Running out of school

Despite the fact that the word is banned in schools now, stupidly I took a teaching job at Stowupland High School after a few days helping out on Reception. One of the duties doing that was co-ordinating searches for students who decided they were going to go into nearby Stowmarket instead of being at school. The consequence to the perpetrator, as with every other deviant behaviour at that school, was pretty much nothing at all.

Hidden away in a leafy part of Suffolk I’d listened dis-believing while qualified teachers had their time wasted trying to find children who had been taught it was completely acceptable in Stowupland parlance to ‘go for a walk’ if they felt that sitting in a class doing boring learning stuff was too much of an arse-ache. Two qualified teachers spent most of their day either sitting in a duty room waiting, or following walkabout pupils at a discrete distance in case they got upset at being asked, let alone told, to get back to the class they’d walked out of.

I thought it was a one-off, on Reception. I didn’t understand the key thing about Supply teaching; that you’re there because either a teacher has walked out (one did, but I stupidly didn’t register that in my mind) for good, or just can’t face it that day, week, or forever after. Occasionally, at other schools, a full-time permanent teacher might go sick, or get stuck in traffic on Suffolk’s laughable roads where one three-car accident can shut things down for a morning, or exams might mean that someone’s double-booked and needs another body to help out. At another Suffolk school for example, despite the fact that the school has two senior staff paid £150,000 a year, more than the Prime Minister, they’re permanently short of three teachers (combined salary under £70,000 p.a.). And yes. Both of them. Each.

And I didn’t clock it.

I saw the ex-member of staff slamming out of the security door and signing-out for the last time and I still didn’t clock it. I’d taught there before, filling in for General Science. I was going to say I was getting nowhere but I had actually persuaded a pupil that he didn’t actually need to carry a thick cane that would be pretty useful as a rod of correction if I remember my Rastafarian argot from Bath, a long time ago, home of the Lion of Judah.

Apart from that I was getting nowhere until I explained that the thing about things was that atoms and that, they all vibrate, all the molecules and stuff, doing little orbits at different speeds, which is why (cue demonstration) when I put my hand under this water coming out of the tap my hand pushes the water away and it flows around my hand, and when I push this plastic bowl my hand doesn’t go through it and the whole bowl moves instead. That seemed to work. Nobody had explained that. I thought it was the basic Stuff About Atoms that you’d need to know. Apparently it was, but nobody had told them about it. Instant ‘legend.’

Stabby Boy, the liar Billie Maddison

I met him on my first day in the English department. That was the name the boy wearing his coat backwards in the corridor and slamming doors gave, but he was a liar anyway. There was no Billie Maddison at the school.

So it’s entirely safe to call Stabby Boy Billie Maddison too, given that so far as the school was concerned it was no big deal and he didn’t really exist anyway.

“Next time, I’ll stab you.”

Billie Maddison, November 2018, Stowupland High School

Stabby Boy got his name because I caught him threatening to stab several other pupils in a corridor. That’s what he said he was going to do and that was the only reason I could see for him carrying four-inch bladed pointed scissors that he’d stolen from the Science Lab, first in his hand when he was jabbing them at other pupils, then in his front trouser pocket when he saw me. I decided there and then that if he did anything with the scissors other than hand them over to me slowly and now then job or no job, his next destination was going to be the floor in about half a second.  I am categorically not dying to keep someone else’s adolescent ego intact.

He handed them over. Oddly, I didn’t want him in the class after that. I called Security, or whatever fact-hiding name the two qualified teachers whose job it is to pander to anarchy were called that week. I explained the situation and told them I wanted Billie removed. They removed him.

He’s back inside five minutes.

Billie walked to the back of the class, propped his chair on two legs and leaned back against the wall. I told him to sit down at the front. Why? Well, firstly because I told him to and secondly, I don’t trust him and want to see exactly what he’s doing.

He doesn’t have to. According to him.

