The Seventies – Sorry You Missed Them?

On pens, paper and a past world


Last night I watched a “documentary” about the Seventies. It was really an excuse to use all the naughty words and scenes that are now banned from view. Assorted young people expressed mock horror.

It got me thinking about that pre-online era , its lack of monitoring and surveillance, its strange innocence of the seedy corruption now being so ruthlessly exposed.  Swearing was still considered improper in mixed company or outside the privacy of the home. And homes were still considered private space. If someone had seriously suggested we shouldn’t smoke in them or have a drink while nursing our infants, we would have gaped at them in amazement.

Nobody checked up on you much, record keeping was often sporadic and haphazard. When all you had was paper and pen, or a typewriter that demanded carbon copies and correcting fluid, recording every detail was too onerous and bulky to be manageable.

Of course, the opportunities for evil to flourish were manifest, but for most people, I point out to the judgemental young of the online era, this didn’t impinge hugely on their day-to-day lives.

I particularly loved the job references of those days. They were seldom wordy. One of my favourites, which conjured up a whole world picture in a single sentence, was elegantly hand written on ancient college notepaper.

” Alisdair’s First in Classics was well-deserved.”

Poor Fiona, however, was given shorter shrift from her employer.

“Miss Smith is a well-spoken, neatly presented young woman, who has been with us for two years”

Yet when I look at the painstakingly documented minutae on today’s profiles and portfolios, I wonder how much more they actually tell us about the essential Alistair or Fiona, than those single sheets of the past.

We’re smothered with all the mountainous documentation on multiple competences, which information technology has made possible. Hundreds upon hundreds of boxes meticulously ticked, but has the quality of work/workers and the culture of the work environment really been manifestly improved?

Of course we can never easily tell, ironically because of those very  deficiencies of record keeping and patchy measures (if any) used in the past. Commentators on the Seventies are free to claim whatever suits their own perspective and ideology.

All I can say for sure is that, despite all the information we now have, it doesn’t seem to prevent the corrupt practices of global business, the powerful elites or the authoritarian, opinionated, politically polarised gatekeepers of public services. It doesn’t even prevent the brutal murder of little children in their cruel homes and disfunctional CCTVed communities, nor the institutional ill-treatment of the old and vulnerable.

We little people just know more about it now.

We can see it on television.

Just like all the explicit brutality and close-up, lip-licking violence that was never ever screened in the benighted Seventies; the online porn desensitising a whole generation; the dubious faux porn of pop videos degrading “emancipated” young women; the pitiless exploitation and humiliation of the afflicted in “reality” shows; the freak shows masquerading as medical “documentaries”.

All in all, the Seventies weren’t the worst time to be alive – despite all that shiny artificial satin and those silly platform shoes.


Lesson 85 Glimpses of Family Life 3

Lesson 85 on Ways and means

Shabana was indomitable. She refused to compromise. But some things were out of her power. She was the treasured baby of the family and much indulged by her parents, being the only child left at home. Even so, there was a limit to her ability to affect family decisions.

Mrs Nurse was the first to notice something was wrong. There was a familiar voice missing in the corridors and the dinner hall. Shabana had gone quiet. Mrs Nurse didn’t like it when people went silent. It was a bad sign. She decided to get to the bottom of it.

It didn’t take her long.  Mrs Nurse used to patrol the corridors and the school field during the lunch hour, and not much escaped her scrutiny.  She was always on the lookout for any worrying changes in behaviour and followed them up. She soon found Shabana, and, despite their past battles (or perhaps because of the respect she had gained from them), she persuaded her to say what was making her miserable.

It emerged her father had the possibility of extending his business interests in Dubai, so he and her mother were proposing to go there for some months, with a view to a permanent move.

“But that would be great, Shabana! Wouldn’t you like to go?”

“No, Nurse! That’s not it! They want to go on their own and leave me here with my brother and his wife till they sort out the business!”

