Don’t Smile Before Christmas

A new short story by The Old Grey Owl.

Read on, or download here

When he woke again in the middle of the night, he could still see them in the dim light that leaked into his room from the street lights outside. An irregular line of three separate piles on his desk, like a model of a row of tower blocks in shadows. All of the reading and handbooks and schemes of work he had immersed himself in during the summer holidays, ready for this moment.  Normally the light didn’t trouble him at all and he had the ability to sleep through earthquakes. The sleep of the just, as he always described it. The sleep of the unimaginative, Emma had always countered.

On a station platform in Naples, in a dubious Airbnb in Valencia, sticky with August heat, with a cock crowing outside the window, in a tent at Glastonbury, next to a couple he vaguely knew, having careful, but noisy sex, he had proved this ability many times in the years since A levels. But now, just when he really needed it, it had deserted him and he tossed and turned fitfully through the night, his mind churning with anxiety.

It had been made worse, the first time he had turned to see his books piled on the desk, when he caught, with a start, the figure of a man maintaining a still, brooding watch at the end of the bed. He froze, silently staring at the man, wondering whether he in turn could see his eyes watching back. His own breathing surged in his ears and his heart raced. He did not know how long this imagined staring match went on for, but for days afterwards he could taste the relief he experienced the second he realised the man was the clothes stand draped with his new suit, shirt and tie.

His mother had been insistent that this piece of kit from Ikea was essential to a successful working life. His flat was fully furnished and so the trip to Purley Way yielded only slim pickings. A few more additions to the extensive kitchen essentials she had overseen before his departure for University, a couple of prints, and a desk. The kitchen equipment was an indulgence, a fantasy. They both knew that Just Eat and Deliveroo furnished most of Ed’s diet, but she wanted to believe that at some point her son would turn into that kind of young man who cooked vegetarian food for the entire house of artistic and creative friends. Ed was happy enough to go along with the fantasy for a quiet life and his mother didn’t have the heart to challenge him, but secretly, she worried. How could young people afford takeaways four times a week? And why couldn’t they see that it was horribly bad for them and the planet?

In the dusky warm September air in his room, wide awake now, he faced the prospect of morning, now only two hours away, with dread. He could probably manage the vegetarian food at some point. It was the friends bit that he would struggle with. He had accumulated a small group of close friends and a smattering, an outer circle of acquaintances, by the end of University. That had furnished him with a passable social life, people to bump into at the endless round of parties, to make trivial witty conversation with before the next equally meaningless event. A few brief encounters with women that added a frisson of excitement, but nothing that mattered. No spark, no connection, no engagement. Apart from Emma.

He had once tried to talk about these ideas, convinced that other people must surely feel them too, at the end of one drunken night sprawled in his shabby room, but the look on Gareth’s face, a mixture of scorn and fear, told him not to go there, or anywhere near there, again. And so, most of his third year had been poisoned by a steadily growing sense of dread about what would happen when University was all over. If he couldn’t make satisfactory connections in that setting, surrounded by hordes of attractive, intelligent, liberal people, what chance would he have in what was always strangely referred to as the real world? What would he do for a living? Where would he live? Who would he be?

It was that last question that troubled him the most. Who would he be? Everyone else seemed so certain. They knew who they were and what their place in the world was and would be in the future. That was clearly the reason that Gareth had given him that look. He was still no nearer to having the answer when, as his friends moved away to start their brilliant new lives, he found himself starting a teacher training course. He had toyed with the MA in film studies, which seemed to be the default position of everyone he knew, a way of extending the holiday from real life for another year. He had thought about a post- university gap year, travelling in the Far East, with a bit of worthy volunteering thrown in. They were all rejected as possibilities.

Well, not so much rejected, as that would suggest a positive decision of some sort. He didn’t get round to doing anything about them and then the chance drifted away, thankfully, so yet again, a decision was avoided. And the year had flown by, with some sense of pleasure that not only had he passed his training course with flying colours, but that he was pretty good at it. And he enjoyed it. And, most curious of all, everyone seemed to be delighted that he was joining the school full time. He had the sense that he was regarded as something of a star. People stopped him on the corridor to chat with him. The endless reports that the training year had generated were full of glowing praise.

But still, at the back of his mind, a nagging doubt lurked. Sooner or later, he knew, he would get found out. There’d be embarrassment and apologies, anger and recriminations, regret and disappointment. And worse, until that happened, there was the inevitability of knuckling down to the grinding day-to-dayness of a proper job. All through the previous year of training he was able to pretend to himself that it wasn’t really a proper job at all, just the latest in a long line of pretend jobs. But now he couldn’t pretend any longer. It was a proper job, a career for God’s sake, and, what’s more,  a career that was starting tomorrow. He stole a glance over the top of his duvet. The man and the mountain range were both still there, silently accusing him. He rolled over and tried once again to snatch some sleep.

*

By the end of his first week as a Newly Qualified Teacher, he grabbed at the weekend like a drowning swimmer in sight of the shore who clings on to a piece of driftwood. His brain was boiling with the million names, and rules and procedures he was expected to know. He couldn’t keep anything in his head for more than five minutes. He wrote down everything and then forgot what it was he had written down. He felt crushed under the weight of it.

And yet…. He was exhilarated by it all. The classroom felt like a crucible of creativity. He shut the door and then it was down to him to enthuse about language and literature. And after the bureaucratic horror of his training year, when it seemed that he was required to record every single moment of the endeavour and, reflect upon it, evaluate its success, and adapt accordingly, he felt liberated by the light touch of accountability this induction year seemed to have. Yes, there were regular observations, but they never really bothered him. Perhaps he had been lucky and had found himself working in a school led by people who had a little bit more about them than some he had heard about. He had certainly heard horror stories from some of the other NQTs he met occasionally at the local network meetings. NQTs reduced to tears by bullying “mentors”. NQTS asked to cover for absent colleagues with classes that made the old lags in the staff room visibly blanch. NQTs sacked by the infamous Academy chain for failing two consecutive lesson observations.

And there were some quite nice people working in the school. Even the older ones. He found himself getting drawn into passionate discussions in the staffroom about the kids he taught. About the way he taught them and how, possibly, there were better ways of doing it. And these arguments led imperceptibly to discussions about politics and culture and football and music. It was – he hardly dared voice the thought – a little like the best of University, but without the drugs. Or, he thought ruefully, the capacity to miss that nine o’clock lecture on Marxist and feminist readings of Dickens. And, in some ways, it was better than University. They were paying him for his services. He wondered whether he was just experiencing a honeymoon period and if he was, when it would be over.

It didn’t take long for him to have his answer to that question.

8Y4.

When he thought about them, a cold wave of dread spread over his body and settled in his stomach like a dead weight. They had the capacity to ruin a weekend, to disrupt sleep, to make him fantasise about running away to stack shelves in Sainsbury’s for the rest of his life.

8Y4

In the beginning, in the first couple of weeks, they were one of his biggest success stories. They laughed at his jokes and responded well to the unit of work on genre, particularly the Sci-Fi horror stuff he started with. He was quite relaxed with them, a bit risque at times, which set him apart from the experienced members of staff and that, plus his enthusiasm for the texts they were covering, was quite infectious. The class were doing things because they were interested in the work and because they liked him.

