Lesson 68. April’s Breakfast

Lesson 68 on Caring

I was so lucky in the people I worked with.  One of the best was an educational psychologist of remarkable and varied experience.  She had started her career working with Anna Freud in Vienna amongst street children in the aftermath of the second World War.

She was analytical, perceptive and totally non-judgemental.  She had seen the best and worst of humanity. One day I asked her why she felt some of our children survived while others simply turned their face to the wall and gave up. She thought a little before she replied.

“When I was in Vienna we worked with children who had been orphaned, displaced and left to fend for themselves. The ones who survived and went on to have settled adult lives were those who had formed themselves into family groups.  They cared for each other.  The most capable looked out for the weaker. From my experience I would say, having people to care for and people who care for you.”

I often thought of her when I was at Owen’s school.

One of Owen’s classmates was April.  She was a slight little thing with fine blonde hair, who seemed to live in a perpetual dream.  She seldom showed any disposition to work, so I spent quite a bit of time with her attempting by various means to persuade her that it was quite useful to learn to read.

One day we were talking about what we had for breakfast, (it might have been something to do with the Healthy Eating campaign). April brightened up.

” I had a lovely breakfast!” she offered her contribution to the group discussion.

” Really April? What made your breakfast special?” I was delighted. April rarely joined in with enthusiasm.

“We had apple crumble! With ice cream!” The others in the group expressed a mixture of disbelief and envy.

“Are you sure, April?” I enquired tentatively

” Oh yes! It was a treat! ” April stuck to her story with determination. “There was nothing else! It was all Arthur could find in the freezer. He put the apple crumble in the microwave. It was lovely!”

Arthur was her eleven year old brother, who brought her into the cloakroom every morning, helped her hang up her coat, gave her a kiss and told her to be good, before he hurried along to the Juniors.

Lesson 67 One Size Fits All?

Lesson 67 on Non compliance

At Owen’s school there was no homework. 

Reason number one was the “playing out” situation. After a day cooped up in school, pupils were itching to be free. It took all their teachers’ efforts to encourage them to last out till the end of the school day. Sitting still and paying attention did not come easily to them. Also many pupils stayed up late, so by home time they were restless and bad tempered.

Reason number two was that few pupils had any space to work at home where they could be quiet and uninterrupted.

Reason number three was that taking books or other materials home was problematic. Things tended not to come back.

Had the school insisted on homework against all the odds, every day would have started with aggravation and bad feeling.  Relationships between pupils, parents and teachers would have been unavoidably soured. So the school organised its work to ensure that everything to be covered was done within the school day.

In the nursery and infant classes, the school had a story club to encourage mothers or carers to read with their children at home, and provided books for them to borrow.  Parents who had been unsuccessful at school themselves needed their confidence boosting.

The school organised its work to meet the particular needs of the community it knew and served. 

Seems straightforward and sensible, doesn’t it?

But being sensible was no longer the required priority. Owen’s school had to comply.

We live in censorious times.

Lesson 66. Life in a Hostile Environment

Lesson 66 on Extra curricular activities

Owen’s estate was situated on a steep hillside facing into the prevailing wind and the school was near the top.  Playtimes on windy days were a bracing experience but the infants loved them.  They couldn’t wait to get out there. Their biggest dread was a wet playtime, when they couldn’t go outside. From half past nine onwards they would demand regular rain checks.

The attraction was Playing Parachutes. This involved running around with your arms extended above your head so that your unbuttoned coat billowed out behind you. The playground was filled with small shrieking figures zigzagging at speed in all directions, while the adults on duty cowered in coats and scarves. The children were unbelievably hardy. They would come back in exhilarated and freezing cold, buzzing with satisfaction.

Of course they had plenty of practice.  They spent every possible moment they could outside. When we talked in class about things we enjoyed doing top of the list came “Playing out!”

If you drove past the estate on light evenings every open space was populated with children of all ages running around, kicking balls or chasing one another. There were plenty of green spaces on the edge of the estate and hardly any through traffic in the estate itself.  The main road looped around the outskirts.

When I first went to the school, I had been curious about the area and had asked about walking or driving around it. I was counselled not to think of doing so.  Nobody ever went through the estate except those living there, those who had business with them (such as the van man who sold the duty free cigarettes), council workers of one sort or another, or the police.

When a pupil was unwell, and needed to go home, two members of staff would drive the sick child down the hill once mum had been alerted by phone. It was a long walk for a small poorly person and many families had no transport of their own. Nobody ever went into the estate by themselves.

It was a sensible precaution.  One day when the postman parked his van at the bottom of the school path while he delivered the letters, by the time he got back to it, somebody had managed to break a window and steal the parcels left on the passenger seat.

When Ofsted were coming, the head was keen to ensure the site looked bright and well cared for, so she bought bedding plants for the flower beds. They were kept in readiness but only planted on the evening immediately before the inspection.  The caretaker and his German Shepherd dog then guarded them throughout the night. That way they weren’t stolen until later in the week.

