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News > Alumni News > John Whitfield Remembers

John Whitfield Remembers

West Buckland School, if not the world was a different place when I arrived in September 1979 after spending five years teaching in a “model” Comprehensive! Later Peter Davies was to be a pupil there!

25 Nov 2014
Alumni News
In the late sixties the school was in a desperate state as, no doubt, you have heard. George Ridding became Headmaster and put the school on a better financial footing. He stopped unnecessary expenditure such as maintenance (a later headache for Michael Downward). He let in day boys which increased the income without a significant increase in expenditure and employed staff cheaply. Fortunately the school also had Direct Grant pupils which provided a level of ability.

He also took other schools’ rejects. If a boy had erred and was required to leave a school, it would advise the parents that there was a Boarding School in North Devon who might take their errant son. (This I heard from a source outside WB.) So the school acquired as boarders others castoffs. When I arrived there were some very odd pupils. (Robert Moor might be able to enlighten you more). Certainly many more than in a Comprehensive four times the size.

The other factor was architecture. WB was a Victorian edifice. The Victorians built barracks, wards, dormitories and prisons. All had a similar design. Long spaces accommodating lots of beds. The only difference being prisons which had private rooms! Such spaces in all aspects were ruled with a strict discipline.

So when I arrived there were these big spaces to manage and many more oddities than I had been used to at a much larger Comprehensive. For my first year I was on the day rota for duties and just felt my way in boarding by keeping an eye on my tutees and encouraged by DAC the Courtenay. The senior boys did not like my intrusion and having been bought a beer they very politely informed me that there was no need to visit the studies during prep as there were no problems. I determined that if there were no problems why warn me off so I continued my visits and rocked their system.

You might remember at the lunch that in Michael Downward’s early days a few pupils were lost.  It was unfortunate that I was involved in many of these and I decided there had to be a better way. As a tutor I made it my business that I dealt with my tutees and not their Housemaster or Headmaster. Some tutees had other ideas and it was hard work aggravated by a veil of silence. In all of my time as a tutor only one was expelled.

Night duties. My worse fear was confirmed when I was asked (essentially told to do night duties). I return to large dormitories still inhabited by some strange pupils (but, this was improving with each year). Now I was responsible with maintaining discipline when I was on duty. The worst case scenario – I was the only member of staff on site apart from Matron and Michael Tucker who was looking after the younger boys at Langholme. I had all of the boarders from year 8-13 in my charge. Today, with the present set up, there are, at least, four times as many staff looking after far fewer boarders. That scenario did happen on one occasion and in those days we did not even have a set of master keys.

Corporal punishment was a key to survival, but it was more of a threat on most occasions and it tended to be the slipper (i.e. the nearest trainer). On returning to a dormitory a second time (there was an unwritten rule which stated you did not expect to do so and mostly this was followed) and finding the same person out of place he was taken outside the door, had a smacked bottom and returned to bed and then the rest of the night was peaceful.

Another unwritten rule was a third visit would be treated more seriously and I cannot remember having to do so. Invariably, or nearly so, said person would find you at breakfast and apologise usually giving a few details making the situation innocent. There were occasions when they were not, like the occasion I had reason to be outside a dormitory one night when I had been informed of potential trouble and Michael Downward appeared at my shoulder. Matron had heard the same. Pushing him onto the wooden staircase I told him, if necessary, to support me later. I opened the door to the dormitory and stated that if they behaved in the way they were planning I would personally ensure their rapid departure from the school. I then explained the situation to Michael. Amazingly, no problem and I was reminded of that event by a former pupil recently.

The other problem was boys being sent to you. The pattern was first time warn. If there was sufficient time between such events there was another warning. I even remember occasions when you saw a boy night after night and still only had a warning. We talked it through.
In this system there were those who sometimes rocked the boat more than others. Michael Dinning who I had a lot of time for did push boundaries. He and his brothers were boys but if they did something silly they did it big time. Michael was quite bright (5 O’levels). He wrote to me from a Caribbean beach when he was a Royal Marine saying he was bored! It was not long after he started working for Noel Edmonds as a “Mister Blobby”. No type casting there then!

Michael was at the end of an era and even while he was at WB it was changing. The problem characters inherited by Michael Downward were moving on. Though it did not stop him introducing a few of his own. There was no Saturday bus, (in fact there was prep on Saturday morning) but some of us would take a pupil (very quickly and friends) to Barum. Very soon we were taking then into town by minibus load. There was a payoff. If you are good during the week then you will get your treat. They tended to be better behaved on Thursday and Friday nights than earlier in the week, but teacher amnesia had its place.

On the whole we had a better intake which helped. They were still boys and corporal punishment was still available. I often offered the slipper now or loss of free-time later. They always chose the former, so if I was really nasty, I took their free time. They regarded the slipper as a clip around the ear, but the cane was serious. I always told them I would cane if I heard they had been smoking and pointed the truth might hurt but lying would definitely be more painful. Quite a few boys told me later that they had considered smoking but not with me as tutor.

The other thing that started to happen was the division of the largest dormitories but this was spread over a few years. Same pupils in smaller spaces, same mischief but with smaller numbers in the space it was easier to talk matters through. Even then the odd boy would push his luck. Outside the door, grab a trainer and the rest is history. As one tutee told me it sounds worse than it is. I suggested I was wasting my time. He said that I was not and that he had been there once and had no intention of going there again. Boys with that aim could be helped by another bout of amnesia. The division of space went even further by creating Study bedrooms for the older pupils. This I pursued as a Housemaster so that when Boyer opened and School House came into being all the sixth form boy boarders, and some year 11, had their own room. The year 11 at that time were considered potentially naughty enough to give Boyer a bad start. I had no problem with any of them and of course corporal punishment was now history.
The early 80’s were a different era. It was hard work. The school was cold and bare. The boys called it Colditz, after the television series of the time. They even got that wrong as people escaped from Colditz! For a boarder the dormitories were bare boards, no curtains and no heating. Compared to today it was harsh. Unfortunately corporal punishment had its place but they tended to complete their education and being excluded was rare. A folklore and mythology developed which has grown with the telling. I find some of it amazing. The folklore has similarities of when I was a lad we had it so bad…. . The stories expand with the telling. In those days the new boys would be fed the information by the old hands which had an amazing disciplining effect and so the myths grew. Yes I used the slipper and the cane, but 90% if not 99% we talked.

Michael Dinning does not quote in the mythology the time his tutor gave him two strokes for having accumulated an excess of detentions but he felt nothing! Such was our relationship that a few days later, having established that the matter was closed, and about to confess I told him he would never get away with it again. He was growing up and did not need to be dealt with me again. Although the story of his next tutor and the broken ruler is true. Michael came and told me the day it happen. I expect I suggested that I had ways of removing his smugness but he was talking to me and that was important.

I hope and so far having met past pupils they accepted a fair cop and justice. Most are still surprised that they were not dealt with before or more often. A lot of the time you put on the stern expression when really finding their antics amusing.

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