Lesson 99. A Cautionary Tale

Lesson 99 on Learning to be servile

I was lucky. I grew up with free state provided Cod Liver Oil and Orange Juice and a ration book controlled diet so I was healthy. I had to walk, run or pedal everywhere, so I was fit.  Relentlessly upbeat Pathe newsreels kept me ignorant of any nastiness in the world.

When I was old enough to buy my own clothes, it was the sixties and I could squander my full student grant on miniskirts and kinky boots. For the modest entrance fee at the local dance hall or jazz/folk club we could hear the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the old blues singers touring from America.  Drugs were still a minority interest, so all you could do to harm yourself was get drunk, and we never had enough money to poison ourselves with alcohol.

On the work front, it carried the blessing that I was well into my fifties before I finally acquired a line manager.

You may wonder how the world functioned before everybody had line managers. In schools it was quite straightforward. You had a head teacher who appointed you, then said good morning if he/she bumped into you in the corridor. There was a deputy who organised things and ran around a lot doing most of the work. Then, if your school was big enough to have departments, you had a head of department who held meetings now and again and worried about how much paper you were getting through.

I didn’t have a line manager till my second post-early-retirement job.

When I first went to work in this office it was a cosy, homely place. All the old junk and furniture from the outgrown town hall premises had been moved into a soulless open plan block, so the areas had been divided up by ancient, tall metal filing cabinets with cardboard boxes of assorted items balanced on the top. I particularly remember a large soft toy tiger and the football scarves from when Bobby Moore’s England won the World Cup.

But then we were restructured!  We got line-managers, instead of just the old departmental head, who let you get on with things and trusted you to come to him if a problem arose.

I couldn’t really see the point of my line manager. She knew nothing about the actual work of our team and her only qualification to be in charge was that somewhere along the way she had risen to the next highest grade, so she got paid more.

Once in post though, she had to do something. So she meddled and micromanaged. And, from being the sort of work you could take a modest pride in, the job became a burden.

I could never work out whether she had been promoted beyond her ability or out of her own area of expertise, or if she was just nasty. Whatever it was, she made our life difficult.  We ran an efficient service. We knew our stuff and we kept up-to-date.  But now we had to fit into a whole new set of imposed management boxes. Our clients found us reliable and helpful, but their needs now came second to those of the system we had to operate.

Now there is a language for it, of course, but there wasn’t then. We were just bemused and unhappy.

But I was lucky. 

I was almost sixty before I finally encountered disempowerment.

Lesson 96. Frankie Goes To Sandown Isle of Wight

Lesson 96 on Self-confidence and leadership qualities.


It was not the best organised school journey in the world.  Miss Deputy took the oldest class to the same guest house every year with the same local coach company.  It seemed to be assumed that each year’s trip would simply follow the same pattern as the last.

The problem with our year was that the friendly old driver, who usually accompanied the journey and knew the route and the routine backwards, was in hospital having fallen off a ladder, a victim of home DIY.

The replacement was a short, sturdy woman, who had just joined the company payroll. I think she had gained her Public Service Licence during her previous career in the army. She smoked a lot. She had never been to the Isle of Wight. (Remember, this was in the days before satellite navigation.)

I didn’t notice Frankie until we reached our lunch break spot, rather late. It was a stretch of heathland populated by grazing sheep, with a couple of picnic tables. I was waiting by the bus door to help people out.  Frankie was preparing to alight when he suddenly froze. He was immaculately dressed in the latest designer gear and his hair was perfectly corn-rowed in a complicated pattern. He pointed accusingly at the ground by my feet.

“There is poo everywhere!” he announced with disapproval.

“It’s only sheep droppings,” I explained.

” Poo!” said Frankie firmly. The country side was something he seldom came across and it didn’t fit his lifestyle. “I’ll stay in the bus!”

So while everybody else ate their sandwiches in the teeth of a stiff breeze and had a bit of a run around, Frankie sat in solitary splendour with a pristine napkin and a Tupperware box of goodies. He was totally unphased by being the exception.  Let others do as they pleased. His trainers would remain unsullied! 

