mrs. McInnes. She had a temperament which didn’t suffer fools gladly, and was definitely of the hang ’em and flog ’em brigade.


Stars and stripes, and the school houses, had an iconic mystique for me. I used to play imaginary school house games at home, involving stars and stripes and being sent for the cane. A green stripe was like receiving a sentence from a judge with a black handkerchief on his head. And three green stripes… well…


Remember, these were the days when police cars still had bells, where London had fogs, and where hanging and birching were judicially approved of. So, to be sent to see the head with three stripes was a kind of capital sentence, laden with doom, guilt and foreboding.


Mrs. McInnes took me to the head’s study, knocked on the door and then we went in.


“This boy has three stripes Mr. McComas, and all for forgetfulness. He’ll be forgetting his head soon.”


Mrs. McInnes took maths, and I was hopeless at maths. Sometimes she grabbed my shirt and yelled in my face about how lazy I was, so I’m sure she was happy at the prospect of seeing me caned before I left. Mr. McComas, on the other hand was generally kindly… stern but fair; very old-fashioned.


“I see,” he said, “well we’d better give you a little something to buck your ideas up, then, hadn’t we?”


He went to his cupboard and got out a traditional crooked handle cane, which he placed on his desk. Then he pulled out a little kindergarden stool from the corner and put it in the centre of the room.


“I want you to bend over that stool and grip the legs on the other side. You’re going to get three strokes and you’re not to get up until I say so.”


I was 11 years-old and had never been caned before. My legs were trembling. I did as I was told and bent over. I felt Mr. McComas tap the cane on my bottom a few times, and then I got three measured whacks… not too hard. It wasn’t quite as bad as I feared. Then I was told I could get up. The head put his cane away and I saw Mrs. McInnes with an evil glint in her eye.


Once outside she said:


“He went soft on you. If I had my way I’d have taken your shorts down and given you six on your pants… and twice as hard.”


I went to my lesson, and arrived a little late. All eyes were on me and everyone knew I’d been caned, as we all did every time it happened. It’s just that I was on the receiving end this time. This was actually the worst bit… those few moments. The caning itself hadn’t hurt that much and I hadn’t needed to rub my bottom. There weren’t any stripes when I looked at home, later, either.


The build up, and that moment of coming into class were far worse than the ordeal itself. I also want to write about the girl I had a crush on, Anne Goldwyn, getting three stripes and having to see the head, but I’ll save that for another story. Not only that, but I went back to teach myself at St. Christopher’s in 1973 for a year, and heard some very interesting things about corporal punishment! But those are for another time.