Tom Bennett

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Monthly Archives: October 2011

Educating Essex 6: Save me from myself

‘We’re talking’.

‘Thank you for your hard work; you’re always such a pleasure to teach.’

Mr King

This week the spotlight fell on Mollie in year 10, and her startlingly similar-looking older sister Charlotte. In some ways we were looking through the microscope at the same thing we always do: pupils who could do well, but for one reason or another, aren’t. T’was ever thus. We focussed on Mollie though, the- apparently- very bright pupil who was on a collision course with..well, with anyone within kicking distance. As ever, I need to give some context to this blog: the real Millie and Charlotte, I don’t know. All I can comment upon is the edit we’re allowed to see. Still, it was revealing; in fact, this week was a particularly masterful creation from the producers, who gave us a three-act melodrama, with set-up, complication, crises, resolution, and some full-throated character arcs. And in the end, everyone learned something, and we got to see Mr Drew’s socks, which HAS TO BE some kind of bonus (Mr Happy, in fact. Presumably Mr Tenacity was unavailable).

TV Mollie, we were told by the voice over and by Mr Drew and Charlotte was very bright. I guess there are all kinds of intelligence then (and I don’t mean sodding de Bono either; Thinking Hats my righteous white ass), because when I think of intelligence, I don’t think of someone stubbornly setting their shoulder against the world for the right to wear a non-regulation jacket or a pound and a half of Estée Lauder. I don’t think of someone who blows up like thermite in a microwave every time someone asks them to not call a teacher a fucking prick. But I’m old fashioned.

I know that it is currently in vogue to describe every type of aptitude as an intelligence, even if the intelligence under discussion involves ping-pong or something (you can call it table-tennis all you like, it’s ping-pong to me). The great thing about this is that the word intelligence itself gets so inflated, and covers so much territory, that it essentially starts to mean almost anything. Oh, hang on, that’s a bad thing.

I think I’d rather go with, ‘Mollie displays signs of intelligence. And other times she tells people to go stick things up their arses, with very little persuasion needed, even if by so doing she turns ploughshares into swords and allies into enemies.’ I suppose it’s a sort of intelligence.

Oh, I know what they mean- she has an innate capacity to compute, to recognise, to discern; perhaps she has the talent to do subjects relatively easily. We know what you mean by intelligence. I bet she has stacks of it. But what one does with it…that;s the rub. I know many, many intelligent people stacking shelves in Asda. And, thanks to the somewhat brainless requirement of the last government, that 110% of all school leavers (or something) should go to University, I know plenty of very qualified people shaking fries at Fridays. Mollie, we are told, ‘Could be anything that she wanted to.’

And that’s true; but it’s just as true for the vast majority of our students: the only difference between their outcomes is what they do in between arriving at school and leaving. Some people have a bit/ lot more natural talent then others (see: Film Club) but I have rarely met a student who couldn’t get an A in just about anything if they were prepared to put the required amount of effort into it. I could climb Mount Everest, if I gave myself an early enough start. But I won’t: because I choose not to. Everyone has potential; that’s the damned thing. It’s our job to teach them to believe that, at the same time as we show them that potential means nothing without the sweat that unlocks it.

Mollie’s tragedy, as it is for so many of them, is that she could do well, but she keeps detonating every time someone asks her to put her pipe out; and her pipe smoketh eternally. Every time we see her, she’s impersonating Eyjafyallajokull (fuck off, spellcheck), usually punctuating her exchanges with (usually) Mr Drew with quips like ‘Oh GODDDDDDD!’ or ‘RGGGGHHHH!’. I can see why they say she’s bright.

In interview, she shows some sense of reflection. ‘I don’t mean to be’s like I got Tourette’s or something…’ Always love how we teachers have so perfectly absorbed the language of the market, the social worker and the pop-psychologist,  that our children have absorbed it osmotically. How many kids, twenty years ago, would have described themselves as ‘unable to work independently’ or ‘struggling for ways to manage their temper’? Not many. We have adopted the idiom of the diagnostic physician for so many aspects of our behaviour that previously on ER, would have been described as perfectly normal (if unusual) points on an expected scale: it breaks my heart to see how often we now offer our witless, worthless diagnoses of behavioural problems, as if they were viruses possessed by, and inhabiting the person of the student, rather than being descriptive statements about observed behaviours.

Where once I would have been castigated for being rude and hot tempered, now I can be said to have ‘anger management’ problems. I can be given special provision for my tendency to tell people to go fuck themselves. I can even get a statement, with the funding that entails.

I’m not denying the existence of real mental problems- in fact, I think that our society stigmatises and marginalises real mental problems of the human condition, although even seeing some of these as pathological is problematic, and probably says as much about our social relationship with the condition as anything else. Homosexuality used to be included as a mental problem; depression wasn’t. Swings and roundabouts, really.

Anyway. I only mention it, because the inevitable result of all this labelling guff is that kids start to feel that they’re not responsible for their actions. Why? Because when you describe a personalty trait as a condition, then it becomes alien to one’s character, and something you’re not to be judged for. It’s like a fat man patting his belly and saying, ‘I’ll need to get rid of this.’ It IS you! Worse, teachers fall into this game too, and say, ‘I know you’re nice, deep down’ as if there were two people being discussed, instead of one with the capacity to act well and…less so.

In the end, what you wish you’d done is bullshit: we’re judged by what we do and what we refrain from doing. Someone who acts appallingly one moment and angelically the next, is a bit of both. Jekyll and Hyde were parts of the same whole. When the child realises this, the adult starts to emerge from the rubble of character. Some people never get this far. And sometimes it’s because we treat them as if their behaviour and their character were somehow two different things, rather than one being the progenitor of the other. Unless we accept responsibility for our actions, we are doomed to go through lives believing ourselves to be helpless conduits for our whims, and deterministic robots, devoid of moral shame or blame. To Hell with that. Either we’re moral beings, with free will and the capacity to choose, or we are not. If we are not, then our entire culture makes no sense, life has no meaning, and do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.

So I prefer to imagine that we’re responsible for ourselves. There is no universal escape clause. There is just us, and the things we do. It takes guts to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I did that,’ especially when the actions are shameful. But the flipside is that we can be proud when we act well. Any other way is soulless.

Vic Goddard, preparing for assembly

‘The words just come out,’ admits Mollie when she is asked about her outbursts. Mr Drew nails this point to the wall when he asks  Edina about why she called a teacher a prick. ‘Would you call your granny a prick?’ he asks, in what you might have presumed was a conversation ender. Alas, Edina concedes that she might call her her Granny a prick, after all. Which is nice (Note to Edina: don’t expect Harry Potter Lego in your stocking this year).

But the point is still made: if you can refrain from clobbering Gran-Ma-Ma with a blunderbuss of cuss, then you can do it in other circumstances.

We witness this all the time in schools: the child with EBD who is perfectly capable of behaving in subjects he likes, for teachers he responds to. The ADHD pupil who gets a B in one subject, but Xs in everything else. People, for the most part, are perfectly capable of controlling themselves when they want to: when they see a reason; when they feel enough pressure to do so. The motivation might be self-interest; it might be duty; it might be compassion. Whatever.

To my eyes, Mollie’s outbursts were perfectly within her power to restrain; which isn’t to say that she likes to do them, but that, deep down, somehow, they make sense to her. Her back story, which is common enough to be mundane, but painful enough to generate sympathy, suggested fractures at home, and a displacement of attention as she moved from being one of three siblings, to suddenly becoming one of a Baker’s Dozen of children, dislocated from the nuclear role she occupied and suddenly, to a young mind, peripheral to the love she needed. Who knows? I won’t insult her or her family by further speculation; all I can do is offer conjecture about what I saw on TV- a young girl who doubted herself so much that she behaved in a way that got attention from adults, and possibly proved to everyone that she was as much trouble as they thought she was.