When we reached the guest house, my room was next to Frankie’s. There were six boys sleeping there in bunk beds. It was my job to keep an eye on them. When I checked on them just before lights out, Frankie was sitting on the best top bunk in matching pyjamas and dressing gown. He had a hairnet over his elaborate corn rows. He was getting everyone organised.  He liked his living space orderly. He might be the smallest and youngest, but there was no question that it was his room.

The following morning I was awoken at 5am by talking and movement next door. Going to investigate I found Frankie and his gang fully dressed, sitting on their beds.

“What are you doing?” I asked sleepily.

“Waiting for breakfast!” replied Frankie brightly.

“Didn’t you check the time? It’s hours yet!” But only Frankie had a watch and that was purely for personal adornment. It hadn’t occurred to them to use it for practical purposes. I gave them my alarm clock and sent them back to bed.

We all needed our sleep, because the next day was a nightmare.  Sergeant Coachdriver took the wrong turning. Now taking a wrong turning in Greater London isn’t a problem. You just rectify matters at the next crossroads. It’s not so easy in winding lanes on a little island.

The longer the coach rocked and rolled its way along the country roads, the more people felt sick. And there was nowhere to stop.  Mrs FirstAider and I feared we would soon run out of bags. Frankie was one of the sufferers, but he insisted on remaining on the extra bumpy back seat with his followers. He was confident he would cope.

When we finally reached our destination, Frankie was one of the last to climb down from the coach. Smiling happily he presented me with neatly fastened plastic carrier bag.

“See Miss!” he announced proudly, “I caught it all!”

Lesson 95 Oh We Do Love To Be Beside the Seaside

Lesson 95 on The dangers of volunteering


There was one last school trip. Really it was nothing to do with me and I should never have been on it, but life can be surprising.

I was sitting in the office one lunchtime, peacefully eating my sandwiches and idly looking through holiday rentals on the internet. (I was on my third post-early-retirement job, this time with a local education authority.) One of the senior managers came in with an urgent query regarding school journeys.

She had a distressed head teacher on the line. Their school journey to the Isle of Wight was due to leave in the morning, but they had a problem. One of the pupils was temporarily in need of a wheelchair.  He had a serious long term medical condition, but this was known and all the risk assessments had been approved. The wheelchair was nothing to do with that. He had had his verruca “done” and it hadn’t healed properly. He couldn’t put one foot to the ground, though his doctor was pretty sure it was on the mend and he was fit to travel.

“Can you check if there’s any way they can take him, Mrs Wise? He’s been looking forward to it so much and he’s come through a dreadful couple of years. I’d really like to be able to help them!”

“I can’t see any way round the regulations,” I shook my head sadly. “They need another teacher to take charge of the child in the chair.  What a shame!” Then I uttered the fateful words that had just flitted unbidden across my mind. “I’ve always liked the Isle of Wight!”

That was how I came to be standing outside The Blessed John Henry Newman Primary School at 8.30am the following morning.

My charge was hopping around. His poorly foot was in a slipper. He was not keen on the wheelchair and he didn’t like the look of me much either.  We reached an understanding though – it was either put up with Mrs Wise or stay at home. He grudgingly got into his conveyance.  His parents shed tears of gratitude. Then we were off!

There were three teachers and a classroom assistant with a first aid certificate accompanying the group.  As newly appointed Wheelchair Assistant I was put under the wing of Mrs FirstAider.  She had been at the school for many years and knew all the pupils well. The lead teacher was Miss Deputy, a youngish woman with a dreamy, distant smile. The other two were recent graduates in their probationary year and this was their first school journey. None of them were mothers, nor did they seem to have had much experience of dealing with children in a purely caring, rather than a formal teaching capacity.

The relevance of this soon became evident on the coach journey down to the coast.  Mrs FirstAider and I were speedily allocated our role by an unspoken agreement amongst the children. We were in charge of sick bags, toilets, lost property, fears and tears!

To be continued…….

Lesson 94 The Pop-up Sports Day

Lesson 94 on Improvisation and inspiration


It was the Tuesday after Ofsted, and already people had run out of steam.  Nobody could work up any enthusiasm for work and there were still almost five weeks till the Summer holidays.

Mrs Head saved the day.  She came flying into the staffroom at morning break.