Call Security again. When they turned up, obviously after I’d been unable to give Billie’s real name, and confirmed that yes, as it was me again then the room hadn’t changed either and nor had the subject not being taught thanks to Billie Maddison, they asked him what the problem was. He was being picked on. I told him again to move down to the front and added that he didn’t decide where he sat, I did.

This was the cue to start throwing desks. Sadly, Billie beat me to it. Security laughably stood there watching. When he eventually consented to be moved and after I’d made it clear, as it obviously needed to be, that I was not having him back in the class we could finally get on with the lesson.

The Ultimate Price

Billie wasn’t in class next day. He was the day after.

He’d paid the school’s ultimate price: a one-day internal exclusion. If you’re an adult carrying a bladed article in a school you can go to prison for up to three years. You don’t have to threaten anyone with it, or steal it, or keep it in your trouser pocket for a quick draw, or jab people with it. All of which Billie Maddison had done in front of me. You just need to have it on you.

So we taught Billie Maddison an important lesson that day. Unfortunately, the lesson was that if you don’t want to go to classes, all you need to do is steal a weapon and you don’t have to.

Which is why there’s a teacher shortage.

Incidentally, if you’re the Head at Stowupland High School and think there is anything even vaguely inaccurate about this account, look at the internal exclusion records for last November. I’m more than happy to talk about this in public.

Silence only protects the guilty. Just the way Billie Maddison likes it.

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School Blues

There’s a book by Daniel Pennac, winner of the Prix Renaudot. Which isn’t anything like a Fiat Punto, despite the funk-eh name.

Michael Morpurgo reckons “Every education Minister, every teacher, every parent should read this,’ even if he did miss the last comma.

It’s all about how Danial Pennac didn’t do well at school until a teacher told him to write a novel, when he realised that nobody has to be a failed student for ever. It’s about “how fear can make children reject education” and how ‘inventive thinking and inspired teaching can lure them back’ from being ‘struggling students adrift in a faltering system.’

I’m not French. Sorry, but there it is. I never went to a French school although I did eat tongue in the uni at Rouen. Not like that. She wasn’t having any, then or ever after, notwithstanding that was pretty much the point of me going. I never even went to France until I was 21. It was all translated by Sarah Ardizzone, whose Mum I know a bit from when she used to live down the road.

There are lots of good bits of dialogue in the book but overall it put me in mind of Clint Eastwood talking to that chair. To be fair, he didn’t say the thing that teachers aren’t now allowed to say.

Come on, punk. Make my day.

Sincere or not, it comes over as a well-practiced party piece. And there’s lots to like about it.

“What improved my mistakes was that…teacher who refused to lower his standards by allowing spelling mistakes.” Dear God man, you’d better not come out with language like that in a Staff Room these days. You’ll stunt someone’s freedom of expression with that kind of bolshy talk.

He also says the thing that utterly, totally, absolutely can’t be said: it’s the sodding parents.

“Our “bad students,” the ones slated not to become anything, never come to school alone.” For once, a schools commentator isn’t talking about Mrs Proudly blocking the pavement with her leased Range-Rover while she ?Evoques (ooooh, see what sir did there?)  her kids’ heart attacks 40 years later by making sure they never walk more than 48 feet per day.

“Look, here they come, their families in their rucksacks. The lesson can’t begin until the burden has been laid down and the onion peeled. It’s hard to explain but just one look is often enough, a kind remark, a clear, steady word from a considerate grown-up, to dissolve those blues, lighten those minds and settle those kids into the present indicative.”

Quite good at the old wordage, isn’t he? And as any decent teacher knows, a lot of that is absolutely bang on. He didn’t add ‘and un-fuck the fucked-upness that your fucked-up mum and dad fucked you up with, they may not mean to but on the other hand, they did’t really give a fuck what was going to happen to you either,’ to paraphrase Philip Larkin.

What really got me was two things. Pennac goes to considerable trouble to damn other people who say how dim everyone thought they were at school but look at them now, before going on to do pretty much the exact same thing himself. Repeatedly.