And then they stopped. A few lessons with a raised voice, a few sendings out, a lot of missed homeworks,  and a poor set of grades and comments on the first substantial piece of written work, and everything drained away. They were like a jilted lover, withering in their scorn and implacable in their thirst for revenge. As the Indian summer gave its first hints of the impending Autumn, with flurries of brown leaves falling in the winds, and darker nights gathering around him like a shroud, his lessons with 8Y4 became ever more stressful.

Pathetic Fallacy, that’s what it was. He could make a little link in the lesson with that.

“Pathetic what, Sir?” This was the response from Gabriel Rimmon, a slight, wiry boy who had just begun to emerge from the mass in Ed’s mind. Increasingly, he had taken on the role of ring leader, but a subtle and sly ring leader who was hard to pin down and even harder to catch out. He had a distinctive pudding basin of white blond hair and piercing, sky blue eyes. He continued, his whining singsong voice cutting through the background chatter.

“You just made that up Sir, didn’t you? That’s not a thing, pathetic whatsit, is it?”

“Are you a real teacher, Sir?”

And then, in a lower voice, “I know what is pathetic, actually.”

Not one of his more successful ideas, that one. Perhaps not try anything new for a while.

His last lesson before the half term holiday was with 8Y4. Friday period 5 that week presented a heady cocktail, brimming with possibilities: He was virtually sleepwalking with exhaustion. They had the whiff of freedom in their nostrils. He had promised a DVD, if they finished their writing assessment practice. They sensed weakness and dashed off their written work in five minutes before setting up a continuous barrage of wheedling, outraged reminders of the promise. Ed’s attempts to regain control moved through reason, compromise, threat and bargaining, ending in unhinged, purple- faced, spittle- spraying ranting.

The class jeered at his loss of control and then they chanted, “DVD, DVD”, banging their tables in accompaniment. He looked around the room at this baying mob, his utter powerlessness growing with every sweep of the classroom, when his gaze rested on the classroom door. Just as he shifted his weight to make a move towards it, the door burst open and into the room strode Mr Chapman, the Deputy Head. He held the door open and glared around the room, his eyes raking across the mob. The class sprang to their feet, their scraping chairs heralding a silence almost painful in comparison to what had gone before.

Both the class and Ed had to endure a dressing down that was all the more frightening for being delivered in an icy, quiet voice that everyone had to strain to hear. It dripped sarcasm and intent. For all of its repeated phrases in praise of “Sir” (Did he even know his name?), Ed felt every line was a dagger to his self-esteem, and to his standing with the class. Proper teachers didn’t need this nannying. They didn’t need a baby-sitter. He longed for it to be over, but he knew that the minute Chapman had swept out of the room and Ed was left alone with them, their relief at his departure would completely trump their fear of his return, and the torment would begin again, but even worse this time. It had baffled him for some time now that senior staff, no matter how helpful and genuine they appeared to be in their efforts to help new teachers out, seemed to have no idea what they left behind them, having successfully “sorted out” an out of control classroom.

Chapman, however, was well aware of this possibility. He stayed and stalked the aisles of the classroom while the class duly completed their piece of writing. “Properly this time, gentlemen,” he intoned threateningly, as his leather brogues creaked their way up and down the rows of tables. Ed was left like a spare part at his desk at the front, a frozen expression on his face that he tried his best to make a complete amalgam of professional surveillance, moral outrage, and academic rigour, all leavened with a hint of pastoral concern. Occasionally, when a member the class looked up from their labours to surreptitiously check the clock on the classroom wall, they were struck by Ed’s face, which appeared to them to be of someone suffering from a terminal illness, or at the very least constipation.

At the back of the class, a picture of contrite obedience, was Gabriel Rimmon, hunched over his writing, seemingly desperate to make amends for his errant behaviour. Every time Chapman turned on his peregrinations around the room to stroll back to the front, turning his back to Gabriel, Rimmon looked up from his work and stared at Ed. The expression on his face was one of cold, amused contempt and his ice blue eyes seemed to glow in their intensity. Once, Ed caught his stare and returned it, expecting the boy to put his head back down to his work and avoid further trouble, but instead he held Ed’s stare and narrowed his eyes. Ed, lost in his own thoughts about the humiliation of having to have the Deputy Head as a minder, had just registered this strange, challenging staring contest when Chapman turned again and Gabriel went back to his work.

Later in the pub, having endured a pep talk from Mr Chapman, he was deep into his second pint, wondering whether to call it a day, or to gird his loins for the traditional end of term jolly.  This always moved the participants from the pub, to the restaurant and for the hardy few,  clubbing and the prospect of the mother of all hangovers. He had experienced a couple of these events during his training year, and had been struck by how different groups of staff fell by the wayside as the evening progressed, a process akin to refining oil. By the end, only the purest party animals were left, most single, some fantasists, all heroically drunk. Maybe he’d give it a miss this time.

“So, did Chappers give you a bollocking then?”

He looked up from his calculations. It was Jim Stevens, the elder statesman of the English Department. Before Ed could reply, Jim deposited his pint on the spare beer mat next to Ed, and swung himself round into the vacant seat. Ed braced himself for what was clearly going to follow – some homespun wisdom from the Sage of South London. He looked up and saw Pratik and Holly coming back from the bar with their drinks, and as they realised that Jim had slipped into their seats they rolled their eyes at Ed, and sniggering to each other, hung a sharp left to find another table.

“Sorry, what was that, Jim?”

“Chappers. Did he give you a bollocking? Y’know, after that car crash, period 5 with Year 8?”

“Oh God, does everybody know about that? That’s all I need.”

“Course they do lad, you could hear it all the way down the corridor. Well, did he?”

“Wasn’t too bad I suppose. He was quite encouraging in a way.”

“Aye, he’s not bad as far as Senior Management go.”

This was high praise from Jim, who reserved his bitterest scorn for “Leadership”. He had been teaching for centuries, all at the same school and had seen many initiatives come and go, some more than once. There were rumours, though Ed could scarcely believe them, that Jim had started as an English teacher before The National Curriculum. This seemed to Ed to be as far distant as the Jurassic era, and about as relevant. As well as being a professional cynic and curmudgeon, he was also a professional northerner, his flat Yorkshire vowels seemingly untouched by thirty five years  as a self- professed missionary to the heathens in the soft underbelly of the South East. This too was all part of the act. Underneath his well-crafted facade of cynicism, however, was someone who loved being an English teacher, and who, many geological eras later, was still inspirational. When he closed the classroom door, the hardest, the most damaged kids in the school lapped up his lessons and flourished in the fertile soil of language and literature he provided.

He was one of those teachers who made newly qualified staff despair. He was so far ahead of them in his teaching that they couldn’t conceive of ever being good enough. Ed, however, had a bit of a soft spot for him. Jim had been very kind to him since September and his occasional, easy words of encouragement made a big difference when a day was going badly.

“The thing is, Jim, is that 8Y4 have really got me over a barrel. All my other classes are going pretty well, but I start to worry about teaching 8Y4 the day before my lessons with them. It’s starting to affect my confidence. To be honest, I’m not sure whether I’m cut out for this job, you know.”

