The Headmaster Ritual, the first track on The Smiths’ second album, Meat is Murder (1985) tackles a taboo subject in the field of education, that of corporal punishment. In state-run schools, and also in private schools where at least part of the funding came from the government, corporal punishment was outlawed by Parliament with effect from 1987. In other private schools in England and Wales, it was banned in 1999. Scotland followed in 2000 and Northern Ireland in 2003. In 1993, the European Court of Human Rights held in Costello-Roberts v. UK that giving a seven year old boy three whacks with a gym shoe over his trousers was not a forbidden degrading treatment.
The implement often used to deliver corporal punishment in state and private schools in England and Wales was a flexible rattan cane, applied either to the student’s hands or, especially in the case of teenage boys, to the seat of the trousers. Slippering, the act of smacking the bottom with the hand or a slipper, was widely used as a less formal alternative. In a few English cities, a strap was used instead of a cane. In Scotland, a leather strap, known as a tawse, administered to the palms of the hands, was universal in state schools but some private schools used the cane.
In 2005, there was an unsuccessful challenge to prohibition of corporal punishment in the Education Act 1996 s.548 by headmasters of private Christian schools. They claimed it was a breach of their freedom of religion under Article 9ECHR. In a poll carried out amongst 6,162 UK teachers by the Times Educational Supplement found that one in five teachers would still back the use of caning in extreme cases.
The Smiths’ The Headmaster Ritual tells of Morrissey’s days at St. Mary’s Secondary Modern School and the corporal punishment handed out there by the “Belligerent ghouls” who “Run Manchester schools”. In the manner we have come to expect from Morrissey when he gets a bee in his bonnet, he does not even attempt to mask his contempt, as he continues to tell of “Spineless swines” and graphically discusses the beatings handed out in lines such as “Mid-week on the playing fields, Sir thwacks you on the knees, Knees you in the groin, Elbow in the face, Bruises bigger than dinner plates” and “Please excuse me from gym, I’ve got this terrible cold coming on, He grabs and devours, He kicks me in the showers, kicks me in the showers, And he grabs an devours”.
In 1997, Johnny Marr told Guitar magazine that it took him two years to complete work on the guitar part of the song: “The nuts and bolts of The Headmaster Ritual came together during the first album [The Smiths, 1984] and I just carried on playing around with it. It started off as a very sublime sort of Joni Mitchell-esque chord figure; I played it to Morrissey but we never took it further. Then, as my life got more and more intense, so did the song. The bridge and the chorus part were originally for another song, but I them together with the first part. That was unusual for me; normally I just hammer away at an idea until I’ve got a song”.
The Headmaster Ritual is the first song of an album’s worth of songs mentioning violence of some sort. Take for example, Rusholme Ruffians where “someone’s beaten up” at “The last night at the fair”; …
I Want the One I Can’t Have with its cameo appearance from “A tough kid who sometimes swallows nails, Raised on Prisoner’s Aid, He killed a policeman when he was, Thirteen” …
… and Barbarism Begins At Home where “A crack on the head, Is what you get for not asking” and “Unruly girls, Who will not settle down, They must be taken in hand”.
Morrissey would revisit the theme of education on his 1995 album Southpaw Grammar. According to Morrissey, the title of the album refers to “the school of hard knocks”. ‘Southpaw’ is slang for a boxing left-hander and ‘Grammar’ is a reference to British grammar schools. The Shostakovich Fifth Symphony sampling 11 minute long opening track, The Teachers Are Afraid of the Pupils turns the idea of the teachers bullying the pupils seen in The Headmaster Ritual on its head. This time, the pupils are in control and wreaking their merciless revenge on those “Belligerent ghouls”. Society has now changed and teachers struggle to control unruly children. The teachers are now persecuted by nasty, spiteful students. Gone are the days of corporal punishment; “Lay a hand on our children”, sings Morrissey, “And it’s never too late to have you”.