The relationship between her and Drew was touching: he was the scratched record, the hard-ass who could always be relied upon to toe the hard line with her. At first she predictably kicked off against it like Osama Bin Laden in the Playboy Mansion (which is where, incidentally, they should have locked him up: that would have shown him); over the weeks of report, she seemed to acquiesce. And that , my friends, is why we do what we do: provide boundaries, electrify the fences, and just..repeat ad infinitum. It’s called being reliable. It isn’t sexy (unless your tastes are very niche); it isn’t exciting, and it doesn’t get you invited to many motivational speaker gigs (God save us) but it’s 50% of what teaching is all about: being a reliable adult.

Now what was it called again..?

That means turning up on time, doing what you say you will, and being fair. It means being tough sometimes, and putting people on the naughty step when they deserve it .It also means wanting the best for pupils, and letting them know it, at the time time as you keep them behind, call their parents or give them a detention. Tough love, I will say until the Last Day, is still love.

Drew, it seems, is a Jedi of this skill. It is, I might add, enormously encouraging to see senior staff being given such a strong pastoral responsibility in school and the time to do something about it. I’ve no doubt he’s rushed off his titties, but at least he appears to be master of the naughty room, and allowed to inhabit the space. He steals my educational crown of the week this week. Also, because of his comment to Mollie when she finally reached his desk for the first time: ‘I’m not interested in why you misbehave.’ Which is exactly right- by this point the student needs to start taking responsibility for their own actions, and fast. The understanding has preceded that point, for months and months; by that point, a child needs to see that only they can turn the situation around, and sometimes that means cutting off the cuddles and turning up the compulsion.

As the narrative progresses, we’re allowed glimpses of Mollie coming round to the system’s needs. Because that’s what she needs: to understand what battles to pick, and when to pick them. Fight the battles that are worth fighting, and not simply fighting everything because you’ve got a pair of paws and they’re in reach, which is what she seems to do in this episode. And, eventually, she ends the year with 5 A*-C GCSE grades; impressively early. They could have ended the episode with Drew hurdling the benches of Harlow while grateful children try to keep up with him, as he shadow boxes up the steps of  the Harvey Centre and yawps with victory. Instead we got Bon Jovi’s ‘It’s my life.’ It’ll do.

And of course, that’s what all the effort was for: weathering every gale of rudeness, every storm-in a tea cup. Because every teacher worth a damn wants the best for the kids, and wants them to leave with as many qualifications as possible to make their life as close as possible to their flourishing.

THAT SAID, it’s only possible to provide an environment for kids like that when someone has the time to look after them; to indulge their outbursts, and to act as a conduit between their poor choices and their better ones. In a school where such pupil behaviour is more common, we pass a tipping point where indulging such behaviour leads to the demolition of the educational space: I’ve written before about the silent majority who want to learn and don’t get all the attention, because some band of arseholes has commandeered the lesson for their own amusement. Nurture groups and individual interventions are only possible when they are the exception, rather than the norm.

Good luck to her, and her simulacrum sister; Mollie was, despite her foul temper and childishness, charming. Mr Drew ended up seeming to be her in-school father; and he proved it to her by being the one person who was prepared to keep telling her she was wrong. She was fortunate indeed, to have the services of such a man. Despite his socks.

Although was it just me, or did she end up wearing the jacket she was forbidden from wearing at the start of the show. Either there were pixies in the continuity, or the rules changed over time. Still, it was beautiful to see her walk up to him covered in, no doubt, top class slap, and wait for his reaction.

Clear off, scumbags.

Other highlights:

‘We’re not so different, Drew and I.’
  • ‘Do I look sophisticated?’ she asked, sporting her Harold Lloyd Gregory Pecks. 
  • ‘Do I look like an Essex Girl?’ she asked, wearing the same face furniture. I don’t understand how she went from one to the other.
  • Drew’s Taxonomy of what constituted the great and the good: Snooker players who admit fouls; that guy in front of the tank of Tienanmen Square; parents.’ Priceless. It was the combination of Burmese opposition politicians and Hurricane Higgins that got me.
  • Steps’ greatest hits blasting out in the office: Mr King’s note-perfect hangdog reaction to Katy Perry’s Firework. Which is, admittedly, completely shit.
  • Charlotte, one mark off a C: ‘Yessssssss!’ *hands in air, fist-pumping. Who said the art of succeeding gracefully was dead?
  • Drew’s Scatter Graph of Fail. Every study support room should have one.
  • Vic Goddard, doing his Johnny ‘Man in Black’ Cash Impression. Also, sporting a dandy tan from the half term, no doubt.
  • Tina’s soothing strategies: Stan’s co-pilot in a room that must reek of desperation at times
  • Mollie’s contribution to Student Voice: ‘I’m sure that if you took a survey of all the students, they’d…tell you how uncomfortable they were at school…’ Which is another reason I hate Student Voice with EVERY ATOM IN MY BODY UNTIL THE END OF TIME.
  • Drew, attempting to remember what the remake of Fantasia was called. I think it might have been Fantasia 2000. Might be wrong.
  • Mollie: ‘Mr Drew and me…we’re quite similar people.’ AH YES, AUSTIN POWERS, WE’RE NOT SO DIFFERENT YOU AND I! Ah, Moriarty, will I grapple thus with thee forever?
  • This week’s montage- the Cleaners. Props to the cleaner massive.

