Lesson 88 Sticks and Carrots

Lesson 88 on More ways and means

At Owen’s school everybody had been battered and bruised by their shaming in the national media, on account of their lowly position in the league tables. Despite the local press being extremely supportive and pointing out all the school had done for its catchment area, the pupils had been very discouraged by the notice they had attracted. 

Naming and shaming might have been intended as a stick to beat the teaching profession, but the impact on the children concerned was hurtful.  The least successful schools in the first rounds of national testing came from the most disadvantaged areas.  Pupils already bearing the practical drawbacks of living in poor areas were now doubly stigmatised by attending the “worst” schools.

The staff at Owen’s school, however, had a strategy to rebuild confidence and enthusiasm.  

They took every opportunity to praise good work and effort. They particularly praised any attempt at a subject or task found difficult. Not giving up earned you the biggest accolade.

They devised a system of rewards ranging from Mrs Reception’s biscuits right up to elaborately printed certificates, formally presented at assemblies, that could be taken home and displayed.

There were also class trips and treats to reward group achievement.

One of the difficulties in improving the school’s SATs scores was the the problem of ensuring everybody turned up on the day of the test. The pupils were very unsettled by examination conditions. Despite trial runs to make them feel at ease, they hated them.  The temptation not to attend was great.

One hundred percent attendance necessitated more than just encouragement and support. It required a considerable carrot.  This took the form of the SATs trip.

There was to be a day out for the whole class. The local coach company had agreed to sponsor it by providing the transport, so it would be free.  The pupils could decide where they wanted to go. The only constraints were that it had to be somewhere that was fairly close and didn’t require a big entrance fee. Suggestions would be put to a democratic vote.

The choices were debated. A secret ballot was held.  The votes were counted.  Anticipation ran high.  There was a clear winner. 

Peer pressure and group loyalty operated to ensure perfect attendance throughout SATs week.  The reward was won.

In the oldest, scruffiest coach you can imagine, we were off to the UK’s biggest shopping mall – MetroCentre!

Lesson 70 Where There’s a Will…

Lesson 70 on Finding ways

Outings and trips at Owen’s school had to be carefully spaced out because there wasn’t much money around. Over 90% of pupils were on free school meals.  Because everybody was hard up, it had been found impossible to single out individuals for special assistance. Instead the total cost was subsidised from a governors’ kitty raised through donations, sponsorship and fund raising. But everybody still needed to make a set contribution to cover the full cost.

So the rule was that you had to pay to go.  Bearing this in mind, all trips were planned to keep expense to a  minimum and plenty of notice was given, so that people could pay by small weekly instalments. The system worked well.

The major day excursion every year was to a countryside adventure and education centre. The whole school went. It was a keenly anticipated event.  Preparations and planning began early on. The first challenge was to ensure enough waterproof footwear for all the infants. Collection of borrowed and outgrown wellingtons began well in advance.

I overheard Mrs Classteacher instructing her class.

“You will all have to wear waterproof boots or shoes. It will be really wet and muddy in places.”

The class looked unmoved by this information.  She gave up and started again.

“Now listen! You’ll all need your wellies, because it’ll be dead clarty!”

That got the message across.

As the day approached, however, a problem became evident.  Arthur, who organised things for his two younger siblings, had found raising the money for all three of them beyond his powers. Somehow he had managed to scrape together enough money from home to keep the instalments for April and Aidan up to date, but he couldn’t manage to pay his own.

Arthur was not popular with his peers. He had little in common with them.  His family moved in and out of the area, depending on the state of their finances and convictions, so he had never had the chance to become a part of any friendship network.  He preferred to be with grown ups.  To breach the “no pay” rule, just for him, would have made him even more of an outcast, as the truth of the matter would inevitably have come out one way or another.

The day came when the whole school except Arthur had their instalments paid in full.  A face-saving solution was urgently needed to enable Arthur to go.

I can’t remember exactly who came up with the answer, but it arose from the fact that Arthur was the person who brought April to school each morning.

Arthur could be recruited as a teachers’ helper, just like other volunteers from amongst the Mams and Nans who delivered their infant charges to school every day!

Problem solved!  Not only would Arthur get to come, but he would also be able to enjoy the day in his helper role.

As for his fare and admission, the head paid that herself.

Lesson 34 The Choir Trip

Lesson 34 on Virtue Rewarded

I must have had “Mug” tattooed on my forehead.  Every time someone wanted another body to make up the numbers on a school trip, they came to me.  This time it was Mandy and her cronies who started lobbying me early in the spring term.

“Miss, Mr McGregor needs another teacher for the Choir Trip.”(Mr Mac was the Head of Music, not that there was anybody else in the department.  It was a small school.  He had been there a long time.)

“Where are you going?” I enquired, trying to think of somewhere even remotely musical they could possibly visit.

“It doesn’t matter, Miss!  He just needs another teacher so he can book up the coach.”

“OK, I’ll talk to him about it,” I stalled for time.

“You don’t need to, Miss. We can tell him.  He said if we could find another teacher we could have a Choir Trip. And you’re never doing anything, so you’ll be able to go!”.  (One of the common perceptions of small group teaching, amongst pupils and staff alike, was that it was not proper school work, and thus could be deemed “doing nothing”.)

Alarm bells should have rung for me at this point, but I promised to give it favourable consideration.  The next thing I knew Mr Mac was thanking me for my support.

“It’s always a nice day out!” he beamed. “I’ll take care of all the arrangements!”  He was a short, bustling, fatherly man, who inspired confidence and trust. I allowed myself to be smiled into acceptance.