Jim put his pint down.

“Eh, none of that, none of that. Listen to me Edward, lad. Listen. If people like you stop being a teacher then we’re all stuffed, because you’re a natural, lad, a natural. You’ve just made the classic mistake, that’s all.”

“What mistake?”

“That 8Y4 are bloody difficult. Everyone says so. There’s summat not quite right about them. I don’t know what it is, but there’s a coldness and a sourness about them. And you were too bloody nice to ’em at the beginning. They think you’re a soft touch. When you start, you’ve got to be a right hard-faced so -and -so with your classes.”

“But that’s not me Jim, I couldn’t possibly do that.”

“Course it’s not you, you muppet. If it was really you, you’d have no future in teaching. Apart from ending up being some bastard, zero tolerance Headteacher. Yer acting lad, acting. And you need a bloody Oscar winning performance to get them back. This is what you do. When we come back, after half term, you don’t smile at all. Don’t smile before Christmas, that’s the rule. Don’t give ‘em an inch. Bring everybody in to back you up and use the systems relentlessly. Detentions, letters home, reports, all of it. And then, in the Spring, gradually, very gradually, when they’re doing what you want, you ease off a little. And then, when the light nights come round again in April and May, that’s when you can start to smile. Then they’ll realise that you love ‘em, and they’ll love yer back.”

Ed looked doubtful.

“Are you sure about this Jim? Don’t smile before Christmas?”

“Trust me lad. It’s a bloody war out there. A man must walk down these mean streets and survive, eh, Edward? Gloria Gaynor had it about right. ‘I will survive.’ Except she never had to take bloody 8Y4 last lesson on a wet Friday afternoon at Longdon High School.”

Ed took another swig of his beer and shook his head. He wanted to believe, he really did, but at that precise moment it just seemed a little unlikely. Jim got to his feet, patted him on the shoulder and reached for his glass.

“Cheer up lad, for God’s sake. You’ve got a week off and they’re even paying you for the pleasure. And remember what I said, it’s a war out there. Think on.”

And then he was gone, slipping through the crowded bar to the door.

*

By and large, it worked. He carried on in the same vein with the rest of his classes, while slipping into his new stony-faced persona with 8Y4. In the very first lesson after the half term holiday, there was a flicker of resistance, led of course by the hateful Gabriel Rimmon, but when the full might of Senior Leadership was rolled on to their lawns, he and the rest of the class appeared to recognise that resistance was futile. With an unspoken sign to the others, a look, a raised eyebrow, they knuckled under and submitted to Ed’s harsh regime.

But what should have heralded relief and self-congratulation instead provoked a new kind of anxiety. His lessons with 8Y4 immediately settled into a pattern of sullen silence. No questions were ever asked. No answers to Ed’s questions were ever given, save, “I don’t know Sir” or “I’m sorry, I’m not sure, Sir.” He felt like the brutal overseer on a slave plantation, faced with forced compliance and averted eyes. And in every lesson, at some point, he would look up and see Gabriel staring at him from the back row, his face fixed and expressionless. He’d wait until he caught Ed’s eye, hold the stare for thirty seconds and then look back down at his work.

He didn’t tell anyone about this new turn of events. The silence that seeped into the corridor outside his room confirmed for everyone the success of Ed’s new approach and he received congratulations and quiet words of encouragement from his colleagues. Jim winked at him and patted him on the back as they passed. “Told you, didn’t I? Well done lad, well done,” he said quietly.

He didn’t have the heart to tell anyone about his worries. And what was he worried about exactly? What would he actually say to anyone?  “My lessons with 8Y4 are a nightmare. They’re just too quiet.” Everyone would think he was just showing off. He came close after one particularly disturbing incident in early December. It was the same lesson again, last period on Friday afternoon, cold and raw, with the yellow classroom lights blazing out into the dark winter sky.

The class were queueing outside the room when Ed arrived. Normally, this would require at least thirty seconds of imposing order before letting them in, their wait for the teacher having generated scuffles and shouts, but on this occasion, Ed was astonished to turn the corner and find them queueing in a perfect straight line in silence. At the head of the line was Gabriel, smirking.

He unlocked the classroom door and ushered them in with some words of praise. “Come in quietly please Year 8. Excellent, orderly queueing by the way. Well done.”

He stood in the doorway and the students passed him one at a time. Gabriel, the first to enter, looked up at him as he passed and his face broke into a radiant smile that lasted for a fraction of a second before his features reassembled themselves into their customary blank mask of passive aggression. Every other student did exactly the same thing, beaming a brief flicker of a smile before taking up their position standing behind their chairs.

“Ok, good afternoon Year 8. Sit down please and get your equipment out.”

No-one moved. Ed’s eyes flicked around the room.

“Can you sit down please? Books, pens and planners out as usual.”

Again, they did not stir. Then Gabriel, on the back row by the aisle, stepped sideways so that he was alone at the back between the two ranks of tables, staring out to the front. Ed licked his lips nervously and twiddled his board pen. Everyone else remained in their positions staring impassively forward. The silence in the room grew oppressive. Ed shook himself and was about to raise his voice and demand that that they sit down when Gabriel suddenly smiled a broad, open smile, the overhead strip lighting flashing on the enamel of his teeth. The lighting suddenly dimmed as if there had been a power surge and his eyes seemed to go blank. In the gloom, they appeared to glow an icy blue. All of the other students, still standing like statues in their ranks, all broke into the same smile in unison, and their eyes too took on an awful, blue blankness.

Ed’s legs begin to tremble, and he felt a wave of pressure in the air, the silence and the smiles all pressing down on him. He felt for the edge of his desk and managed to lower himself into his seat before his legs gave way. Immediately, all of the children sat down in silence and began to fumble in their bags for their equipment. And almost as soon as it began, it was over. Ed carried on with his lesson as normal and could not remember anything that had happened, save for a non-specific sense of foreboding and a nagging worry that something strange had just occurred, but the needs of the lesson overtook him and he put it to the back of his mind.

And that would have been the end of it, except that when everyone had left, whooping down the corridor ready for the weekend, Ed, as always, scoured the classroom clearing books and sheets of paper that had been abandoned on tables. When he got to the back of the room, he stopped at Gabriel’s table. There, in black biro on the desk, was a scrawled message that read simply, “Don’t smile until Christmas”. He stared at it, open mouthed.

The next week, when he challenged Gabriel about it, he simply said, “Oh, yes Sir, that was there at the beginning of the lesson. I told you about it but you never answered.”

Ed mumbled something in reply and swiftly moved the conversation on, but the doubts remained, eating away at him. By the time they had got to the penultimate week before Christmas, he had managed to almost forget his unease. 8Y4 had continued their campaign of grumpy resistance but without giving any concrete reason to complain. His thoughts turned to the Christmas holiday, an unbearably delicious prospect of sleeping in, and time to himself. His flatmates, annoyingly well-paid corporate lawyers,  had already left for two weeks of sun in Barbados and his mother, after much reassurance from Ed, was going to spend Christmas in Singapore with Frank, a man she had met on a Saga cruise back in March.

“The thing is Edward, Frank is very nice. I really rather like him, but I don’t like to think of you being on your own at Christmas,” she had said during one of his weekend trips back home.