Still, it’s an ill wind!  The fact that nobody in their right mind ventured into the Badlands of the estate meant that the children held possession of the streets. Untroubled by cars or strangers they played out hour after hour until darkness fell.

There was no point setting homework.

Lesson 65. The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men….

Lesson 65 on Healthy Eating

Sometimes you couldn’t make it up.

Owen’s school were working towards achieving a Healthy Eating award. It did cross my mind to wonder how Mrs Reception’s special cupboard fitted into the healthy eating agenda, but, as she was planning a project on food and nutrition with her class, I decided to wait and see.

The school had recruited two sponsors for their Healthy Eating endeavours – MacDonald’s and the local brewery.  MacDonald’s had offered a reward of a free meal for four pupils from whichever class achieved the most progress every week.  There was keen competition between the classes for this prize and the selection of the four class representatives was a process of such complexity as defies description.

We didn’t get free beer from the brewery. I think they just gave us money.

Part of the evidence we needed to justify our Healthy Eating award was Mrs Reception’s project. We were going to look at which foods were good for us and where they came from. After that we were going to make a display of all the healthy things we eat and everyone was going to bring in labels or packaging from home to put on a poster. We started off with vegetables.

Potatoes were the first stumbling block.  Mrs Reception began, like the good teacher she was, from her pupils’ own experience.  She enquired as to what we ate for our tea. There was a firm consensus within the class – “Chips!”

Encouragingly Mrs Reception prompted further thought on the matter. “And where do chips come from?”

Delighted by the simplicity of the question, a number of hands waved and one was selected.

“The shop!”

Nothing daunted Mrs Reception pursued the matter. “And where does the shop get the chips?”

A pause before one bright spark came up with a suggestion.

“Do they buy them from Macro, Miss?”

Mrs Reception was always well prepared.  She had brought a selection of vegetables in with her. She produced a potato. A demonstration was obviously necessary to explain the connection between potato and chip.

This, however, caused some distress to one member of the group. The potato was unwashed and covered with soil. Mrs Reception had been planning to use this as a clue to lead hopefully to a field and a farm. Stevie did not like the idea of her chips coming from such a nasty dirty source. She objected. She produced evidence to the contrary. She had seen the bags of chips in Iceland.

This was taking longer than anticipated. It would soon be milk and biscuits time. Mrs Reception decided to introduce the plan for collecting labels or packaging for our display.  It was greeted with enthusiasm.

The next day some early offerings appeared on her desk.  There was a Pot Noodle carton, a number of assorted sweet wrappers, an empty box of Mr Kipling bakewell tarts and a carefully washed label from Aldi sausages.

It was going to be a long haul.

Lesson 64. Goodbye to the Boys in the Band

Lesson 64 on Learning to be ashamed

The naming and shaming aspect of Ofsted prompted the teachers in Owen’s school to fret over different things.  With Mr TopJuniors it was his spelling.

Mr TopJuniors had been educated at a time when the systematic teaching of grammar and spelling had been deeply unfashionable. His talents and interests also didn’t lean towards these particular topics.  His great strengths were Maths, Science, Sport(in general) and Football(in particular). He was very much valued in school.  After all, just how often do good mathematicians opt for primary teaching?

When I was involved in teacher training, good maths and physics graduates were like hen’s teeth.  We did everything we could to lure them into the classroom.  We ignored government guidelines insisting graduates teach all three sciences and welcomed with open arms maverick physicists, who preferred to teach physics and maths. 

When this was finally outlawed, I would recollect the qualities of past students and regret the loss of the nonconformist. One of my favourites played in a band.  Everyone knows what this entails – staying up late on school nights and not doing your homework. Our experience, however, was that such individuals also tended to be interesting, creative people with a number of performance skills, useful in getting their subject across to reluctant teenagers.

My favourite was one of those.  At the end of his training year, he cheerfully phoned us from his interview at a prestigious independent school.

“Hi Anne, could you possibly spare a couple of minutes to speak to the headmaster? I can’t remember which part of the coursework I’ve got to resubmit, so can he have a word with you?”

What could I say? This young man is talented and confident. He loves his subject. He’s a team player, good in the classroom, but he doesn’t fit the government prototype of a model teacher? Of course the irony of the situation was that the independent sector didn’t have to care – they snapped him up!  It was only the poor old state system that lost out.

Mr TopJuniors fell into something of a similar category.  As a practitioner he was calm and constructive, taking difficult pupils and situations in his stride. His room was an orderly and cheerful place to be. His pupils made good progress. He just couldn’t spell. Everybody knew it.  Pupils and colleagues were happy to help.  He welcomed any corrections. It wasn’t a disgraceful secret.

But now he was worried sick about writing on the board during Ofsted week. 

He decided he would have to set about re-inventing himself.

Because, when he listened to the official naming and shaming rhetoric, Mr TopJuniors knew he came in the wrong packaging.