Young Apprentice episode 1: enter the dragonflies

Sugar’s grimace: terrifying.
‘The Ice Cream Industry- worth a cool £1 billion a year.’ Did you see what the voice over did there. DID YOU SEE WHAT HE DID?
The Apprentice has rolled back into town in its early-years incarnation. I confess to my dependence on this series. As Nick Hewer, Surallun’s Deputy Dawg mused in a recent interview, ‘We have twenty weeks of Apprentice every year- but is it enough?’ NO, Nick, IT IS NOT THANK YOU FOR ASKING, SO SORT THAT SH*T OUT PLEASE. He fancies a geriatric version, where third-agers vie against each other to build up riches on Earth, possibly at a time when they should be building up riches in Heaven. Hope springs eternal. I’d love to see a contestant (sorry, aspiring apprentice) say to Surallun, ‘Shush your mouth, sonny, I knew your father.’
Until then, the Young Apprentice. In many ways, preferable to the 18 certificate version, if only because you don’t look at them with the same mixture of despair and weltschmertz as their older counterparts. On some level you can keep saying to yourself: they’re only kids. They can change.
‘Sweet on the tongue,’ apparently. Unlike Watermelon.
You know the drill: 12 contestants compete with each other for the prize: financial backing for their pet business idea, and guidance and advice from their grizzly benefactor. Like Trump on the American version, Sugar is the catalyst that makes this work: picture someone else and try to imagine the wet lettuce that would follow. He’s the enzyme: but the kids are the stars, and not always for the right reasons. By this point we’re unfamiliar with the contestants: we don’t have favourites or villains yet (actually I did, after about five minutes, but they canned him at the end- more on the legend that is Mahamed later), so at this stage we’re sorting the wheat from the chaff: the belligerent, psychopathic narcissists from…well the ones who didn’t apply.
Hayley: surprisingly sane
(Writing about kids raises ethical issues all by itself. When I write about Educating Essex I’m painfully aware that some of my targets are school kids, and I have an automatic default setting of protecting and nurturing them, because the whole point of being a kid is that you’re still learning, so I’ll cut them some slack and refrain from jumping in boots-first. But in contrast, no one asked these stalwarts to appear on national television: if they didn’t want exposure, or the high risk, high dividend tactic of appearing on a prime time quiz show then they can expect to be talked about. Still, I’ll be gentle. It takes, after all, stones (or if you’re Stuart ‘The brand’ Baggs, a complete lack of perspective and introspection approaching the aspergic) to do something like this. And already some of the kids seem interesting.)
One of the common complaints against a program like this is that it encourages the worst excesses of capitalism: material aspiration beyond all other concerns; the habit of rampant individualism; disparity of wealth; one big winner, lots of big losers, you know, the kind of stuff that people with flexible career aspirations are currently knocking themselves out over on the steps of St Paul’s (way to stick it the man, incidentally. We hate banks! Let’s camp in…er a church! Silly sausages). 
This complaint has merit; certainly the contestants that really stick out from the past are the most vile specimens of humanity: craven, sociopathic parasites who were born, apparently saying ‘Money’, who would, week after week, promise over 100% effort, in defiance of the laws of logic and physics. There was even one particular plum who promised 150%; the next week then promised 140%, and the next, 130%. As Dara O’Briain commented, ‘He’s losing productivity by ten % per week! Sack him!’
So it’s true; the joy of The Apprentice has often been schadenfreude; watching Nemesis lay waste to hubris, and those who offend the Gods. Be careful, Icarus, how high you care to climb, because your wings are made of wax. And chocolate gold. 
Once we accept trade, and proceed from barter to currency economies, we have to concede the role of the entrepreneur. There’s a lot wrong with capitalism, believe me. But as Milton Friedman, the American liberal economist famously said, ‘Show me a system that works better.’ I have some sympathy for that. The Free Market is famously cruel; the bonded collectivism of the socialist is tyrannical, and enables totalitarianism. The best we have so far are systems that attempt to combine the best of both worlds. We’re still working on it, human nature being what it is.
(I’m not sure that every blog about the Apprentice needs to start with a justification of capitalism, but it seems fashionable to mount a soapbox about it, given that, you know, apparently capitalism is broken, or something. I don’t know, I’ve been busy blogging about Jamie Oliver and Essex).
I look at this and think ‘success.’
This year’s candidates were the usual mixture of the great and the ghoulish; man-children and frighteningly precocious Amazons, all power heels and Cruella de Ville lippy. At the start they all seem variously foetal and amorphous. Their characters are revealed slowly, like a brass rubbing. Some of course, stand out more than others, depending on the editor’s hand.
Did you see them pick their team names? DID YOU SEE? The first flag up the pole was ‘Team Future,’ because, ‘We’re the future.’ And already we can relax: this series is going to be brilliant. They settled on ‘Atomic,’ because in the words of one, ‘You hear the word atomic, you think of speed.’ No mate, you think Fukushima and cancer, but we’ll let that slide. On the girls’ gang, the name Sixth Sense was suggested, and it was like, man, who farted? They went for Team Core, because the Sun has, like a core. This naming ritual is hilarious. It’s like they race each other to the bottom of the barrel as quickly as they can, hoping presumably to burst through to the other side into new dimensions of awfulness. Could it get any worse?
Yes: the leader-selection ritual. As usual, no one wanted to go first, the yellow rats. Lewis, charmingly, said, ‘I don’t think I’m strong enough to lead a team I don’t know,’ which was great, although it was a bit early to be so honest about being sh*t. 
So: design an ice cream flavour: deck out a marketing strategy; sell. A nice package task: business in microcosm. So, so many points where our young adventurers could f*ck up royally. They didn’t disappoint. 