Ed had rolled his eyes. “Mum, I’ll be fine, honestly. You go and enjoy yourself. I’m planning to spend Christmas with Emma.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Emma? I didn’t know all that was back on. Are you sure Edward, after what happened last time?”

“Nothing’s back on Mum, it’s not even fully sorted out yet. I’ll be fine whatever happens with Emma.”

But he hadn’t quite sorted it with Emma. His first few attempts at meeting up again over Christmas were received coolly, so he filed it away in the back of his mind as something to deal with as soon as this mad, exhausting first term was over. There was just one final ordeal to get through before he could begin to relax. His last proper lesson with 8Y4 was that Friday afternoon and he had warned them repeatedly that they were going to do another exam conditions assessment. They received this news with the same blank insolence as they did everything else, having maintained their campaign of icy silence right to the death.

He had thought of caving in for a quiet life, but when he sought out Jim for some advice, he was unequivocal.

“No, don’t do that Ed. It’s absolutely essential that you see this through to the bitter end. You can’t afford to show any weakness now, not after you’ve held out for so long. Believe me, it would be disastrous. In January, that’s when you can lighten up a bit.”

And so, he girded his loins for another sixty minutes of the waves of personal hatred that would emanate from the rows in front of him. At one point in the lesson, the door opened and Mr Chapman slid into the room. He stood in the doorway and noted with quiet approval the immaculate working atmosphere of the class. So engaged in their work were they that no-one looked up from their writing to see who the new arrival was. Chapman looked across at Ed, smiled and put his thumbs up, before backing out of the door and closing it carefully with a soft click. Gabriel looked up at the door at that moment and smiled his blank, ice blue smile. On cue, everyone else in the room did exactly the same and for a split second all thirty students were beaming at the closed door. There was a sudden flicker of the lighting and then they all turned back to their work, as the lights reasserted themselves. A shiver went down Ed’s spine.

A couple of minutes from the end, Ed announced to the class, his voice sounding unfamiliar as it broke the blanket of silence that lay over them all, “Ok, Year 8, stop writing now please. Make sure you have put your name, the title and today’s date and underlined all three of those things. Have your papers on the side of the table ready to collect. Gabriel, can you go round and collect them in please?”

Gabriel stared at him, unblinking. Ed, tired of all of this now, irritated that even now in this final minute, this ridiculous charade of a challenge was still present in the room, raised his voice, his anger and impatience finally breaking through.

“Gabriel, for God’s sake , will you just do as you’re told straight away without these unpleasant theatrics. Collect the papers in please, quick as you can.”

Gabriel stood up and moved into the aisle, his face as blank as a September exercise book. He began to walk down the aisle towards Ed. With every step he took, the rest of the class gently, but in perfect unison, banged their tables. Ed looked around, furious. He screamed at them, “Now that’s enough. Stop that at once. Silence!”

The banging stopped immediately. They all stood up from their seats in perfect unison and began to file out from the rows, filling in the aisle behind Gabriel, all walking in step, each one with a terrifying, fixed smile on his face. The lights dimmed and thirty pairs of blue glowing eyes stared unblinking at him. Ed stuttered, dry-mouthed, “What.. what are you doing?…..” He looked at the door and took a step towards it reaching for the handle. He turned it, but to his surprise it was locked. He rattled at it, in a panic. Letting go of the handle, he stepped back into the centre of the room, where he was confronted by the steadily advancing army of silent, staring, smiling students. His next step was backwards as they continued, pace by pace, until he had backed against the wall and could go no further and they pressed against him. Suddenly, from the corridor he heard the familiar click of a pair shoes striding down the corridor. He tried to call out but no voice came.

Outside the room, walking down the corridor, infused with Christmas cheer and goodwill to all men was Jim. Just another couple of days to survive next week and then came the blessed relief of the holiday. Even after thirty -five years he hadn’t tired of the rush that that prospect brought with it. He thought he’d look in on Ed and just check all was well. His strategy for 8Y4 seemed to have worked pretty well. Certainly there was never any shouting or disturbance  from his classroom when they were in there with him these days and Ed seemed to think there had been some improvement. But still Jim worried about him. He often seemed tense and distracted and it had been a long while since Jim had seen him laugh. He stopped outside the classroom door and shook his head. “Stop worrying over nothing. The lad just needs a holiday, like the rest of us. He’ll be right as rain when he comes back in January,” he thought, a wry smile on his face.

He opened the door and popped his head inside. The room was empty.

“Blimey, he got away quickly. Must have something on tonight, the young rascal.”

He stepped inside and saw that on the teacher’s desk was a neat pile of exam papers, and on top of that was a pale blue business card. He reached over and picked it up. It was Ed’s, his hesitant, half smile was flanked by all of his details: email address, mobile number and school details. This had been a recent initiative from the school, a fake business model accessory that drew withering scorn from Jim when it had been first introduced. He popped it in his pocket for safe keeping.

“He doesn’t want to leave this lying around so some kid can ruin his Christmas for a laugh, “ he thought, closing the door behind him.

Inside the room, there was a flicker of the lights and a creaking of the walls in the December wind that moaned outside.

*

It was the end of January when they finally managed to find Ed’s replacement. A newly qualified teacher who hadn’t found a job last September happened to be available. Both she and the school were delighted, although there were some concerns. Mr Chapman, who had interviewed her thought her a little timid and was worried that she would find it all a bit too much, but beggars couldn’t be choosers and they would just have to do their best.

Anna started on a Friday and found herself sitting in the English Department office with Jim just before her last lesson of the day. It had been a bit of a whirlwind, but everything had gone pretty well, and she was feeling that she might be able to settle down here. At least everyone seemed friendly, even Senior Management, and that had not been her experience in the schools she had done teaching practice in.

“So, I still haven’t quite worked out why there was this sudden vacancy. There’s nothing I should know is there? I’m not walking into to some horrible situation.”

Jim sipped his coffee. ”No, nothing like that, er , Anna, was it? No, a bit of a sad story actually.”

Anna looked concerned.

“Oh yes, why was that then?”

“Oh, Ed, the lad was teaching here before you, he was an NQT as well. He was very good, a bit of a natural actually. We all thought everything was fine. And then, out of the blue, in the last week before Christmas he didn’t come in. He sent an email saying he’d decided that teaching wasn’t for him, that he wanted to go travelling or whatever it is you young people do these days. He was very apologetic and grateful and all of that but that was that, we never saw him again.”

“Oh no, that’s terrible.” She was a little more concerned to hear that her predecessor had been a “natural” and “very good”. Suddenly, all of the old doubts crowded in on her again.

“Aye, it was terrible. And that wasn’t the only thing. We heard later that his mother died in the holidays. Run over by a cab in the street. In Singapore. Tragic, really.”

Jim subsided into a gloomy silence while Anna awkwardly drank her coffee. Finally, he roused himself from his thoughts.

“Any way, that’s enough of that. Now then, you’ve got 8Y4 next lesson. They’re a little bit awkward, but nothing to worry about. I’ll give you the same advice that I gave Ed. Go in hard and whatever you do, don’t smile before Christmas. Or in your case, July.”

A look of terror flashed across her face.