But what really got me was the poetic little end-piece about the swallows that fly, if he lets them, through his bedroom windows, across the room and out the other side.

It’s not that he doesn’t once namecheck the Venerable Bede, which seems an obvious and curious omission; perhaps it was because Bede wrote of a single sparrow, not entire squadrons of more graceful, somehow entirely more Gallic birds.

It was really nice. His point was that if he didn’t open the windows at both ends of the room the sparrows would charge in and brain themselves against the closed windows; you have to help them to live.

You could watch Minnie Driver in Hunky Dory and get the same, but hey. French. Comprendez?

“Yet it still happens: three or four of the idiots fly straight into the fixed panes. Our proportion of dunces. Our deviants. They’re not in line. They’re not following the path. They’re larking about on the edge. Result: fixed pane. Whack! At which point one of us gets up, picks up the stunned swallow – they weigh hardly anything, with their bones of wind – waits for it to wake-up again and sends it back out to join its friends. That’s what I believe love looks like, in the context of teaching, when our students fly like crazed birds.”

Leaving aside the fact that Pennac would be back on his mobile to the Supply agency in pretty short order if he used that vocabulary about the most disruptive and violent students in any British school I’ve been in, it’s lovely. And I think that’s what love looks like too.

Except I never, ever, ever saw a swallow throw a desk, nor pick up a chair and try to smash another child over the head with it and regard it as completely acceptable behaviour.

I never, ever, ever saw a swallow jab other swallows with a stolen four-inch blade and tell them it would stab them next time. But I’ve seen all that at schools, with next to no consequences.

Tolerating that behaviour isn’t love. It’s rewarding hate. And when it gets that far gone then frankly I don’t care if they hate themselves or someone else. It needed to be stopped before it got to that. Hard. Life is not about infinitely tolerating bad behaviour, making excuses for it, accommodating and adapting to it. Unless you’re Boris Johnson, of course, when it gets you as far as Prime Minister. For the rest of us, we do people in schools no favours when we pretend that’s what real life is all about.

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The end of the world

In an adult life that has been for the most part not boring, it should have come as small surprise that I’d be working at the end of the world this week. Or rather, where the end of the world would have started and very nearly did.

I’m teaching a ten year-old actress who turned out not at all to be the bratty monster the words “ten year-old actress” suggested before I met her. If you’re under 16 and out of school you have to have a minimum of three hours of tuition each day. Or you’re not allowed on set. And in this case, given she has a key role, no film.

It struck me that my usual panoply of George Formby-based vocabulary learning might possibly not be entirely appropriate, great for giving Italian nineteen year-olds a thorough grounding in 1930s smut but with entirely forseeable problems here. I bought some Key Stage Two books. I bought some maths puzzles that were so horrible I couldn’t do them. I mean, I designed a formula-based software application, so I’m not exactly dense when it comes to maths, but I can’t do hardly any of the problems in that book.

Even Al the trusty green fluffy alligator that hormone-pumped Continental youths fight over didn’t appear to be making his normal contribution. I did what I usually forget to do when I have a problem. I went for a walk.

This old airbase is haunted. The last base commander said so. On night shifts his guards at the main gate would intercept some hapless pilot who didn’t have his papers and seemed disconnected from things. They’d keep him there while someone who should be able to vouch for him came on down to pick him up. And when they got there the airman had gone, vanished, disappeared to wherever he’d come from, where no-one saw him go. This was where the Rendlesham Forest UFO sighting happened, whatever that was. This was where in WWII a German aircraft crew came in, made a perfect landing, taxi-ed neatly off the runway, switched off and only realised they actually weren’t five minutes from their end-of-flight debriefing when people pointed guns at them. Ooops.

When I went for a walk the base was haunted by deer, a small herd that had managed to get its young one side of the perimeter fence and the rest of the herd the other, both groups running away from the gate long left open that had split them up.  I found machine-gun posts, looking new and clean and free from graffittee but surrounded by new growth pines planted since the airforce left in 1992, without a single footprint marking the sand that had crept in to cover their floors. Nobody has been here for years.

