Lesson 13 Quality Time

Lesson 13 on Learning by Doing

I can’t help feeling that in all the political guff about raising educational standards a basic fact is missed out.  We human beings learn best from those who want the best for us and will search out the ways and means to help us get there.

In a modest way we travelled to the Isle of Wight in that spirit.

It’s not easy to escape grotty estates.  They have the security of known surroundings and familiar ways.  The rest of the world can seem very scary and strange.

So it was a brave and exciting journey into the unknown to get to the station by the appointed time, to negotiate luggage onto the train and to find ourselves seats. Baljit sat in a corner white faced, silent and shaking.  We hadn’t even made it to the first station yet.

“Is Baljit ill?” I asked her friend anxiously. (Pupils valued the few outings we had, so they were prepared to come in any state of health)

“Oh no, Miss!  She’s just frightened!  She’s never been anywhere before!”

Ahead of us lay a change of trains,  a transfer carrying our luggage to the boat, then another train (an old London underground carriage) from Ryde pier to Shanklin.  After that we had to find our way on foot from the station to the guest house with the help of a street map.  How would she survive?

“Don’t worry, Miss.  She’ll be fine.  I’ll look after her!”

And she was.  By the time we reached the ferry she had begun to get the hang of things and it had all started to be fun.

I am afraid to say we didn’t have worksheets or aims and objectives for our stay.  Our plan was simply to go on holiday to the seaside.

That is exactly what we did.  It was blissfully sunny all week.  We could only afford three excursions and we undertook these at a leisurely pace. We went to the wax museum on the train, Blackgang Chine on an inclusive day excursion and Alum Bay by local bus, though we didn’t make it down onto the shore there.  We just had a look from the top of the cliffs, then spent our visit in the souvenir shops at the top, enjoyably filling little ornaments with coloured sand.

The rest of our trip we spent on the beach or wandering along the cliff path staring out to sea. We walked and looked and chatted. We watched our budget and worked out our spending money.  We ate a lot of chips.

And at the end we made it safely home.

“Did you enjoy yourself, Baljit?” I asked

“Oh yes MIss,” she replied. “Now I will go home and tell my mother we can go on holiday!”

All in all, it was mission accomplished (and at a bargain price).










Lesson 12 The Princess Room

Lesson 12 on Achieving the Seemingly Impossible.

I don’t know how I was lured into my most ambitious school trip ever.  I suspect on this occasion I must have been carefully groomed by a conspiracy of pupils, because It just slowly seemed to become a manageable idea.

By this time I was in a school on a benighted estate, which was so poor and so troubled that we had our own Educational Welfare Officer (also known as Truancy Officer or Wag Woman), shared with the middle school next door.  Every morning my first task of the day was to check the registers for absentees and list them.  About ten o’clock Mrs EWO would come in with a similar list from the middle school.  We would then compare the lists and work out her itinerary for the morning.  This was not a draconian exercise in preventing truancy – it was a necessary practical check to ensure that the vulnerable had not come to harm.

It was scarcely surprising therefore that few of our pupils had ever been away on a proper school journey.  We were a single sex school and many of our pupils were from Asian backgrounds.  Few of them were allowed to go on overnight stays in mixed sex groups, so most schools at the time just accepted that it was impossible to take them away.  

We however hatched a plan.  If we could get a reasonably priced B&B all to ourselves, we could take a group away and meet the single sex requirement.  We aimed for the Isle of WIght.

It was quite a task before the internet, to trawl through the information and brochures, but we did it.  We collected the money in numerous weekly installments to enable payment to be manageable.  We planned the journey by train, because it was cheaper than hiring a coach.  When we got there we would just have to walk and use public transport. 

In the end there were twenty of us, including myself and the PE teacher plus her two children, because she couldn’t very well leave them at home alone.  

When we got to the guest house after a traumatic journey (more of that another time) we were faced with the allocation of rooms.  All were shared except one small single room, which nobody wanted. In the end I asked Sukvinder, a very kind quiet little girl, if she could possibly bring herself to take it.  We agreed that she could swap if, after the first night, she really could not bear it.

At breakfast the next morning I found Sukvinder wreathed in smiles.

“Miss it is wonderful!  I can put my things down just where I want to! I can have everything just as I like! Nobody moves my hairbrush!”

“So you want to stay in the room then?”

“Oh yes, Miss! I feel just like a princess!”

And the reason for the room’s unpopularity dawned on me. It was not just that they wanted to share with their friends. None of them had ever been on their own before.



Lesson 11 Our Very Own School Trip

Lesson 11 on Learning from Experience

If there was one thing I hated, it was the school trip.  I detested coach journeys at the best of times, but it got even worse when I started teaching in London, because every trip began in a rush hour traffic jam, so that people started to feel sick before you had remotely neared the destination.

My pupils, however, tended to miss out on these jaunts.  Either they were in the wrong group, or they were ill, or they were deemed too unreliable to be trusted to behave.  Maybe they were just too disorganised to bring back their permission forms.  For whatever reason, they missed out.

So they began to close in on me, correctly identifying the weakest in the teaching herd.

“Miss, we never go anywhere!”

“I’m sure that’s not true.  Didn’t you go to the Roman Villa?”

“No Miss! And they all went to the seaside after the villa, and got to go on the beach!”