That explained everything. Shabana’s brother was a serious young man with a growing family.  Helping her sister-in-law with wailing babies and tiresome under fives was manifestly not in Shabana’s personal life plan.

But nothing could be done.  Business was business.  Her father was firm against her pleading.  It would only be a matter of months and he didn’t want her education to be interrupted.

Nurse and I were dubious about the likelihood of Shabana’s educational improvement, but agreed it showed his heart was in the right place.

Shortly after our conversation, however, a breathless messenger came running to summon Mrs Nurse to the her classroom.  Shabana had collapsed.  I waited anxiously.  Soon a second runner appeared. She had been sent to fetch the wheelchair.  Shabana was conscious, but was too weak to walk.

Shabana was wheeled to the sick room and put to bed while Mrs Nurse dealt with contacting people, but she remained sceptical.  Shabana had no fever or sickness.  She wasn’t in any pain. But there was no denying she appeared to have lost the use of her legs. If she tried to stand, she collapsed.  An ambulance had to be called.

Mrs Nurse kept in touch with the distraught parents and the hospital. Shabana was undergoing various tests, but her condition was still a mystery.  The journey to Dubai was put on hold.

But not for long.  When the news was conveyed to Shabana, her condition began to improve. She could walk a few steps. In fact, by the time she came to see us to say goodbye, she was fully on her feet.

Quite well enough to travel with her parents to Dubai. After that scare they couldn’t bear to leave her behind.

Lesson 61 Dread and Dismay

Lesson 61 on Confronting the perfect storm

When Ofsted first started inspecting schools in England, the timetable for their visits was published for a year ahead. This meant that schools awaiting inspection had months to prepare and worry.  It was like a menacing thundercloud approaching from the horizon.

I was based in a small primary school for the year in which they were scheduled for inspection.  Situated on a bleak, windswept estate,  notorious for petty crime and blighted by unemployment, the school struggled against daunting odds.

The first class where I was working was composed of a disastrous mix of personalities.  Some classes miraculously gel as a group, while others manage to rub along together more or less cooperatively, but a very few just get on each other’s nerves, endlessly bickering and winding each other up.

Owen’s class was one of those.

Owen was the chief disturber of the classroom peace.  He was a master of timing. He would wait until everyone had eventually been settled on the carpet, then he would hit out and/or shout at one of his neighbours, accusing them of some incursion into his space.

The same pattern repeated itself when the class was seated round their tables at the beginning of a lesson. Owen would fall off his chair or knock over the materials for the planned activity.  The class would need to be settled all over again. This was not easy, because most of the others had their own difficulties.

Two of the boys kicked, hit and bit at the least imagined provocation. Another continually begged for attention and assistance, unable to face any task alone, but nobody in the class wanted to work with him. One girl was severely undernourished and continually fell asleep. Another was loudly argumentative.  Yet another lived in a world of her own, humming and singing to herself.

Their poor teacher was beside herself with dread and anxiety. At that time the only recognition given by Ofsted to pupil background was the percentage of pupils on free school meals, but the bottom band for this was set at 50% or more.  In Owen’s school the uptake was over 90%.

No way could I have taught that class. Most mornings there was another classroom assistant as well as me, but even the three of us were hard pressed to cope.  It was a perfect storm.

And with this group, Owen’s teacher had to run the gauntlet of naming and shaming by Ofsted.

No wonder she was driven to despair.

To be continued……..

Lesson 54 Survival Skills

Lesson 54  on Collusion

When I got involved in teacher training, I had the chance to go into lots of schools and classrooms. I went into schools where the deputy smelt of drink and others where I was offered tea in bone china cups in the headmaster’s wood-panelled study.

I worked right from the period of “We were very glad to have Jim as a student with us.  He worked hard and helped with the football team.  He will be a credit to the profession”, through to assessment by means of a many paged official document attesting to the level of competence achieved in every possible aspect of “classroom delivery”.

In the bad old days we just phoned round schools we usually worked with to find places for our students. The basic criterion was that the student should be able to get there by public transport within a reasonable time.

