From the archive: it’s 1989 and Britain’s schools are war zones

A montage of a boy's face, books behind, and a fist in front of it

Packing a punch: the cover of the Observer Magazine on 19 March 1989. Illustration: Andrzej Klimowski/The Observer

The cover story for the Observer Magazine on 19 March 1989 (‘English, maths and violence: the everyday curriculum’) at times makes it sound like schools were war zones with demilitarised areas: ‘Every break, an overcoated teacher stands sentinel at the school’s lime-green gates. This is the buffer zone: on the one side, the law of the street prevails; on the other, the law of the school.’

The journalist spent some time talking to teachers, parents and pupils at Langdon Park secondary school in east London. ‘One parent is so fearful,’ she writes, ‘that he follows his daughter’s progress home from a top-storey window through binoculars.’ Maybe this was merely a 1980s version of helicopter parenting but it suggests that the bigger problem in this case wasn’t ‘out there’, but rather closer to home.

There’s a harrowing account of bullying from Paul, speaking as an adult. ‘Whenever the teacher left the room the bully would bang me on the head until I was bleeding… Bullies destroyed part of my life.’

The main problem is that for all the article’s intention to debunk the myth that ‘Britain’s schools are blackboard jungles, where cowering teachers, fearful for their own safety, vainly try to contain the violence,’ it actually reinforces this idea by focusing on those very things. ‘Despite these freak eruptions,’ it says, despite having described them in detail and at length, ‘school is perceived to be safer than the streets outside.’

The journalist refers to a first-year child who had threatened someone with a knife. She spoke to his girlfriend and writes: ‘Some of the power rubbed off on this bully’s moll.’ The gangster epithet – though clearly ironic – is even more risible when we learn that ‘her own violations of the school rules have extended to missing lessons’.

Next stop prison then. At least the student will be used to the atmosphere.