The boys came up with a pirate theme. Pirates. That’s an odd genre, when you think of it: they’re not really cuddly, are they? I suppose ‘rapists’ would have been a bit of a risky pitch. You certainly don’t see many of them at fancy dress parties, unless you work for the IMF. So, pirates it was, and BOY did the ownership of that idea cause a riot in the boardroom. Mahamed, who had the potential to be my breakout star, came up with the idea to paint the ice cream trolley like a treasure chest. Not sure how many treasure chests pirates use these days; more high speed assault vessels and prow-mounted automatic weaponry, but never mind the reality. Pirates! Arrr!
James decided, perhaps unwisely, that he would become a character: Captain Vanilla. Unfortunately that name is already taken on some of the more exotic nightclub scenes, but he wasn’t to know that.
Actually, Mahamed also took to the pirate theme like a tiny torpedo, leaping out at customers at the seaside like a prowler. ‘Ice cream!’ he shouted at them, as they scurried away, terrified. He was like a Jack Russell. A Jack Russell scaring people and shouting ‘Ice Cream!’ His peer James, tried to rein him in (although frankly, he wasn’t much cop at the whole charm offensive either. It appears to be on the application form). Then the group leader, Harry M had a beach wave: ice cream delivery on the beach. Perfect. Would you buy an ice cream as you sunbathed if someone (admittedly one dressed as a pirate) offered to do so. YOU BET YOU WOULD. It would be ICE CREAM TIME if that thing were to happen. 
Back to the dishes, mate.
Over in camp Core, they had a grasp of mathematics that was a woeful joy to behold (or not behold). Honestly they were so bad, I thought that one of them was going to tell Surallun that she would give him -34% of her effort in the next task. These girls had GCSEs in maths, and Mr Gove, if that doesn’t make your duodenum undulate with terror, nothing will. Fix this. Fortunately they had a strategy to cost out their production. ‘F*ck it, take as much as they can make in, er…..five minutes. Or something.’ That, my friends, is how we put men on the Moon.
Their sales strategy was also brilliant, if demonic: charge something horribly high, and then pile the pricey upsell options onto the cone before they got a chance to object. And they CHARGED FOR THE CONE. Yes, you heard me. You might have thought that this kind of thing was factored into the ticket price. Not a bit of it. I’m surprised they didn’t say, ‘Fifty pence for us NOT to sh*t in it.’
My absolute favourite evil manoeuvre was when the tiny, cute kid was ‘buying’ an ice cream from the stall, and Hannah just kept piling the extras on as the kiddy agreed with gusto to every upsell imaginable. Because she was a child. The Mum’s eyes nearly popped out as she realised her darling had been robbed- and there’s no other word for it- into buying the world’s most expensive ice-cream. Plus cone. If you thought there were ethical issues intrinsic to writing about the under-eighteens, I suspect there are rather more issues dripping off that kind of child exploitation. And THAT, my friends, is why we need unions, because of these tiny business minds can resort to crookery so easily and innocently, you can see how big business strip mines virgin primary forest and goes, ‘What?’ when someone tells them off for it. It’s in our natures as much as kindness is. Possibly more.
Vanilla Ice. NO JOKE.
Back at Boot camp- sorry, Surallun’s office (which of course it isn’t- Surallun has a base in Loughton that makes a Soviet saucepan factory look glamorous; this is a hired set to convey the opulence and dizzying, vast minimalist excesses of capital) the boys were found to be wanting, all down to costings, apparently, although a kinder heart might question the fact that they were selling in different locations, with different customers, so inevitably the competition was far from played on a level field. Whatever.
It seemed a cruel loss for them, when, apart from some aggressive pirating from Mahamed, they ticked all the boxes of diligence, team work, and getting shit done. The girls hadn’t got shit done; they had done what, depressingly, they seem primed to do in these series, i.e. tear each other apart as soon as possible (see my blog on Educating Essex 5). The team leader, Hayley, gave clear instructions for their resources team to buy x number of bananas and Mangos. But Gbemi decided to get half as much; so her team leader told her to buy more. Gbemi told her to stick it up her arse. ‘We’re on our way to an important meeting. Can’t you do it?’ she told her nominal boss. Stick. It. Up. Your. Arse. One to watch, that Gbemi. Comedy Gold. And, apparently, a ticking time bomb.
So, the bizarrely victorious Core ended up Zorbing themselves sick, and the Atomic Boys sat with their lemonades (in some ways watching the Young Apprentice is like watching Bugsy Malone) at the Bridge Cafe of Fail. They should put a sign outside: ‘Breakfast of Losers!’
But not as much as Mohammed, who bounced about in his huge seat like a flea, claiming all the glory and cutting everyone down as best he could. I’m sure that, in real life, he is a lovely young man, and an installer of quality satellite dishes, a business he no doubt runs with perfect probity. In this show, he came across as an angry, vainglorious little braggart, as desperate and cynical as any of his adult contemporaries. Sugar crushed his ambitions with the finger of Doom. ‘Blah, blah, blah,… my bleedin’ Aunt Fanny, you’re fired,etc…’ said Baron Sugar of Hackney, or words to that effect, as Nick pursed his lips like a man sucking the skin from a bullet. 
But if Mahamed was crushed, he kept it hidden. In the famous Taxi of Fail, he was adamant. ‘It’s going to be Lord Sugar who regrets it,’ he said, with a pantomime trace of villainy and threat hanging in the air. There’s a pirate in their somewhere. Sorry, somewherrrrre. Sugar better not take any cruises soon.
And I wonder how often that driver gets tipped? Not very, I imagine.
Do NOT cross this woman. She will chin you.
The child becomes the man. Life is a generational story, of course. Episode one was a beautiful start to a long relationship between me and my sofa every Monday for the next few months.  Will Rugby Harry break Sugar’s no fackin’ toffs policy? Will Gbemi chin someone? We’ll find out next week in episode 2.
Or, as the girls would say, episode 15 ½ .
Other highlights:
  • Harry H: ‘He was Heavenly to work with…I’ve had perfect time to reflect.’ What is this, Downton Abbey? 
  • Mystic Mahamed: ‘Watermelon- no one’s gonna buy that. But honey is sweet on the tongue.’
  • Nick: ‘He snatches at the facts.’ You fact-snatcher. Great insult.
  • Sugar to slippery James de Griz: ‘Watch it, OK? Watch it.’ *James nods, sweating*
  • Harry H, talking about the boardroom scrap: ‘It was like the Battle of the Somme.’
  • Lewis, talking about the same thing: ‘It was like Pass the Parcel!’