Trips took place in the summer term, when the weather might hopefully be sunny.  Strangely in the months leading up to our trip, I came across no evidence of the school choir in action.  However, as I was based at the opposite end of the building to the music room, this didn’t worry me as much as it should.

“Mandy, who else is going?” I asked as the day drew nearer. She ran through a few names not in my groups, but who I knew by reputation.

“I didn’t know they were good at singing,” I commented suspiciously.

“Oh they’re not, Miss!” replied Mandy, making a speedy escape.

Sondra was one of the names mentioned and it so happened she had to be removed from class that afternoon for bad behaviour.  When pupils were sent out of class, they had to be sat with me, or the deputy head or the school nurse.  Our rooms were conveniently next to one another just off the main corridor.

This gave me a chance to enquire further into the school choir.

“I didn’t realise you liked singing, Sondra!”  I commented in my best interested teacher voice.  Sondra looked at me scornfully.

“I don’t!” she snapped

“But you’re in the school choir?”

“There isn’t a school choir!”

“Then who goes on the Choir Trip!” I protested

“Miss, anyone can go on the Choir Trip if they collect enough merits in music.”

“How do you get your merits?”

“You just have to be good.”

“You mean good as in good and quiet? Good and well-behaved? Good and not getting into fights or talking back to the teacher?”

“That’s it, Miss!”

And so it was, when I went out to the coach on the morning of the Choir Trip, that every face in the group was one that had been excluded or banned from any other excursion. The other staff, watching with quiet satisfaction from the common room, looked forward to a day of unaccustomed peace and harmony.  No wonder nobody had warned me!

The Choir Trip was the last resort of all who could neither excel in their work nor keep out of trouble. Mr Mac smiled on unperturbed.

“They’ll be as good as gold. Just you wait and see!”

We went to Kew Gardens. Mr Mac and I sat outside the tearoom in the sun. The pupils circled around, venturing further afield as they became bolder, but always returning to make sure we were still there.  Every so often they would sit with us and chat.

On the way home they sang.  The school choir, you might say!

Lesson 33 Saved by the Wonders of Nature

Lesson 33 on How Not to Organise a School Outing

I was very fond of the Easter Assembly school.  It was an old building, one of those imposing Victorian three storey red brick Board Schools, with a separate Boys and Girls entrance, surrounded by a walled yard.  It was situated on the southern extremities of the Northern Line.

One day I received a phone call from a trainee teacher doing her school practice there.  She was organising a trip for all three forms of 6-7 year olds and she was short of another adult to accompany the group.  Could I come along?  She was planning to take them to the Commonwealth Institute.

I agreed, so long as I just had to turn up on the day and do minder/ sheepdog duties.

I turned up bright and early on the appointed day, expecting to see the coaches waiting by the school entrance.  There were none there.

When I went into the school, the three forms were all ready and lined up, teachers and Mums in attendance.

“Where are the coaches?” I asked anxiously

“Oh, we’re not going by coach, ” Miss Trainee cheerfully responded.  “It was too expensive.  We’re going on the tube!”

“But surely there isn’t a direct line to Kensington?”

“No, but it’s quite an easy change!” she replied breezily.

“Have you tried it out?” My heart was now in my boots.

“No, but my boyfriend does it all the time and he says it’s no problem!”

It was a long, slow walk for a 6 year old from the school to the station, and when I had a chance to look at the tube map I saw with horror that there were in fact two changes, not just one.  I was relieved I was not in charge. The deputy head was one of the form teachers, so she was the senior person.  I just had to look after my delegated group and made sure they didn’t wander off or fall under a train.

It was a hot day and quite a walk from the station at the other end.  By the time we got there it was lunch time, so we had to sit down and have our sandwiches.  We only had a short time to view the displays, which was just as well, as the Commonwealth institute was possibly the most boring and unsuitable exhibition imaginable for 90 hot and tired 6 year olds.

Just as we were making sure that everybody who needed to go, had been to the toilet, one of the Mums came over with a distressed member of her group. Angela was wheezing heavily.

I turned to Miss Trainee.  “Have you got Angela’s inhaler?” I asked.

“Her what?” said Miss Trainee blankly.

“Her asthma inhaler!” I barked

“I never knew she had asthma!”  By this time Mrs Deputy Head had come up.  “Oh dear! Is Angela having one of her attacks? I suppose one of us had better take her home!”

“”Take her home!” I hissed with suppressed fury. “Nobody can take her home! One of us has to take her to the nearest A&E and get her on a nebuliser.”

“I suppose it had better be me then, as I’m the most senior” said Mrs Deputy Head.  “So that means you will have to be in charge!”

By now everybody was having a really bad time.  Nothing could make a success of this disastrous expedition.

But I was mistaken.  Just as we were going back through the gardens, a cry of delight came from the front of the line.  The children were clustered round an ornamental wooden bridge over a largish pond.  Floating on the water underneath them was a brightly plumaged dead duck.

The boredom of the exhibition was forgotten.  This was something worth seeing! It took us a long time to ensure that everybody had a good view, before making for the tube.

I can remember mercifully little of the nightmare journey home, except that we had to line the pupils up with their backs firmly against the platform wall while we waited for the train at our two change stations, then dash all 90 on board, making sure nobody was left behind.

When we got back to school the head was waiting for us, all smiles.

“And did you have a nice time?” she asked the children.

“Oh yes, Miss!  It was great!” they chorused.  “We saw a dead duck!”