“Now then Anna don’t worry yourself. Chappers will take you in and give ‘em the evil eye and I can pop in and check everything is ok. You’ll be fine, trust me”

And so, Anna eventually found herself at the front of the room facing 8Y4. Mr Chapman had indeed introduced her as their new teacher and had somehow put the fear of god into them with a raised eyebrow and an icy voice. The class sat in silence, blond and angelic, with perfect uniform and equipment, staring up at her in expectation. They stayed like that even after Chapman had closed the door behind him.

Anna started to explain her expectations and what they were going to cover that term. Her voice, faltering at first, grew stronger and clearer as her confidence increased. This was the longest time she had been able to speak to a class without interruption. She reached a pause and moved on her PowerPoint slide. A hand went up from a student on the back row. She looked up.

“Yes? I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”

“It’s Gabriel, Miss.”

“Well, Gabriel, what can I do for you?”

“Sorry Miss, what was your name again?”

“Miss Kowalski.”

She turned to the board and wrote out her name.

“And, are you going to be our teacher for the rest of the year?”

“Yes, I am Gabriel. We’re going to be learning such a lot this year.”

“Wicked. I’m sure you’re going to be better than the last one. He was hopeless.”

Anna frowned. She felt uncomfortable about being drawn into this kind of criticism.

“Well,” she began, “I’m not sure that…”

Gabriel suddenly broke into a dazzling smile and, all around him, the rest of the class looked up at Anna and their faces too were wreathed in beaming smiles. All except the boy sitting next to Gabriel, his white blond head bowed. The smiles stopped and the boy, his face now raised, pale as raw sausages, put his hand up.

Gabriel shouted out by way of explanation, “He’s new, Miss.”

“Don’t shout out, Gabriel, please. Now, young man, what’s your name?”

He blinked and looked puzzled, as if he wasn’t sure.

“Your name?” Anna repeated, patiently.

“Edward, Miss. My name is Edward,“ he croaked, his voice seeming to come free from some invisible moorings somewhere.

He opened his mouth again to speak. There was silence and everyone waited. A bead of sweat appeared on Anna’s forehead. The silence pressed down on them all until his words were finally formed and released.

“I’m so pleased you’re here. We’re going to have so much fun, now.”

And he smiled.

The Old Grey Owl

@OldGreyOwl1

https://growl.blog/

oldgreyowl.57@gmail.com

The Young Person’s Guide to Conservative Government

A Public Service Announcement

Pitt the Younger

Given recent political developments, a new General Election seems imminent. In the interests of a fully informed electorate, to protect the democratic health of the system, you may find the following guide a useful tool to use with any Young People you know.

Conservative Governments follow a cycle of events in an unchanging, fixed way, like the seasons follow on from each other. These are the key stages:

  1. During a period of Labour Party Government (*see below), the Conservatives spend a lot of money given to them by rich donors and foreign powers, to issue propaganda rubbishing the actions of the Labour Government and falsifying statistics to create the impression that key areas of society are in decline. The money is given to them because, under a Labour Government,  the Rich have fewer opportunities to further enrich themselves at the expense of the state and the poor. This enrages them and they consider it to be very unfair and very detrimental to a productive economy. They mask their concern for the decline in their own personal enrichment by expressing concern for the lack of opportunities afforded to the poor by having a badly run economy, with rising unemployment.
Mark Francois

2. As a priority, the Conservative party identify key areas of the economy or of Society that are in crisis. They use phrases such as “Broken Britain” and they issue misleading right wing think tank reports to stoke fears of terminal decline under the Labour Party that they portray as unpatriotic, economically illiterate, and in the pocket of terrorists and the trade unions.

3. They identify a series of key groups who can be routinely scapegoated for these manufactured crises. These tend to be the following: Immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers. Lots of preparatory work has to be done first to blur the distinctions between these groups and to create the impression that most of them are associated with Islam or terrorism. In recent years, this list has been supplemented by the idea of “Europe” or “The EU” as a sinister unelected body whose only purpose is to do Britain down because at heart we are better than them, culturally, historically, economically and morally. (see “British Values”). This narrative of British exceptionalism is pursued without embarrassment, and in some cases, it appears that some Conservative Politicians and supporters actually believe it. In recent months, new groups have been added to the list of scapegoats: The British Parliament, The legal establishment and the BBC. This has been given the helpful umbrella term, “The liberal metropolitan Elite” or more usually, “The sneering liberal metropolitan Elite”. No-one actually knows what this means. There is a suspicion that it is used in the same way that the term “Fake News” is used by Republicans in the United States, ie when they cannot give a plausible answer to legitimate questions that have been raised by a free press, or the political opposition.

4. Hand in hand with this decline goes a reckless spending of tax payers’ money, on projects and initiatives that actively make things worse. Higher taxes allow the Labour Party to encourage immigration, terrorism, criminality, unemployment. Because of high taxes and political correctness gone mad there is more homelessness, more immigration, more crime, poorer exam results, worse health outcomes, longer waiting lists. This list is literally endless. Why on earth would the Labour Party do this? What is in it for them? The Conservative Party in opposition have strained every sinew to make the answer to this glaringly obvious to everyone, apart from the handful of Communists in the country: The Labour Party are the Enemy Within.

Captain Mainwaring

5. Once in power, The Conservative Government follows its natural instinct, which is to dramatically reduce public spending, lower taxes and line the pockets of its supporters, the already very rich and powerful. These people, apparently, are not the liberal metropolitan elite. They may be the rural elite, or the fascist elite, but both of these groups are infinitely more acceptable than those damn liberals. The sneering ones especially.

6. This is all done in the name of freedom and to liberate entrepreneurship from the dead hand of the state, so that we can all become richer.  No-one seems to worry that this has never worked. Except The Enemy Within.

7. Carrying on the work carefully prepared when in opposition, the Conservative Government continue to denigrate the work of the BBC, accusing all of its journalists and newsreaders of being Lefties. There are clear threats made regarding the licence fee and, subsequently, all news broadcasts are grotesquely “balanced”, which means even the most rabid right -wing lunatics are given equal air time for their views. Please note: This is a process likely to accelerate given the success of the Trump experiment in America. (See “Fake News”)

8. As the life of the Government progresses, their policies start to have an impact. Statistics regarding Homelessness, Health, Poverty, Climate change Social Care, Children’s services, Crime, Infrastructure, Transport etc all plummet. On the BBC news, a succession of such disasters is reported by head shaking, hand wringing newsreaders, with a baffled expression, as if they are at a loss to explain these strange, unrelated phenomena. A simple graphic would show the cast iron correlation between the election of Tory Governments and the inevitable collapse of the fabric of civil society. The point is never made because it is too “political”, so we must get used to thinking of these events as Acts of God, not policy consequences.

The Blessed Margaret

9. In the second half of a Tory Government, the arguments of the Labour Party and the possible policy solutions become very popular as clear and obvious solutions to the disasters wreaked by the gang of half -witted charlatans currently in office. Tory spokespeople reaffirm that they are spending more money than ever before on   (insert any issue people are moaning about).

10. The year before the election when the Tories are double digits behind in the polls, they steal 75% of the Labour policies they have spent the last four years demonising, and pledge to spend loads of money on Housing, the NHS, Social care, etc etc.