Educating Essex 5: Nasty girls and the Heart of Darkness

Mean Girls: unlike British Schools.
‘I got a wedgie! I swear I’m allergic to them!’ 
Much as I adore the way ICT has transformed the way we communicate with each other, if it was a student in one of my classes, I would toe-punt it through a set of saloon swing-doors like Yosemite Sam. Even when I started, kids were getting their heads round the idea that a playground cuss could be avenged in an afternoon by a single text back to the family mothership. Cue: the Dale Farm Peace Corps at the gates at 4pm, ready to right some wrongs with the international toothpick of diplomacy, the spanner. Cue: lots of community cohesion meetings and healing discussions *heave*.
This week Educating Essex regrettably ignored my suggestion to run with a spin-off series about the awesome Film Club (motto: We Skip No More) and instead persisted in exploring another facet of the school pastoral pilgrimage: bitchy girls.
I’d better declare an intrinsic handicap I possess in discussing this topic: I possess a Y chromosome, and this hobbles me somewhat. I am a stranger in a strange land when it comes to the seemingly pointless, cruel and cannibalistic telepathy that motivates and facilitates the process whereby girls can huddle like frogspawn in solidarity, then disperse with a kind of Brownian motion, reforming into different social networks. And it’s all done without a word! How on EARTH does it happen? It’s like penguins, clustering in miserable furry piles to shelter from the sub-zeroic temperatures, endlessly replacing their comrades at the frozen exterior of the circle. Watching it from the outside, it’s like observing the hive-mind of starlings, instantaneously deciding on a capricious whim to turn this way, then that. 
A while back I was watching Big Brother in mixed company (a veteran gunslinger, an escaped convict, a sharpshooter, someone good with knives, the usual) when one of the future darlings of the titty papers flounced out of the Torture Belvedere or whatever and into the Diary Room. ‘Hello [insert witless, misspelled mononym], how are you?’ said the broad Geordie anima. ‘Furious!’ she steamed. ‘I was making rice for everyone when [insert second name-crime], she just walked past and she looked at me like this!’ *makes perfectly normal face* ‘And I was like, you bitch.’ 
I stared at the screen in  perfect incomprehension. The other chaps in the room with me looked at each other and made, what just happened? faces. And all the girls went,’ Oh, the bitch,’ nodding, their eyes slitted in righteousness. 
Women are, indeed, different.
We are the Borg. Resistance is futile. Prepare to be ignored.
The Blonde Borg Collective
The feeding frenzy fell upon Ashleigh tonight, a bright year 11 girl whose only crime, as far as I could see, was to have the predictably stormy romantic life of most teenagers, which provided her friends (can I call people who slander and exclude their peers friends? Apparently I can) with the requisite narrative fodder for their self-penned melodramas. Everyone gets a part, and everyone can feel important because an identity has been constructed for them, at a point in their lives when identity is such a hard thing to grasp. Some play the villain, some play the victim. Some have bit parts, and some, as in Shakespeare, play the vital role of messengers. Given that this wasn’t comedy, it had to be a tragedy. And in a tragedy, someone has to die.
Poor Ashleigh. She went from member of the Magic Circle to Untouchable in a heart beat; over a mouthful of school dinner, it seemed from the edit, as the Blonde Borg Collective upgraded their social software in a package that no longer required her. The program portrayed the ‘vivacious’ Carrie as the mob boss of the chum racket.The peaceable Mr Thomas described her as ‘sociable’.  I’m careful commenting about the conduct of others when we see them through the lens of the camera. That said, what we did see wasn’t exactly edifying. There’s a million ways to interpret the behaviour we saw, but even with my generous, Forgiving Hat on , it was pretty repellent to watch as the Borg decided that Ashleigh was suddenly and instantly surplus to social requirement.
The defamation of Citizen Ashleigh was bad enough; the pleasure that her peers took in her distress was vile. Cruelty is an offence against the most important thing in the world: love. Every act of malice and schadenfreude is crime against humanity. There are two compassionate directions the human heart can take: altruism and egoism. Egoism can be innocent- doing things for oneself is harmless when you’re making yourself a sandwich- and altruism is an ideal we can aspire to. But egoism makes monsters of the best of us when we require others to feed it. 
‘We’re not talking to you, yeah?’
That was what is so vile and vicious in these cases: there is the barest attempt to justify the passive aggression by claiming that the victim of the exclusion has broken some social more that entitles her to be punished. In this case, it was- apparently- the grim, medieval charge of being a sket. I can’t tell you how depressing it is to see women tear each apart over sexual misdemeanours, when their ancestors have struggled for centuries to weaken and loosen the shackles of a patriarchal world that binds them with propriety and customs that benefit only their captors. As one gallows piece of gender humour has it, ‘What do men and women have in common? They both hate women.’ There is a depressing feminist truth curled up in the heart of that apparently misogynistic quip.
Whether the poor girl was innocent or guilty of a seemingly victimless crime is irrelevant; the girls just wanted to feed, and it was her turn. There’s a mob mentality similar to the Salem trials that put me in mind of McCarthyism, as girls frantically lined up with the perceived Big Beast of the battle, Carrie, in an effort not to suffer banishment along with Ashleigh. ‘I don’t know her!’ they cried, as the cock crowed three times and their former friend was crucified by the crowd.
‘Who’s still speaking to her?’ asked one of the henchwomen. And everyone agreed: no one was.
Ashleigh, being a teenage girl and a human being, was crushed by their restructuring, and in the middle of lessons went over to her former friend to find out what it was, in fact, she was being excluded for. Carrie’s brittle blanking of her was heart breaking. She cut her off as cleanly and neatly as the most committed of Victorian moralists.
And yet, this is human nature, and barely worth even mentioning, except of course it takes place, not in a vacuum, but in the rarefied atmosphere of a school. As Vic Goddard, who played a backstage role this week said, ‘It’s like a stone dropped in a pond, and the ripples spread outwards’ Which is where lovely ICT comes into it, because back when dinosaurs stalked the DfE, pupils had to rely on mouth-to-mouth in order to clone their bile. Now, it just takes one teen talon to tap out a tattoo of hatred on their BBM, and Taliban Trainees in Tehran know that Ashleigh’s a ‘fackin sket’ or something. Auto translate THAT, Siris. I imagine a Bedouin in Jordan, wondering ‘Who is this Ashleigh? And why are we not talking to her anymore? Ah. She is two-faced. An untouchable.’
Carrie was frighteningly frank about the process in interview. ‘We’re all two-faced. All of us.’ It was scarier than Gordon Gecko’s ‘Greed is Good’ speech, less noble, and also less reflective. Of course, we are all- all of us- excellent at this kind of retrospective justification. It is rare indeed that we hold ourselves to blame for anything. But this kind of critical introspection is vital for us to become moral adults. The belief that our actions are blameless and just, is the mind-set of an infant, the cruellest creature of all, the very avatar of thoughtless egoism. To see it sustained in the mouth of a young adult was distressing. And somehow predictable.
Of course this had an effect in the world beyond the Sucker Punch microcosm of teenage Fantasy Fight Club; Ashleigh’s education suffered as she (presumably) ducked a little school to hide from the torment of social exclusion. Teachers’ time was taken up dealing with the fallout, and the masterful Stan was seen in full flow as he counselled Brad, Ashleigh’s on/ off-kind-of-it’s-complicated boyfriend. I saw an excellent comment online this week about kids who set their relationship statuses on Facebook as ‘it’s complicated’: ‘It’s complicated? How? Did he steal your Haribo?’
A cuddle and a shove
Stan is my Educational Hero of the Week, one of the ninja masters of pastoral tone. It was just the right register of concern, tough love and a dash of ‘Oh well, best get you back to lessons.’ It’s harder than it looks. It’s so easy to overshoot and try to be the subject’s chum, when what they need is listened to, and then spoken to in a caring, authoritative way: a cuddle and a shove. If Stan ever tires of listening to sullen children moaning about f*ck-all, he can get a job with the NYPD talking jumpers down from the Brooklyn Bridge. He’s THAT good.
‘I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe. I try not to dwell on them.’
In the end, the storm blew out of port as promptly as it hit; the school did the grown up thing and called a summit where the girls apparently negotiated a cease fire. This was foreshadowed when, upon returning to school, Ashleigh found that the evil alliance forged by her expulsion was already tottering like Gadhafi, and some of her former peers were sliding back to her camp. One of them even visited the Head of House to complain about the situation. Ms Conway looked at them with the tired eyes of a veteran (and I might add, a woman, so she probably understood what the hell was going on a bit better than me). ‘So what do you want me to do?’ she said, basically indicating that her preferred option would be to somehow arrange them all to be locked in a dark room with crowbars like Battle Royale Essex).
Ashleigh’s chum knew exactly what should happen. ‘They need to be taught a lesson,’ she said. And you could see hate multiplying. Whatever happened, someone had to pay…. 
As Ms Conway said, ‘They just want some drama. And they want to be in the centre of it.’ If it was drama they wanted, she took away their audience and forced them to talk it out, lance the boil and get back to normal. And so it proved. They were back on camera, talking about how they ‘didn’t even know’ what it had all been about, and a million male viewers nodded furiously and said, ‘Yes, us too.’ One of the boys at school made a comment, ‘Girls can be so horrible to each other, and then next day they’re mates again. How can you be mates with someone that’s so horrible to you?’
Together: ‘Love ya.’
Join the club, pal. By comparison, we men are simple beasts. If a guy doesn’t like you, he doesn’t talk to you. Or he smacks you in the coupon. At least you know where you stand.  The staff this week were great, as always, and no body was harmed in the making of this program. Just Ashleigh.
But in a million schools across the world, a million girls are bullying a million Ashleighs for sport. For amusement. Because life isn’t dramatic enough, and in the place of excitement, they’ll take the thrill of the foxhunt over the slow-burning pleasures of friendship and learning. And in many ways, that’s what we’re here for: to save them from themslelves.
Last word to Vic: ‘Pupils aren’t happy unless there’s drama. As long as it’s not them.’
Other highlights:
  • Mr Drew dealing with the parent’s complaint of one student sending another an email containing ‘Three gay men taking a shower, playing with each other’s genitals and having sex. Which is really quite a lot of descriptive detail. Isn’t the internet lovely?
  • The ‘What is Pi’ moment came and went; but like a good trailer to a bad movie, we’d already seen the funniest bit. That and the eyelash extensions like Venus Flytraps that girls so admire these days.
  • Dr Nicholson the science teacher, resplendent in his lab coat: Old School. Pony tail: Rock School. We also saw a beautiful insight into the world of the gifted pupil who wants to stay behind and talk about neutron stars and stuff. Dr Nicholson was an old hand at it, responding with, ‘If it doesn’t scare you, you don’t understand it.’ Presumably he was talking about the EU bail-out.
  • Another member of staff parenting an episode’s protagonist? Is everyone related in this show? Educating Utah?
  • ‘Pneumonia’s wee’ isn’t it?’ Sociable Carrie, possibly talking about ammonia. Or Paul Newman.
  • ‘Its burning my spot!’ Ashleigh’s undoubtedly accurate reply.
  • Brad walking into a world of pain at school, ‘Cause I drew some proper fuckin’ detailed picture of a cock.’ Give that boy a BTEC!
  • This week’s montage: eating crisps, ending with Drew hoovering up what looked suspiciously like the crumbs from the lid of a tube of Pringles, you gannet.
  • Dr Nicolson’s comment about bitchy girls: ‘With chemicals, there’s no hidden agenda.’
  • The corridor cut-scene where some gormless wretch tried to karate kick his chum in the stones, fell over in the process, before getting an appropriately ironic toe in his own charlies from his target. Who says there’s no justice?
Clear off, scumbags.

Educating Essex 4.5: You shall not pass!

Off to speak at an education conference in Spain about Cyberbullying for a few days, so the Educating Essex blog will drop sometime on Monday. Unless they get 4OD in Leon in which case I am ON THAT THING. Incidentally, Vic Goddard kindly let me know that the Film Club were watching… Lord of the Rings. Of course.

Clear off, scumbags.