Parts of the base are empty. The decrepit sentinels of rusting watchtowers overlook workshops re-purposed as a hospital film set. A small reservoir oddly sports a dozen Georgian cannon, resting silently in a foot of clear water. And the planes are still here. An aviation restoration company shares the space with the deer, bringing in airframes that its hard to see could ever possibly fly anywhere or be any use to anyone except as film props.

Deception is something Suffolk has done before though. Patton’s fake decoy army was stationed all over this area too, the inflatable tanks and cardboard huts and plywood planes convincing the German High Command that the invasion of Europe would spring from here, via Great Yarmouth and Felixstowe and Ipswich, presumably. You could walk to Shingle Street, where if a German force wasn’t incinerated in local legend then a huge propaganda coup was carried-off, not even ten miles from here. Now rabbits hop around the empty huts where American voices ran through the drills that would launch the jets that would stop Soviet tanks rolling through the fields of Northern Europe. Which luckily for all of us, they both never did.

And today, my pupil has nearly, very nearly completed a 1,000 word story-writing task. The day isn’t over.

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We don’t need no education

We’re all a bit tired of experts, after all. The Minister for Education said so. Which tells you pretty much all you need to know about Britain, about how politicians feel about the people they’re supposed to represent, about education in Britain and the reasons for its place in the world.

It’s a country which has always pretty much despised education and cultivated the idea that decent people don’t know much, don’t want to and don’t need to, along with the idea that education in itself is suspect. It’s a country where you can definitely know too much for your own good.

At school I was advised by my Careers master not to do Psychology; employers would think I was always trying to find out what was in their heads. This wasn’t said as a joke. It was very definitely serious careers advice, at what was then a decent-enough school that produced some seriously rich adults, if not that many academics.

Any study of comparative educational attainment shows the UK lagging far, far behind in pretty much everything, starting with literacy. You can see the government’s own comparisons here. It lists the countries we’re encouraged to sneer at, the bad haircut Koreans, the we’re-absolutely-terrified-of-them-so-hush-Chinese, the hippy Finns, the close-to-communist-yet-inexplicably-affluent-and-modest-and-happy Norwegians, chocolate-munching Belgians, clog-wearing Anne-Frank-betraying-Dutch-who-we-helped-so-much and the dangerous-to-bankers-Gordon-Brown-defying Icelanders. The best of them have kids whose reading age is a year and a half above that of a British child of the same age. On average. Twenty countries do solidly better than the UK in mathematics, presumably ones which don’t pretend to be American and call it Math. Likely. Ten countries race ahead of the UK at Science in schools. And we get exactly what we deserve. With a UK population whose collective reading age is about nine years old perhaps it’s not surprising that social policy is dictated by the tabloid press.

I haven’t worked in all of these countries, but I’ve taught a fair few Chinese kids. They do things differently there. Here, we spend hours trying to work out new ways to involve the kids, how to make the lessons appeal, integrate learning into their life experience, make it bogusly ‘relevant’, because obviously knowing how to read enough to get a job compared to say, Pa knowing the boss, isn’t relevant to anything in the UK. In China the approach seems to be much the same as the one I remember from a rural primary school when it wasn’t just films that were black and white: sit down, shut up, open your books.

I’m not convinced that’s always the best way to do things. A practical lesson I did on how to make and lie in a hammock goes down as the happiest and most productive I remember, where even the ‘bad’ boys got involved. And were suitably chastened, even downright frightened when I told them about the last stitch at sea, the one through the septum to close the hammock over the dead sailor prior to chucking him over the side, just in case he wasn’t able to move or speak. Over, under, around, through, back over, up, down, we learned them all. Relative prepositions of place, in a sunny field by a stream one August morning. That time, Pink Floyd got it wrong. And some days, dark sarcasm is the only thing that keeps you going. I’m English, after all.

 

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