11. They spend billions of pounds from the magic money tree on bungs, bribes and propaganda that forcibly remind people that the Labour Party, The Greens and The Liberal Democrats are all Communists, in the pay of the Unions, Palestine, Islamists and foreigners generally. It used to be Russia, but that’s a bit awkward nowadays.

12. They will do absolutely everything in their power to obscure the basic choice everyone has to make about what kind of society we want to be. Either we can be a country that spends 42% of its GDP on infrastructure and the public realm, ensuring a country that runs efficiently (See Germany). This used to be the case for all civilised European countries. It is what we used to do during the post-war consensus, when all of the statistics mentioned several times above were all much, much healthier. Or we can choose to spend 37% of GDP on the same stuff and watch as society crumbles around us. No-one will ever point out his basic choice to you because they are disposed to treat the electorate as ninnies who don’t know their arse from the elbow. You will get used to this. You have a choice over whether to get angry about it and protest or to shrug your shoulders and eat more of the same shit.

13. Very often the electorate buy the lies and The Conservative Party is re-elected to Government. As soon as that happens, the steps outlined above start again, from step 5, and they begin to cut public spending savagely again. They reallocate a pittance from existing budgets as a fig leaf to cover up their broken promises. This is a bit of a bore for them to have to go through, but they are heartened by the success of Trump who has hit upon a new way of dealing with this. He simply lies about it and gets away with it. This will save the Tories a lot of time in the future. (see “Dominic Raab”)

14. Every now and again, things are so badly mismanaged by the Tories that no amount of lies and spin and propaganda can prevent the election of a Labour Government. Historically, this has been a statistical aberration, but, strangely, there was a period of over ten years of Labour Government, on the back of three election victories and they did great things, but the Left don’t like to talk about that. (ask your parents about this. I think it has been removed from Wikipedia) They (the Left) still think of that period as another period of Conservative Government, cleverly rebranded. During this period, Tony Blair did several things that did not help. They were:

  • Knocking back Proportional Representation. (This was a disastrous mistake, and, I believe, an example of Hubris. Jacob Rees-Mogg may correct me on this)
  • The Iraq War.
  • Being starry -eyed about the Rich and Famous
Someone whose name I can no longer remember, but who now seems a model of ethical behaviour, despite vague memories of her appalling performance in Government

There are signs that this immutable cycle may be entering a period of rare adjustment, on the back of the success of Trumpery in the USA. This has emboldened the Right to embrace cheating, lying and outrageously unethical behaviour. The current Cabinet appointed by Mr Johnson is so unspeakably Right Wing and so driven by ideological fervour that they are impervious to any appeal to morality or ethical standards. There are people in Mr Johnson’s cabinet who believe in the Death Penalty. Who are against abortion. Who do not support Gay marriage or a whole raft of LGBT rights. Who think that there should be no regulation of markets, or employers or housing. Who think that the creation of a low tax, no tariff, low standards sweat shop off shore is a step in the right direction. Who do not care about the return of bombs in Northern Ireland. Who have been openly racist. There are even rumours that a member of the Cabinet is planning to make not leaving a double space after a full stop illegal, no ifs, no buts. (In that sense, this whole article has been an act of civil disobedience, which is very gratifying). I never, ever thought that I would be able to write that paragraph in bold above in my life time. They believe that their view of the world is right and that The People cannot be trusted to realise that. This means that they can no longer countenance even a brief five year hiatus in their hold on power. The prospect of not being in charge for a minute enrages them beyond reason so steps will be taken to ensure that there will never be a Labour Government again. In the same way there is now talk from the USA that Trump will not step down if he is voted out and the rule about not serving for more than two terms will be scrapped if he does win again. (see “Vladimir Putin”)

Post no-deal sunlit uplands…….

We all need to be ready for this. There will be some very dark, difficult days ahead.

Theresa Did

 So, farewell then, Theresa May.
Theresa May. A strange name for a
Prime Minister. So
Conditional, so
Tentative, so
Hesitant, so
Equivocal, so
Subjunctive, so
Uncertain.
She has gone,
But Nothing Has Changed.
 
Theresa may decide.
Theresa may waver.
Theresa may resign.
Theresa may run through sunlit fields of wheat,
Under blue skies and high, wispy clouds,
Naked and abandoned.
She has gone,
But Nothing Has Changed.
 
Theresa will dissemble.
Theresa will obfuscate.
Theresa will not answer the question.
Theresa will be frightened and alone in a crowded room of dangerous foreigners.
Theresa will cry hot tears in the street, angry and confused.
She has gone,
But Nothing Has Changed.
 
Theresa May.
Theresa Did.



 

The Old Grey Owl

School Leadership: Mourinho versus Solskjaer

Sulky Jose…?

This was, originally,  going to start with the question, “Do you want to be led in your school by Jose Mourinho or Ole Gunar Solskjaer?” Imagine a situation where the interview process for the new Headship at your school has got through to the last stage and there are only two candidates chosen for final interview. The two surprise candidates, disillusioned with the world of top flight football management, have decided it’s time to “give something back” and devote themselves to State school leadership. Mourinho and Solskjaer have polished their Powerpoints, rehearsed their assembly and have mugged up on everything there is to know about Knowledge-Rich curricula, Zero Tolerance behaviour approaches and direct instruction. The staff room waits with bated breath. Which one would you rather have as your leader?

Or, smiley softie Ole?

Bloody Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Everything was going so well after he took over the reins at Manchester United from Jose Mourinho in December last year. The scowling, miserable, sour faced bad loser Mourinho was finally despatched, though not, disappointingly, on Christmas Eve. It would have been fitting to have seen him trudge homeward through the snowy streets of Manchester, in time to spend a grudging Christmas with his nearest and dearest, complaining about the inadequate presents he had been bought. (“What? A pair of socks? Don’t you know my record? Three Premier League titles. Three. Respect. Respect.”)

Mourinho had turned Manchester United into the Theresa May of English football: cautious, wooden, frightened, ineffective. For May, that was no great tragedy. There was no fall from a great height, no previous evidence of charisma or invention or audacity. She had always been distinguished by her mediocrity. But United had flair and panache in their DNA. The team of Edwards, Charlton, Best, Law, Giggs and Cantona had been reduced to shuffling, shabby incompetence. It was embarrassing.

And then the Roundhead was replaced by the Cavalier. Mercifully released from Mourinho’s stifling safety first approach, where players operated under a culture of fear, they responded to Solskjaer’s reign like cattle let out of the winter sheds into Spring pasture. They gambolled. They leaped. They  ran friskily. They played games with a sense of joy rediscovered. Pogba once again was the midfield colossus from the French World Cup winning side. Lukaku looked like a forward who knew how to terrorise defences and score goals. Rashford tore into teams  with direct running and close control. And they won.

And for the blogger always on the lookout for the easy metaphor, it was a gift from heaven. The parallel with the current two tribes approach to School Leadership was uncanny. You could either have the New Brutalism, in the form of Mourinho, or the person-centered, relationship-nurturer of Solskjaer. And with Mourinho, and the Zero Tolerance advocates, you got systems, functionalism, fear and compliance. But no love. No passion. No commitment. And, as a direct result of that, no long term performance. No personal growth. No sustainability. The Roundhead Mourinho was yesterday’s man, old fashioned virtues repackaged for the modern age. You blame everyone else when things go wrong. Demonise the previous regime for sloppy, muddle headed progressivism. Blame the players, or the kids. Or the teachers. How wonderful when it didn’t work and it seemed that Mourinho had been comprehensively found out.