As a result some students ended up in what would now be called “challenging” schools. 

One poor student used to come to me every evening in tears. There was one class in particular she could not manage.  Whatever approach she tried, and she had tried a number very diligently, the class played up.  I offered to come in on their worst afternoon slot to see if we could work something out together.

When I went into the class, Miss Student announced that this was the “visitor” she had mentioned.  They looked at me speculatively as I took a seat near the back of the class. They clearly knew all about “visitors”.  People with files and briefcases meant officialdom.  They were bad news.

The lesson began and Miss Student had to hide her astonishment at the way things progressed.  People opened their books and faced the front.  They put on a good show of being attentive.  They put up their hands in response to questions, even when they didn’t know the answer.  The only wonder was how long they could manage to keep this up.

I shouldn’t have underestimated them.  As they laboriously set about their written task, heads bent over their books, one boy in front of me could contain himself no longer. It was almost the end of the lesson.  Turning round to me with a proud grin, he demanded recognition and confirmation.

” We’re being good aren’t we?”

Afterwards Miss Student was speechless.  She couldn’t understand what had happened.  But I knew.  They simply liked her.  They had just been testing her out and having a bit of fun.  The moment it became serious they didn’t want to drop her in it.

And it was all done wordlessly and seamlessly, by a few glances between the usual suspects.  They knew a decent teacher when they came across one, even if she was a bit raw and wet behind the ears.  When it came to fooling somebody with a clipboard, they would unite behind her against the common enemy.

Lesson 37 A White Christmas

Lesson 37 on Making a Virtue of Necessity.

Mandy’s school was in the centre of a dispiriting estate, next to a sprawling industrial development, about a mile from a junction on the M3.  All the pupils lived on the estate. All the teachers, however, lived well away from it. Most travelled in by car from the pleasanter parts of the Berkshire countryside. I was the only teacher who drove in the other direction from London.

Any hold-up on the motorway caused problems.  The pupils would arrive in school, but the teachers would be stuck in traffic until the blockage cleared.  This situation was always worst in bad weather. 

One morning towards the end of my first term there was a heavy snowfall.  The only adults in school by the start of the school day were myself, the deputy head (who came by train), the school nurse, the school secretary and the kitchen staff.

“What happens now?” I asked the deputy.

“We can’t send them home.” explained the school nurse.  “It’s not safe. We have to keep them in school, and hope enough staff make it through.”

“What usually happens, is that we put them in the hall with a video, till the staff come in,” added the deputy head.

” I’ll send Sukvinder down to her uncle’s video shop,” offered the school secretary. “He always lets us have something suitable.”

Sukvinder was despatched  to the shop at the end of the street, while we organised the pupils.  Because we were in such a deprived area, the school kitchens were opened for breakfast.  This meant we could leave the pupils in the dining room for a while, till we had the video set up in the hall.

Sukvinder soon returned in triumph carrying a plastic carrier bag.

“Uncle’s sent us something really good,” she said. “Because it’s Christmas, he says we can have this for a special treat!”

The deputy head sent her off to the dining room to alert Nurse and Secretary to allow the pupils to come down to the hall.  Meanwhile we loaded the video into the machine. 

It was only then that we realised what it was- it was an illegal, pre-release copy of ET!   ET was just then being hyped as the biggest cinema release for the  upcoming Christmas holiday. 

But what could we do?  By now Sukvinder would have spread the news of Uncle’s Christmas treat.  We had 400 excited pupils and hardly any teachers.  We had a warm, safe hall, entertainment and a working kitchen to provide hot food.

We showed the film.  It was a dreadful copy – it was so dark you could hardly see it on the screen.  But even our hardest pupils were riveted to it.  They sniffed and wept their way through it.  The hall throbbed with emotion.

In ones and twos the rest of the staff appeared, but there was no way we could stop the showing.  At the end there was a communal sob as ET took off at last for home.

We must have broken every rule in the book, but what a shared emotional experience.  The best Christmas treat ever!