Educating Essex 4: The Facts of Life

Head of Sex-ed

‘Lord make me chaste…but not yet.’
St Augustine

Sex without love is an empty experience…but as empty experiences go, it’s a pretty good one.’
Woody Allen

This was the week in which a poll (ultimate truth alert!) revealed that 72% of children didn’t have the chance to influence their sex education lessons at school, and 78% of them thought they should. The message is clear- let the children speak; let their views echo through every valley and over every mountain top, yea, unto the lands of Cameron and the lands of Gove. Let every classroom ring with their voices, etc etc. It’s student voice again.  Save me.

“We are calling on young people to seize the opportunity to make their voices heard by telling us what they think 21st Century SRE should cover, to better meet their needs.”
Jules Hillier, Brook [teen sex health charity] deputy chief executive

21st century sex and relationships? I’d love to see how that differs from the boring old 20th century version. Does it involve Real Dolls and cables? I think not, I think not. Sexual relations between people has been- and I’m sticking my neck out here- a bit of a constant feature of humanity since Adam looked at Eve and said, ‘You need some help with that?’ Brook, the charity that commissioned the report (which therefore puts it entirely in the realm of credibility) is, I might add, righteous and good. The research, alas, was conducted by a third party called Research Bods, which proudly advertises its services as an agent for ‘PR, Marketing and advertising.’ One of the products they offer is ‘news generation’; isn’t that nice? They certainly got the kind of sciency news that gets published here. But I am cynical.

Educating Essex roared back into town with another episode that belied the tacky title this series has been saddled with: once again, we saw two main threads developed with sensitivity and some style.

The first one was…, well NOT sex, sex, sex, but the results thereof, as we followed the revelation of a student’s pregnancy and the way that hormonal hand grenade detonated in everyone’s lives. The protagonists were Liam and Sky, a sweet couple of kids who had done what generations had done for millennia before them and would continue to do so- fallen in love. Never, of course, underestimate the potency of a young love; it’s easy to scorn its depth and breadth from the vantage of eminence, but from inside the tryst, it’s as serious as anything more mature.

‘I used to be a maths teacher.’

Of course, they looked like children, too young to become parents. But that’s the convention of our culture; in other times and countries, they would have been the oldest parents in the village. Their bodies were clearly ready for the demands of the life force, but were their minds? This is always the main worry for professionals in charge of the welfare of children- can they handle it? Fortunately, it seemed that they could. Sky seemed, for the cameras at least, proud and happy to be carrying the next generation of Essex, and God bless her. Even her friends commented on her strength and grace, and so did I (you probably didn’t hear it, I was on the couch). Liam looked a bit more frazzled by the whole prospect, but if he had any reservations beyond the expected impact shock, we didn’t see it. He seemed more worried about what his Grand Dad would think, getting Sky’s mum to do the talking. He’s 16. Can you blame him?

Fortunately Grandpa was as cool as Christmas about the whole thing, although he admitted that his own dad would have blown a gasket if he’d done the same. It was, I must say, quite beautiful to see the rallying round that turned a teenage pregnancy from a potential disaster into the joy and awe that a new life can bring. If Vinni last week didn’t get a lump in your throat, then this was the second assault on your tear ducts.

And just as important was the reaction of the school: Vic Goddard, our knight-errant Head, did what he’s proved he does immaculately: understand, empathise and nurture. Liam was even offered Hot Chocolate. His face looked like Edward in Narnia being offered coffee and Turkish Delight by the White Queen. ‘Oh Boy!’ his eyes seemed to say, despite the whole baby conundrum. Then we met my educational hero of the week, Mrs Goddard, who shared her on-screen husband’s Betazoid emotional telepathy and gave them just the balance of reassurance and inspiration that the kid needed. ‘I wish I hadn’t done it now,’ Liam conceded understandably. ‘Well, tough, eh?’ said Vic, being exactly as direct as he needed to be, before compounding it with kindness and a reminder that everyone at school would help them through it.’I wouldn’t say you’ve made the best choice,’ he said, ‘but you are where you are.’ Have a hot chocolate, mate.

Sex: ‘Not uncommon.’

Liam seemed like a desperately decent young man, and showed it by focusing on getting through his exams and taking a course at college in painting and decorating to start supporting his new family. Life doesn’t permit us the luxury of making the choices we’d prefer very often; and when it throws an earthquake in our path, all we can do is start building again when the shaking stops. That, or bury ourselves in the rubble and ask, ‘Why me?’

The second plot line was sadder: an angry young man called Luke, 15, one of the 2% of the school populace who, in the words of Vic, ‘Took up 70% of the resources.’ We know he’s tough, because Vic tells us, ‘I know there’s a successful young person in there….but he tests my patience.’

And how: he’s been on report for weeks on end. ‘Being on report is serious,’ the narrator intoned with gravity. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem too serious to Luke if he’d been on report for so long; people can get used to any circumstance, given enough time. In his case he had to take his report to the eternally patient Ms Conway, Head of House, who had a rare and wonderful combination of teacher qualities: being direct and compassionate. Poor Mrs Goddard had to bear the blast of a Force Ten Luke when he stormed out in an angry huff from her lesson, with zero provocation other than the gentle pressure to work- every teacher’s duty and citadel. She demonstrated Garbo-like self-mastery in her refusal to either back down or blow up at him; the virtuous mean of assertiveness and mutual respect.

But Luke, as many angry young men are, was too far into a temper to back down; I could sense the rage, the wounded pride, and almost certainly the tortured regret that made it so hard for him to back down from the lonely corner into which he had boxed himself. We were also given the God’s-eye narrator’s gift of omniscience with the revelations that Luke had, like many others experienced tragedy in his life, reminding us that kids often have to endure circumstances that would break many older people.

When the staff were chasing him around school, propelled by rage, someone said, ‘He’s having a bad day.’ He had a lot of bad days, it seemed. Entered early for examination because they suspected that he might not make it to the end of GCSEs, he couldn’t hold it together, kicked off at the exam officer, and bowled out in another rage, angry at the world. ‘Good teachers,’ it was mentioned at the SLT meeting, ‘Say he’s unteachable.’ He lasted to the end of the year, and left with 7A*-Cs at GCSE, so the patience and the effort paid off to some extent, at least for Luke.

At what cost? I worry, and I wonder, often, about the impact that facilitating perpetually angry and combative pupils has on the rest of the school body. It’s a theme I return to often. Often, through reasons purely driven by compassion, we neglect the silent, biddable majority, and deny them the compassion that we extend to the minority. It’s a familiar argument in politics as it is in philosophy: do we distribute resources according to need, or by desert? Kids like Luke (KLL) need the time and the effort, but what do the other kids need? The amount of manpower and resources locked into containing and nurturing the merest candle light in these pupils sacrifices the mainstream to their demands. By tying the top to the bottom so closely, someone always suffers, and it’s almost always the ones who want to learn and benefit from education.

This isn’t an argument for turfing anyone out onto the street, but a recognition that mainstream schools aren’t the right environment for a very small percentage of the school body, who persistently undermine the common good; they need to be nurtured more carefully and closely in special educational units, where they can get the one-top-one support they need, while allowing the mainstream the relative calm that they need. Sure, the objective can always be reintegration, but that shouldn’t be a right but a privilege. Society makes these demands in the broader social sphere, so why shouldn’t schools replicate that norm?  Having a bad day isn’t a good enough excuse for being rude to anyone else- it’s a reason, sure, but not a good one. Being angry doesn’t make you punch a wall. Self-restraint is intrinsic to selflessness; the realisation that we are ALL important, and all equally deserving of attention. We demand that children go to school, not because we enjoy locking them in classrooms, but for their benefit whether they realise it or not. One’s emotional state doesn’t justify cruelty or casual malice towards others, otherwise our laws would be legislated on egoism rather than the common good.