And at first, the human face that was Solskjaer worked brilliantly. They began to win again. Words of confidence worked their magic and players began to express themselves and their innate talent blossomed again. Trust the players, treat them like adults, listen to them and all will be well. Just like in schools. Fear will never produce anything more than compliance. Love and loyalty, on the other hand, move mountains.

And then they gave him a full time contract and the wheels fell off again.

Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn. My beautiful school leadership metaphor shrivelling up on the vine with every passing game. The players, like the naughty kids, started taking the piss again, presumably because they knew that nice Ole wouldn’t do anything about it. Not even give them a bollocking. There seemed to be no consequence for their actions, so why not mess around until the end of the season, picking up a huge pay check and knowing that you’d be off to better club in the summer. So what if Alan Shearer calls you out on Match of the Day on Saturday night for not working hard enough? Big deal. You could buy Alan Shearer ten times over.

And I recalled an incident from my time as a Deputy Head, watching a crowd of naughty Year 10 kids summoned to the head’s office, exclusions pending. With my adjacent office door ajar, I listened, fascinated, to their conversation. It was like the scene from “Kes” with the smokers outside the head’s door, except this time without the sweet, innocent lad who gets the cane for nothing and without the swivel eyed psychopathic headteacher wielding his cane like a light sabre.

As the Head breezed into his office past them, inviting them in as he passed, one lad turned to his mates and said, sotto voce, “Watch me get out of this.” And he did. Ten minutes later he walked out, having given an Oscar winning performance as the contrite sinner who had seen the error of his ways, the head’s chummy words of encouragement ringing in his ears. As he turned to go down the corridor, I caught, through the crack in my office door, the smirk the lad gave his fellow ne’er-do-wells. It was chilling.

The Head went home that day feeling good about himself. He’d shown his human side. He’d connected with a difficult child in difficult circumstances. He’d established a relationship and saved the child from another exclusion. But actually, he’d let the child and the family down and the rest of the school who had to field the consequences of his maximum tolerance everyday in the corridors and the classrooms.

Most of the time the guy was a great head. He did a very good job at a difficult school. He emphasised relationships at the same time as cracking down on behaviour issues and he definitely improved the school. If you had to categorise him according to the metaphor, he would definitely be a Solskjaer rather than a Mourinho.

You remember that wonderful piece of research about school leaders from a couple of years ago that categorised Heads as Architects, Surgeons, Philosophers, Soldiers and Accountants? The one that disappeared without trace because the coming wave of movers and shakers didn’t like the conclusions? All classroom teachers would have been able to recognise the categories. Many headteachers would have raised a sceptical eyebrow because they like to think of themselves as visionaries or missionaries or messiahs. Sorry Heads – gross and cheap stereotyping there. I know many of you are fabulous human beings, particularly those of you who are reading this blog. Follow the link below. It deserves to be resurrected and followed up because it’s never been more important than now, when Surgeons bestride the Education Stage, lionised, rewarded. Mourinhos all of them, at the height of his powers, before he got found out.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-37717211

There is another way to do it. Not Mourinho or Solskjaer. Not iron discipline or trendy, progressive  chaos. There is no need to polarise in this way. Let’s have ethical leadership that consults, engages, trusts staff, listens to students. That establishes and maintains good behaviour without treating children like convicts. That takes learning seriously without being enslaved by examination outcomes. That has a curriculum that serves the children, not the floor targets.

And, to finally flog my football metaphor to death, the beautiful game has, as it always does, the answers. Or some of them at least. There are four English teams in the two major European finals this year. And guess what? Three of them are managed by outstanding leaders: Guardiola, Klopp, and Pochettino. (Sorry Sarri – that chainsmoking hiding your tab from the cameras is just too Andy Capp and 1970s for you to be a serious candidate).

All lead by example, know their players, treat them like adults, give them responsibility, insist on the highest standards, allow people the space to make a mistake, turn them into better players. So no, my original question was wrong. Do you want to be led in your school by Mourinho or Solskjaer? Neither. Give us a version of Guardiola, Klopp or Pochettino instead. And watch everybody fly.

Brexit – I blame the teachers

The pause in Brexit proceedings ushers in a period of reflection, before we all take a deep breath and go again. Although, I have to confess to being one of those Brexit nerds for whom the pause is agony, like the gaps in between Game of Thrones seasons. Just before the Easter holiday, I found myself getting annoyed when not only did Brexit not occupy the first twenty minutes of the main news bulletins, but that, horror of horrors, it wasn’t even first item. I’m afraid my habit has got an iron grip of me. The six o’clock followed by Channel 4 news (a personal favourite of mine this and so refreshing after the right wing bias of the BBC. Although one does live in permanent fear of Jon Snow keeling over live on air. He does appear to be gabbling and getting a lot of his words wrong these days. Retire Jon! You’ve done your bit. Now you can sit back and just tweet like the rest of us. Obviously, the money’s not what you’re used to, but that’s getting old for you.) Then a gap that is filled by News 24,  Parliament Live, Twitter, and the Internet until Newsnight and the joy that is Emily Maitliss. Since the general election I’ve watched Newsnight religiously, partly in the hope (shameful, I know) that Paul Mason and Iain Dale will actually come to blows. He’s a big lad, though, Iain Dale. Then a gentle wind down to sleep with BBC News 24 before being woken at 6 am by The Today programme.

And this obsessive consumption of news programmes has left me with few certainties, except these: 1. European politicians, when interviewed, are notable for many things, but in particular, their effortless command of English. Can you imagine David Davies back at the start of the negotiations, conducting a meeting in French or German? No wonder he only went over there for about forty minutes in total. They also appear to be thoughtful and intelligent. Adults, in short, compared to the embarrassment that are our shower. They have a detailed grasp of the issues, they are well-briefed and endlessly patient with our amateurish efforts. It’s been clear to everyone for some time, and I suspect, to them almost immediately, that there is no Plan B, and barely even a Plan A, apart from Theresa May Maybotting for England until time finally runs out. When highly educated members of the British establishment think Foreign Languages consists of speaking English louder, it’s no wonder that the vast majority of the population don’t think its worth bothering. We really must get to grips with our failure to teach Languages with any degree of success. And I don’t mean to smear the heroic MFL teachers battling against all the odds in our schools to challenge indifference and outright hostility to foreign languages and foreign cultures. This is a cultural mountain to climb, not just a schools’ problem.

