Babysitting: Lucy Kellaway

About a thousand years ago I used to work with a man called Alec Kellaway. I say work, but I could never explain what it was he did at Mintel and when I asked him ,neither could he. Although it was a sunny summer morning long before the pubs opened, he gave every impression of being totally off his face. His assistant, in the far-off days when middle managers had assistants to open their email for them, explained to me later: he was being Michael Caine. Which was odd on two counts, one because Mintel wasn’t a theatrical agency and secondly because I thought he was just being an arse. Which however, wasn’t and isn’t Lucy Kellaway the former FT journalist’s responsibility or indeed, her fault.

About five years ago she wrote in the Financial Times about how big a pain it had become to work there, so she quit and re-trained to teach. Having a public profile already via the FT, it was a natural progression to getting a TV show about learning to teach. I’d done something like it just a year or two before, so I could identify very much with some of the issues being raised in the programme.

Yesterday the schools went back after lockdown. We’re all officially supposed to forget the day in December when the Prime Minister announced schools were too dangerous to go to, then said ah yes, but eheu, what he’d meant by that, naysayers notwithstanding, was that schools were very safe and should open at once, followed a few hours later by his announcement that actually, thinking about it, it had struck him that schools were lethal cesspools of infection and should be avoided at all costs. Except for the children of key workers, obviously, presumably on the grounds that their parents tended to be lower-paid so who really cares what happens to them. On the very same day schools were unsafe, safe, then unsafe, all the while “following the science”. And that’s official.

Officially Rude To Mention It

A lot of things in education are Officially Rude To Mention It. The time when I took a four-inch blade a pupil had publicly threatened another child with, to find him rewarded not with expulsion and a criminal record but with a one-day pass not to do any lessons was very, very ORTMI and I was all but shushed whenever I asked what possible reason there was for not getting rid of this little criminal. But you can’t say that. For a start, little is size-ist. But more important, if people like that aren’t mainstreamed, as the jargon goes, then their educational needs aren’t being met. Which translates into a disruptive child having the inalienable right to disrupt every other child’s learning.

Another thing Officially Rude To Mention is what schools are actually for, which was what Lucy Kellaway’s Saturday FT piece was about. Although I disagreed with her late namesake on the very few occasions I couldn’t avoid meeting him I didn’t disagree with the objectives of the organisation she set-up, Now Teach. But her words are telling.

“One day in early January I was at school, babysitting a handful of vulnerable students and kids of key workers who came to school during lockdown.”

Lucy Kellaway, FT 6 March 2021

Ooops! Lucy!!!

Vulnerable students means kids whose parents don’t GAF about them, which you’re totally not allowed to even think, let alone say. They’re kids whose mental health is a bit fragile. They’re kids with learning difficulties. They are kids with development issues. They are kids who need special attention and special treatment because that’s the way they are. And they don’t get it. They get mainstreamed. It’s simple gaslighting.

Mainstreaming is supposed to mean everyone is integrated. You cannot integrate a kid who is violently scared of unexpected noises (usually for a very good reason) in a classroom full of kids. You cannot integrate a kid who can’t see the page properly, or a kid who looks at the page and sees the letters jumping around. Or a kid who can’t read very well in their own language, which isn’t the one his book is printed in. Not at the same time and pace as the other twenty-nine kids in the class. Here in Suffolk a lot of parents know this perfectly well. But they still return a Conservative MP every time they get the chance not to, so their own kids’ education budgets are cut, all the special care is whittled away and their kids, whether with special needs or not, are just lumped in with everyone else to sink or swim. Victorian values, after all. That’s what they voted for.

The other boo-boo that lets the cat out of the bag is the B word. Babysitting. For weeks the UK media has been clamouring to take kids away from their parents, a large proportion of whom clearly can’t frickin STAND another day with the little brats hanging around their every attempt to watch porn on the work laptop in peace. But that’s what a lot of teaching very clearly is – storing the kids from 08:45 until home time.

At a private school I was at last year this applied unfairly, they thought, to two key workers’ children, brother and sister. Clever, quiet, affluent, they had one big problem – both their parents were doctors. Keyworkers. So you two, school bus. Now. I don’t care if it’s lockdown or not. That’s the law. Along with the kid who can’t hear without his implant aid and the kid who walks out of the room whenever someone drops a book.

When I started out as a teacher I thought it was my job to inspire. I wanted to prepare them for the world by telling them about it and interesting them in it. Yet about a year ago I stopped all that. The penny dropped: my view of education was at odds with the prevailing one.

Lucy Kellaway, FT 6 March 2021

Me too, Lucy. I remembered, reading that, of the time I was rejected from a teacher training course. I’d said two unforgivable things. Stories, I said, were a good thing. They gave context. Stories around the subject help people remember. They bring things to life. And apparently that is an absolutely disgusting, irrelevant notion that has no place in education today. Nor does the other thing I said was a good thing: school trips. Out of all the things I did at my very ordinary thousand-pupil Wiltshire school, the things I remember best are the school trips. Apart from Wednesday sailing club, a trip to Heathrow airport, wonder of the ages; Othello in London; a trip to Nympsfield to go gliding; a play in Salisbury; the trip to Dorchester as a pretend homage to Hardy, which was a trip to the museum then sitting in the kids’ pub, as distinct from the teachers’ pub, playing the jukebox and becoming a friend for life with someone I’d never spoken to, in a different form; another trip to Dorchester, because. A trip to the RSC.

No, no and apparently no. That’s not what school is for, I was told in writing. It’s for the National Curriculum. It’s for cramming the facts Michael Gove approves of. It’s for passing exams. It’s absolutely definitely certainly not for real life, enjoying yourself, or putting anything at school in a broader context so it might actually have some use for you later.

More and more I agreed with everything Lucy Kellaway wrote.

The children need the qualifications not to understand the world but to make their way in it. The point of my job is to open doors for students and exams are those doors.

Lucy Kellaway, FT 6 March 2021

Which is true and I can deal with that. The problem starts when you have a huge number of kids – those with reading difficulties, for example, those who can’t deal with the noise level of other kids, for another – who are never going to pass exams. It isn’t just that some doors never open, not for them. The bigger problem is getting baby-sitters for kids for whom school doesn’t have any purpose if all the real-life learning is taken out of it.

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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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