Luke’s last admission was particularly devastating: ‘I’d rather  not try and not fail, than try and fail.’ I weep, and the civilised teaching world weeps at words like that. My heart breaks for kids full of anger and unhappiness, it really does. I wish I could reach out my hand and heal their hearts, every one of them.

But we cannot; we haven’t the power, the time, the resources to do so in most schools, not without wrecking the attention we give to others. Until we realise that at a national level, many schools will suffer as they do now, doing their best and realising that it will never be enough- for all parties.

Other highlights:

Film Club!

‘Second rule of Film Club: NO SKIPPING!’
  • No blog about EE4 would be REMOTELY complete without a mention of surely the next big thing in the educational blogoverse: Film Club. We met the tiny awesomeness that is Keiran, who we first see attempting to hustle Vic into reading his first novel (Keiran is a year 7, I might add) like a pro. Vic, sensibly, encouraged him, but also encouraged him to focus on school work. If I know kids like Keiran, he’ll be beavering away at it under the bedsheets anyway, so no harm done. I bloody LOVE kids like him, all awkward and sensible, bursting with talent and the manners to do something with it that doesn’t involve telling his teachers to go f*ck themselves or taking a dump in the canteen or something. We got two scoops of Keiran though, when we met his compadres in Film Club. They’d been skipping forward on the DVD like proper rotters, and poor Keiran was missing out on plot strands or something. Mr Drew’s deconstruction of their ridiculous hurry to finish was a joy.

‘Are you being made to stay behind?’
Film Club (as one): ‘No.’
‘Do you have to be here?’
Film Club: ‘No.’
‘So what should you not be doing?’
Film Club (heads bowed in shame, conceding Drew’s implacable logic: ‘Skipping bits.’

These guys are budding comedy geniuses; they should have their own series. I’d love to see more of them, but as @ModernCassie recently pointed out, ‘The first rule of Film Club is that you DO NOT TALK about Film Club.’ So we might not see them again.

  • Another montage this week: not lunch, but a Haribo and marshmallow-fest, reflecting the million tiny sugar rushes we need to get through a day. I like the EE montages. They remind me of when Julia Roberts gets kitted out in Pretty Woman.
  • Mr Drew, admonishing his thousandth pupil that day: ‘Would you like me to change the rules of the world because they don’t suit you?’ Deadpan. Legend.
  • In the sex education class: ‘Period Hole’. These are the end times, aren’t they?
  • Mr Drew (again, worth his weight in Plutonium and diamante) handing out oranges- I fuss you not- in a pink pinny to the examination students. ‘Nice bit of fruit to go in?’ said Drew. BEYOND parody.

Next week- ‘What is Pi?’ It’s the moment we’ve been waiting for. I, for one, am looking forward to finding out EXACTLY what Pi is. And where it comes from.

Like babies, perhaps.

Clear off, scumbags.

Educating Essex 3: Suffer the little children

‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and hinder them not; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’
Luke 18:16
‘Listen to Iron Maiden baby, with me.’
The Kingdom of humanity, too, given time. The child becomes the man, and inherits the earth from his ancestors. But as teachers, we often see more than most the grisly, grimy ways in which the soil the seed is sown in is spoiled by neglect and the absence of a gardener.
This week’s episode was played in the minor scale, and almost entirely dismissed the Daily Mail-teasing fireworks of the first. We met Vinni (no, I didn’t know you could spell it like that either, and neither does my bloody spell-check. Down, boy) who was an odd mixture of idiot-savant: idiot because in a frantic race to press his own self-destruct button, he pressed every one else’s too; savant because he possessed something that it’s sometimes unfashionable to mention- intelligence. He sat GCSEs early, was in the top sets, and in his own words used to be ‘a good boy’.
It’s strange to see someone describe their own previous  behaviour as good, implying that now some of their behaviour is bad. That kind of introspection requires intelligence, all right.  Idiots can’t assess their own actions with the eye of the observer; fools don’t possess self-awareness enough to critique their own actions. ‘It is the mark,’ Aristotle said, ‘Of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.’ Vinni knew what his behaviour was like. Of course, Vinni wasn’t odd at all; teachers see scores of Vinnis in their paths, something that Vic revealed as much to Vinni in one of their seemingly endless rounds of pastoral discussions. The ‘good boy gone bad’ trope isn’t exclusive to Rihanna and Star Wars trilogies. Just as adult alcoholics fall off the wagon, so too do children. Progress is neither automatic nor one-way.
If Vinni’s plight didn’t touch you then I suggest you need touching more often: the smart, quick-witted boy (and he was), going off the rails like a train falling over in slow motion, by degrees, and everyone could see it, including him. The program was at great pains to suggest that the source of Vinni’s dissolution was a generational fracture; the parental break-up, the loss of paternal esteem. And maybe it was. Unlike many, I don’t feel qualified to commentate on Vinni, his home situation, OR the reasons for his self-immolation. Vinni doesn’t need my criticism or my half-baked theories. So I’ll comment instead on the television character we saw on screen on Thursday, because the moment we forget that we look through a mirror darkly on television, we lose perspective, like children unable to discern that the Teletubbies are just sweating actors in dark, furry pastry casing.
With that proviso, I can continue. The TV Vinni was a charismatic mess; dodging lessons with the practised art of Fagin, and playing everyone else for a fool. That’s the sad scary thing about a trusting, loving environment- it’s so easy to abuse. Like Ricky Gervais in the audience-repelling ‘The Invention of Lying’, if you find yourself the only dishonest man in a world full of angels, you possess an enormous advantage. I remember visiting Canada some time ago and finding that in some areas people left front doors unlocked, cars with keys ready to turn, and wallets on the sand while everyone went into the surf, and I thought, ‘I should come back with a van and some Cockneys and rob THE ENTIRE COUNTRY.’ Still do.

