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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