The best and worst of School in the 1980s

School in the 1980s

School in the 1980s was great. It was just after corporal punishment was abolished and teachers weren’t subject to rigorous testing by OFSTED, so they’d spend a lot of time out of the classroom drinking whisky in the staff room or crying in the cloakrooms allowing you and your mates to have winnet[1] fights. Here are a few of the things happening in schools in the 1980s you might remember.

Traffic Surveys

It felt like we had to do a traffic survey every few weeks at Primary School. The teacher would shove a clipboard and pen in our hands then tell us to go stand near a busy road and count the cars.  Sometimes, we even had to record how many cars of each colour had passed in the allotted time period. This all seemed very educational; the possibilities for workshops and subsequent lessons seemed limitless. We could have discussed pollution and its impact on the environment, the process through which town and city planners pass to design and build new roads and traffic calming measures – the list is endless.  However, we never so much as drew a bar graph or even collated a table of data with which to forecast or interpret trends via data analysis techniques. It only dawned on me much later in life (probably five minutes ago actually) that there were never any teachers with us when we were standing on the side of the road for three hours.  Come to think of it, the teacher was always in a strangely good mood when we finally came back to school, had slightly red cheeks and called us all his ‘best mate’.

Clang Ball

There is no other way to describe this item of playground equipment than a ‘clang ball’. It was the sound it made as it hit the asphalt and the sound it made in the back of your brain when someone hit you in the face with one.  Don’t confuse these with the light plastic ‘penny floaters’ which you could buy from all good newsagents for the princely sum of £1.  No, these were made with industrial grade plastic, always unfathomably over-inflated and covered in pimples with all the properties of a jellyfish.  These balls bounced higher than any ball, travelled faster than any ball and removed skin when it so much as touched your aura.


A compass was three things in one. It was a lethal weapon, a tool to draw circles and something you could use to gouge graffiti into your school desk. Back before health and safety was something people cared about, these were handed to children without discrimination to use as they saw fit.  Of course, drawing perfect circles was hugely necessary in the teachings of Pythagoras, John Venn and the inventor of the Olympics logo.  Not so much for the rest of your life after leaving school. If you get caught by the police in public with one of these dangerous weapons, your excuse needs to be better than, ‘I just love Geometry so much’.

Free Milk

At the age of four, I’d never ever wanted to drink milk of my own accord.  I’d drink it from my cereal bowl when I’d overestimated the cereal to milk ratio, but never on it’s own from a glass.  However, just before morning play time at infant school, the teacher would march us all down the corridor to a crate of tiny milk bottles by the Headmaster’s study.  She’d then instruct us to take one each (complete with straw) and make our way back to the classroom.  We all had to sit on a square of carpet in the corner of the room, stick the straw into the foil lid (like an elaborate kind of CapriSun) and sit in awkward silence punctuated by slurping and swallowing noises.

It went down a treat and I would always hang around the door of the classroom when I’d finished my bottle, peeking down the corridor to see if there were any left after the other classes had been to get theirs.

Once the bell rang for playtime, you’d go out and play. One thing I don’t recommend, and it makes me gag to think of it now, is to go and run around for fifteen minutes when you’re full of milk. The reason being, you’ll very soon not be full of milk.

Gloy gum

This was a clear type of honey coloured glue in a bottle with a rubber top which acted as an applicator. I defy anyone reading this right now to deny they used to cover their hands in it, wait for it to dry and then peel it off like some weird zombie with a fetish.

It’s more common cousin was PVA glue which came in tall white bottles. This was used for the exact same thing and sometimes, craft projects.

Shatterproof rulers

These 30cm beasts had to be carried in a school bag because they wouldn’t fit in a pencil case. I much preferred my six inch one. It never got in the way and it did the job adequately. I’m still talking about my ruler by the way. The 30cm version had the words ‘shatterproof’ or ‘Shatter Resistant’ printed in huge letters down the middle. I’m not sure what people were doing with rulers beforehand that prompted a company to start advertising that their rulers were shatterproof.  We’d re-enact scenes from ‘Robin of Sherwood’ using rulers as swords whilst the teacher was out of the room, but I don’t think we were ever in any danger of ending up with bits of shattered ruler in our eye balls.

At the age of seven, I thought the word ‘shatterproof’ meant ‘indestructible’ and took it as a challenge.  ‘Of course I can shatter it’, I thought to myself, and promptly bent it in half until it snapped. ‘Ha, I showed them!’, I thought and to my delight, I’d created two six-inch rulers! What a good day that was!

[1] Chewed up paper blown through a biro with the ink removed

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