That’s kids like Vinni in a school where everyone wants to save him. They lope around from corridor to corridor, dodging the guards and the CCTV by simply playing off every teacher against every other one. I once looked up ‘Belvedere’ in a dictionary, and it said, ‘See: Gazebo.’ So I looked up Gazebo, and the dictionary said- I fuss you not- ‘See: Belvedere.’ The internet couldn’t happen quickly enough. That’s how kids manage it: ‘Mr Smith sent me here’, ‘Mr Beddow sent me here.’ ‘Mr Beddow sent me to Mr Smith,’ and so on. To be fair, it doesn’t require the wit of Fu Manchu. I used to watch war movies set in POW camps and think how the F*CK did they manage to build tunnels and forge passports IN A SHED? If human ingenuity can allow a blind Donald Pleasence to reproduce Swiss work visas from cockroach blood and wasp spit, then a child can lose themselves in the endless labyrinths of the most grid-like of schools.
‘I AM my note, Fritz.’
To be honest, even though I despaired to see the effort he put into evading education, you’d have to be made of stone not to salute the perpetually funny ‘man-walking-down-stairs’ trick when he went past the office window. But even with his undoubted charm and nerve, there was a tragic core to this story; talent and potential being wasted- an infinity of alternate possible futures collapsing into a handful of half-choices and blind alleys, and all wilfully done by the person who stood to lose most by their reduction: Vinni. Tragic, tragic, tragic.
But there’s a B-side to this ballad: everyone else. Schools aren’t vehicles fuelled by bottomless resources, they’re institutions driven by engines of necessity and invention, populated by endlessly labouring staff desperately trying to juggle as many balls as they can without letting any drop, and knowing that inevitably, some will. For every second a teacher spends on the trail of Vinni, a second is stolen from thirty other kids. If kids like Vinni (KLV) want to come into lessons ten minutes late, then everything stops for KLV, no matter the damage to everyone else’s education. Every time the Head, or the Deputy spends a minute, an hour, a day coaxing him back from the ledge is a minute invested that can never be reclaimed. This is the tight-rope act that every teacher knows and lives with. Because we all know that up to a point, it’s necessary; children are, as Mr Drew observed again, not adults. They make poor choices, and we must be robust enough to observe, perhaps roll our eyes, and help them pick themselves up. We don’t throw them to the wolves.
But a point is reached when the effort invested becomes too great a burden on the community; and in those circumstances, the community has every right to say, ‘No, we have needs too.’ You may be familiar with the policy of Inclusion, whereby efforts are made to ensure that everyone has access to a mainstream curriculum. It is an entirely noble goal, but as I frequently point out, just because a goal is noble doesn’t mean it is practical. I’d love to see every kid get a great education, and like most, I’ll fight until I’m broken to ensure it for my classes. But there comes a point in a doctor’s career when everything has been done for a patient, and he’s still arresting every five minutes. That’s the point that the surgeons and nurses put down the paddles and admit, ‘Enough. This one is beyond my resources.’ This isn’t an admission of defeat or bad faith: it’s just the truth.
Inclusion was instigated in order to make sure that children with disabilities were guaranteed access to mainstream without discrimination, and rightly so. But mission creep over the years has seen this vision becoming poisoned by the desire to include every kind of syndrome, condition or symptom as evidence of some kind of special need, identifiably medical, and therefore not the student’s fault.
I need to point out that this isn’t so: being argumentative and stroppy isn’t a condition; it’s part of character, just as being dedicated and altruistic is. Being described as ‘Having anger management problems’ is an enormous ontological mistake: it turns a normal, albeit undesirable part of the spectrum of human expression into a virus, a sniffle, a fracture; something that is done to the person, rather than part of the person. There comes a point- there must come a point, when we need to say to a student, ‘This is your fault.’
It’s a bitter place to occupy, and no teacher likes it. But if we don’t then we’re doing nothing but placate and in some ways, empower the dysfunctionality.
And we’re back to boundaries again. Mr Drew rose even further in my estimation than before this week, with his thoughtful admission that in all his years, he considered the need for boundaries for children to be more important than the need to grant them autonomy. In truth, of course, they are inextricable: we encourage children to flourish, but in order for them to do this by themselves, they need a scaffold upon which to climb so that they can reach its summit and hopefully, fly high above. But take away the scaffold and you’re left with children on the ground, unable to see horizons beyond their own eyeline, and doomed to a destiny no further than their own whims and desires will carry them. In effect, they become slaves to themselves. They can do as they please, to quote Bertrand Russell, but they cannot please as they please.
The adults that supported him- or supported his weakness, depending on your whether you subscribe to Marx or Milton Friedman- were avatars of compassion and patience, altruism incarnate. Miss Conway conveyed trust and empathy so powerfully I felt like apologising to her for my bad behaviour and getting back into a classroom. Vic Goddard himself once again demonstrated that if there were an Olympic event for caring about his kids, he would jog through the ticker tape in time for a pint before the silver caught up.
Too much though? I’m not arrogant enough to judge a man when all I have to go on is 50 minutes of telly, plus ads. But purely looking at situations like this one, I reiterate; a balance must be struck at all times with the needs of the many and the needs of the few. Because the many are, of course, a collection of the few. ‘Never giving up’ is an aphorism that trips easily from the tongue, but as professionals we don’t enjoy the luxury of utopian fantasies. Some of our patients live, some of them die, some of them miraculously recover and some do not. We can only do so much before we need to move on to the next admission, just as important as the last one. There are limits to the potions in our pouches.
We can sympathise with the difficulties that KLV experience, and yet still be forced to find alternative provision for them, with clear consciences. Sometimes schools aren’t the best places for them to be. I bemoan the great reduction in special school provision that has accompanied the ascendancy of the inclusion project, because it is a fact that stares me in the mug at times: some kids aren’t meant to be in mainstream schools, just as much as some people need to be taken to prisons, hospitals and care units. Who first thought that the bosom of the community was the best womb for everyone? An idiot, whomever.
Vinni left school, we find from the EE website, with some GCSEs, despite volunteering for care- and did you see everyone stop breathing in horror at that prospect? The state, it is true, makes a lousy parent. But with the support, no doubt, of the school and others, he made it across the very, very thin ice upon which he danced so carelessly. It was a beautiful story, well told, and reminiscent of so many others we face on a daily basis. I certainly don’t begrudge Vinni (or the Telly Vinni, remember) the good fortune he had to encounter adults as diligent and dedicated as Vic, Stan, Tina and Miss Conway. But do we do any good in the long run when we give someone five, ten, twenty-five final warnings? Have we loosened the boundaries so much that they become meaningless. ‘Men,’ Russell Crowe’s character in Master and Commander said, ‘Must be governed.’ And they must, so that they learn how to govern themselves.

‘We’re not included…and we don’t care…’

There is a frightening assumption in society these days that schools are an extension of the social services. Of course, we must liaise with such institutions because children’s lives don’t exist in convenient compartments, and Vic described how often, at multi-agency meetings, it is the school which will bear the brunt of responsibility for the child’s welfare. If they’re not breaking the law, or being specifically abused, then all else falls to us. Of course; how expected. But schools are imperfect families, and the burden of making sure that the children are fed and housed is too great for us to bear. And we’re not trained to do so. Dear God, we’re just trained enough to teach our subjects and run our own lives. If you want us to bring them up too, you’re going to have to build a bigger school. If you force us to do everything else too, then something has to give. Oh look- it’s education. Funny that.

Other Stuff:
  • Children in care get £3.10 every day pocket money. Good luck with that. But £7.50 on a Friday? I presume that’s to cover the White Lightning and 20 Mayfair. Get the party started.
  • The school choir singing ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ in the manner of Scala the Belgian girls’ choir. Then Mr Drew humming along as he went to obliterate some new law breaker. Ah, Brave New World.
  • The queue of penitents waiting for Drew to deliver his divine justice, one after another. ‘Can you tell me which teacher asked you to download ‘Thirteen Days in Hell‘ into your user area? No? You are banned from accessing the internet until January, except from a list of approved educational sites…’ This, over and over again. Beautiful.
  • The slight tension implied between Drew and Goddard in their approaches to discipline; boundaries versus autonomy. Drew chipped it out of the long grass with a masterful admission of faith in his line manager’s judgement, even if he himself had reservations. That’s not craven, that’s professional, and that’s how teams work. Save criticisms for private discussions, and work with the chain of command unless your values are irredeemably lost by doing do.
  • Vinni, asked for a note to explain his stalking the corridors: ‘I AM my note.’
  • ‘How many times have you got your skirt rolled up?’ said Drew to, apparently, one of the Saturdays. Takes a brave male teacher to tip-toe  through that minefield. 
  • Loved the ‘lunch’ montage; it was like the bit in Rocky when he’s building himself up into a comeback Titan. OK, it wasn’t very much like it.
I’ll play you out with poetry:
Philip Larkin – This Be The Verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
  They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
  And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
  By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
  And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
  It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
  And don’t have any kids yourself.

Cartoon from my new book, out next year….