“Sports day!” she announced dramatically.  “Thursday!”

There hadn’t been any chance to even consider a sports day while the school was focused on Ofsted, but now it seemed like a good excuse for some fun.

“It’s not long to get organised,” mused Miss Senior thoughtfully.

“The weather forecast’s good!” said Mrs Head.  That settled it.

Everybody was energised. The school could concentrate its efforts on something nice for a change.

“Invitations!” Mrs BottomJuniors had a stroke of inspiration. “I’ll get my lot to make invitations to take home!”

“Why just your lot?” chipped in Miss Maverick. “I think everyone deserves a Sports Day invitation!”

“And we need posters for the doors and the gate,” said Miss ClassTeacher

“And a timetable for the events!”

“And somebody to go to Macro for the refreshments and prizes!”

“And heats on Wednesday afternoon!”

“And practice runs this afternoon!”

This whirl of activities took care of the rest of Tuesday and most of Wednesday. Thursday morning was occupied in getting the field, the equipment and the seating for the spectators ready.  Chairs and benches had to be carried out to the field. Skipping ropes and balls had to be assembled and counted.  An air of purpose and anticipation permeated the whole school.

The previous year’s Sports Day had been rained off and the year before there had been an unfortunate incident when some older siblings smuggled in cans of lager. This year everything was looking good. The weather was fine, only younger siblings had been invited and jugs of soft drinks were to be provided.

At one o’clock the invited family members began to turn up, the pupils were assembled and settled in their places. Mrs Head made the official speech of welcome and the sports began. 

I can’t remember all the individual events, but an awful lot of people seemed to win prizes. There was a great deal of cheering and excited jumping up and down.  Best of all, everybody could just be themselves and enjoy the day.

In the last race there was a collision between two of the leaders and one tripped, collapsing in a heap. His Mam, who had been cheering him on, saved the day by running onto the track in her stilettos, scooping him up and carrying him laughing to the finishing line as everybody whooped and whistled encouragement.

She got a prize as well.

It might not have ticked any Ofsted boxes, but, as far as all the participants were concerned, Sports Day was an unqualified excellent!

Lesson 93 Party! Party! Party!

Lesson 93 on The subtle art of point-scoring


Ofsted inspections in the early days were such a major event in the life of the school that their successful conclusion had to be ritually marked by the post-Ofsted celebration.

There was a considerable amount of one-up-manship between schools as to what form this took.  Visiting heads who came to offer advice and support based on their own recent inspection always finished off their feedback with the same question.

” And where are you going for the party?”.

“Oh we’ve a few options in mind, but we’re not rushing into anything.  We’ll see how things go,” Mrs Head would reply airily.

“Oh, but you’ll need to get booked up!  All the best places are booked up months ahead.  We had ours booked before Christmas!” (This was a two fold barb, demonstrating just how certain they were of a good result and also the exclusiveness of their celebration venue.)

“We went to that new club on the Quayside. Its got a marvellous grill!  We couldn’t fault it, but of course it’s not cheap.” (Neatly insinuating that it would therefore be out of our league.)

So the post-Ofsted celebration had to meet two objectives. It had to be something that we could all enjoy and afford, but it also had to demonstrate to the other schools that we could be as classy as anybody else. The honour of the school demanded it. 

Every week news would come in of some other school.

“Braetop went to the VIP suite at the stadium.  They said the food was wonderful, but the service was a bit of a disappointment.”

“You’ll never believe where Rivermouth went! They had a weekend in Dublin!  Flew from Teeside on Friday night!”

The Golfside Country Club was favoured by at least two more.

Each new revelation was followed by analysis and discussion.  The stadium was too common, even the VIP suite. Dublin was over the top and ostentatious.  The Golfside Country Club was too snobby.

In the end there was consensus.  The Country Hotel and Spa hit just the right note. It wasn’t too far, it was expensive, but offered good discount weekend offers for groups. It allowed everyone to get dressed up, so we could all show off the photographs. 

Most important of all, it would put Mrs Visiting-Head’s nose well out of joint, because we’d be staying overnight in the Courtyard suites, which everyone knew beat minibuses home from the Quayside into a cocked hat!