In the end they wore me down till I agreed to take my group on their very own trip.

There were only ten of us, so we could fit in the school minibus.  (I had to go to the Civic Centre and take the Minibus Driving Test).  The regulations also permitted us to make the journey with only one member of staff.  All that remained was to select a destination.  Unhampered in those days by the need for any link to the curriculum we could just go for a nice day out.

My priorities were simple:

  • it had to be near enough so nobody got sick
  • it had to be cheap
  • there had to be no opportunity for shop lifting
  • or getting lost
  • the route had to be against the rush hour traffic.

In the end we agreed on Box Hill, because somebody had been there before and said it was great.  I had visited there in the very distant past and it seemed to meet my priorities.

Box Hill is a popular place for weekend outings in the Home Counties, but quieter during the week.  It has various educational points of interest, but we weren’t concerned with those.  We were off for for a picnic and a day in the country.

I realised my mistake the moment we arrived.  I had forgotten Box Hill’s great attraction is that it is very high and very, very steep.

My pupils were delighted.  They leapt ahead up the grassy slope waving their packed lunches. They quickly discovered that if you put down your packed lunch, you could lie down on the grass and roll back down the alarming slope.  I clambered up after them trying to remonstrate, but they were like stabled horses let out for the spring.

They climbed higher and higher. In vain I said we should stop for our picnic.

“But Miss, we’ve got to get to the top!”

At the top we had our picnic, they exhausted by their exertions, me by anxiety and terror.  I have no head for heights.

The view from the top is truly amazing. You can see over all the fields, roads and knots of habitation.  The entire countryside stretches out below you into the far distance towards the South Coast. As we gazed I felt a hand slip into mine.

“Look Miss,” said a awed voice, “It’s just like geography!”


Lesson 10 Books and Games

Lesson 10  on The Particular Challenges of Friday Afternoons

In primary schools before the national curriculum Friday afternoons were given over to Books and Games.  This practice went hand in hand with that of the staff going to the pub on Friday lunchtimes.

Books and Games functioned as a disciplinary aid throughout the week, a bit like Santa Claus before Christmas.

“If you’re not good, there won’t be Books and Games on Friday.  We might have a test instead!”

Tests were useful for keeping people occupied.  This was important because on Friday afternoon teachers had to fill in the Weekly Return.  This was a kind of pre-computer spreadsheet listing all the pupils in your form together with columns in which you had to tick the causes of any absences.  The education office must have had stacks of these things hanging around since the 1930s.  All imaginable communicable diseases were listed, including diptheria, TB and scarlet fever.  The print was miniscule.  It took some filling in after a couple of lager and limes.

Friday afternoons posed a particular challenge in secondary schools, where teachers had to invent some sort of faux educational activity to take the place of Books and Games.  Many, like my housemate Ann and myself, relied heavily on stories.

Ann worked in one of the last Sec. Mods. in the town.  It was an old Board School due for demolition and redevelopment.  She started teaching at the same time as me.  On her first day the headteacher presented her with a cane, her class register and a key for the stock cupboard, then left her to get on with it.  The educational standard was not high.

On Friday afternoon she used to take Religious Education. There were no books available except bibles (King James version) and these were manifestly above the general reading standard.   This didn’t bother her too much because she knew lots of bible stories off the top of her head.  She used to walk around the classroom telling one or other of these while the pupils drew pictures.

One Friday afternoon, for a bit of variety, she decided to tell them the story of St Francis, because there were lots of animals and birds in it, offering plenty of things to draw.  She walked up and down between the rows of desks, while studying her reflection in the mirror of the old Victorian wardrobe which served as storage at the back of her classroom.

While so doing, she suddenly realised she didn’t know the end of the story, but, not afraid of improvisation, she simply made it up.

At this point her attention was drawn to a hand waving above the rows of heads bent over their artwork.  It was a new boy she hadn’t previously noticed.

“Please Miss,” politely chirped a bright, confident little voice.  “I did this story at my last school, but it had another ending!”

“There are a number of different versions!” Ann replied airily, as the bell went.

She never saw him again.  It was quickly discovered he had been wrongly allocated to the school by the same education office that sent out the dreaded Weekly Return.







Lesson 9. Our Favourite Things

Lesson 9. on The Perils and Joys of Not Being Prepared.

The best thing about teaching my groups was the freedom to do just what we liked. The only constraints were the resources available. A valuable piece of advice from Mrs Star was “Get to the stock cupboard first!”

When it came to the class reader I hadn’t much idea what the Opportunity Group liked so I took two spokespersons with me to the stock cupboard to advise me. They chose “Charlotte’s Web”.

One of the bigger lads complained it was a baby book, but the group consensus was against him.

As a confident sight reader (in childhood I had won medals at the Arbroath Festival of Speech and Drama) I seldom prepared class reader lessons. We just had a nice storytime. I read and they doodled or put their heads down or even followed the story in their book. It was our quiet time.

It all went swimmingly until we got to the last chapter. Nobody warned me Charlotte died!! 

I don’t know how we got to the end.  I could scarcely read without my voice breaking and everyone was sniffing or gulping.

But somehow we made it through until the bell released us.

And the shared experience was such a bond that it was agreed that in future the group would always democratically select the class reader (and make very sure we got to the stock cupboard first).