2. Nearly every TV news programme seems obliged to show its commitment to the will of the people by having some dreadful Vox pop, which always appeared to be dominated by Brexiteers, who don’t appear to know their arse from their elbow. And that’s a fully paid up member of the metropolitan elite talking there, or so the conventional wisdom goes. The vox pop is either a panel of ”ordinary folk”, often a revisit of some group of lost souls who went through the same nonsense in the run up to the Referendum, or it’s random punters in the street who are button-holed for their reaction to a decontextualized question, the answer to which is clearly engineered to be dangerously dim and populist. These little snapshots of uninformed prejudice never seem to bear any relation to what the polls are telling us. The rise in people wanting a second referendum or who have changed their mind, that many polls have indicated in the last few months, seem to have been conducted somewhere else in the space-time continuum, if these vox pops are to be relied upon. But then again, polls are notoriously unreliable. Or, in the case of Boris Johnson, don’t actually exist. Still that story this week at least had the merit of confirming what we’ve all suspected anyway, that The Telegraph just makes stuff up. What’s breathtaking, even in these post -truth days, is their casual admission that it doesn’t matter if one of their “Star” columnists lies. According to them, Johnson was “entitled to make sweeping generalisations based on his opinions”. Or lie, in other words.

Just one example of a ridiculously loaded question arriving at the required result, was the recent poll where shedloads of people mysteriously said they’d like to have a “Strong leader”. That would be instead of a really weak and weedy leader, presumably. Amazing. It’s like giving people the choice of having a cup of coffee that tastes strongly of urine or a cup of really nice coffee. “Yes, I’ll have the piss coffee thanks.” No, I don’t think so.

These are just some of the nuggets of public opinion the vox pops have treated us to in the last few months:

“I hate the French. I’ve always hated the French”

“I thought when I voted out in 2016 that we’d just be out like the next day.”

“Why can’t they just get on with it?”

“The bloody politicians are just going against the will of the people. They are all traitors.”

“They’re talking about the European elections now. Ordinary people like us don’t know how any of that works. What have the European elections got to do with us?”

“We’re British. We’ll get through it. We used to have an Empire.”

Apologies for any inaccurate paraphrasing, but you get my drift. In my darkest moments, stuff like this awakens my hidden, dormant inner-fascist and I begin to think that participation in democracy should be contingent on the possession of at least two A levels, or equivalents. Even a BTEC would do. And then, after I’ve calmed down, that turns into a lament for the state of political education in the UK. Why are we so ignorant about our most basic political institutions and structures? Why don’t people know, with any degree of certainty, what the parties stand for, who they represent, their history? And without knowing that, is it any wonder that people vote in the same way as many people choose their horse in the Grand National. The name sounds good. Nice colours on the jockey’s silks. Democracy, it seems to me, is far too important to leave to chance like this.

We must include political education as a statutory part of the curriculum that applies to all schools, public and private, academy and local authority. It’s had a token presence in PSHE programmes, but that is just not good enough. And that’s not to demean the efforts of PSHE teachers over the years, many of whom do a great job. But too often it’s a task left to form tutors as an afterthought, and, as a result, it carries the very clear message that this stuff doesn’t really matter. It’s not important. But it does matter. And it’s not just important, it’s crucial to our commitment to an informed and active citizenry.

And so, there, I’ve done it. I’ve done what every charlatan Government minister does when there is a catastrophic failure of Government. I’ve blamed the teachers. This Brexit mess is all their fault. But don’t worry. By blaming the teachers, I have, brilliantly, identified the sure -fire solution, the strategy that is always used when the whingeing teachers are at fault. More Academies. So, how does that work, you ask? Dunno, it just does. Where’s the evidence, you childishly persist? Errr… there isn’t any. Phew! Brexit sorted.

Thought for the Day

A short story by The Old Grey Owl

“It’s ten to eight and time for Thought for the Day. The speaker from our Cambridge studio is…”

“A smug, patronising bastard,” continued Ollie automatically, his left hand flicking out to jab the mute button on the radio.

Some days, he added his own ending to the familiar link in his head. Other days, when he travelled to work with a tightening knot in his stomach, he voiced it. Saying it aloud, with a mannered delivery, added to the pleasure and invariably came accompanied by a wry smile of appreciation for his own wit. In the last couple of months, that had become a daily event.

He talked out loud regularly in the car on his journeys to and from work. He often thought that it was a good thing that the dashcam was a device only configured to look out at the other traffic, not in at the driver, but in his darker moods he thought that it was only a matter of time.

Playback of footage taken inside his car would reveal some uncomfortable truths. A man who would randomly shout at other drivers, pressed into action by a range of motoring misdemeanours: not indicating, driving too fast, driving too slow, straddling lanes. The M25 was a rich source of examples of this kind of incompetence, bad manners and stupidity.

The rest of his repertoire was not provoked by any activity outside of the car, but by the entertainment he had selected inside. Mealy-mouthed, vacuous Government Ministers, desperately straining to fill their allotted time by describing what was already known so that they could not be pressed to give a direct answer to the original question, drove him to fury. He would bang the dashboard and shout at the top of his voice, hurling foul-mouthed abuse at the blatant lies and distortions the disembodied voices were peddling. Favourite songs from the treasure trove of Spotify and Bluetooth inspired lusty singalongs, swaying and headshaking in time to the beat. Occasionally, in town streets, he would find himself intoning a Test Match Special type commentary, or shrieking a Match of the Day style soundbite as he described the antics of the people on the streets.

Outside the car, walking through a shopping centre, or pottering aimlessly at home, solitariness was always accompanied by silence. It was invariably a comfortable silence, a silence that fitted him snugly like a familiar pair of old trainers. So why the change whenever he got in his car and pulled away from the kerb?

The solid clunk of the driver door closing, the rolling pull of the seatbelt and the ensuing metallic click as the buckle engaged, all signified a retreat into a private, protected, invisible world. Despite the wrap around plate glass windows, it was if he were invisible once strapped in, in the same way that those who populated television screens were detached from the viewer in their front room. They were there, but not there at the same time. He imagined it was the same feeling of anonymity, of invisibility,  that internet trollers wallowed in. In the shadows, they were emboldened to spew vitriol and bile, confident that no-one would ever know who they were.

“Oh look, there’s another one,” he thought as he had to brake to accommodate the Nissan Micra that was serenely hogging the middle lane at fifty miles an hour. Too scared to mix it with the articulated lorries in the slow lane, relentlessly nose to tail from Prague to the Midlands, and resolutely refusing to contemplate the outside lane, where people actually broke the speed limit, the Micras of this world provoked the purest form of his fury.

“Moron!” he muttered at the windscreen, as he swerved around him, like a stream in flood surging around a rock in the middle of a river bed. He glanced back in the rear mirror as he pulled away from the Micra, just to check. Yes, there it was, another “Leave means Leave“ sticker, slightly obscuring the driver, squat, low down in his seat, flat cap seeming to float in the air above his head. He bellowed curses at Micraman, who just for that moment became the target for all of his frustrations with stupid Brexiteers and their little Englander small -mindedness. A little unfair, he knew. For all he could tell, Micraman might have principled, reasoned objections to the Europe that went beyond the outright xenophobic. And he would never voice this level of anger in the staffroom, where some people went quiet the second it came up as a topic of conversation. The only safe ground was to blame “the bloody politicians”, which everyone seemed to agree with. Everyone except him, that is. Blame the Government, certainly. But MPs? No, they were doing their jobs properly. If he saw one more bloody Vox pop on the news giving air time to someone saying, “They’re all the bloody same, that shower. I’m never going to vote again”, well, he didn’t know what he would do.

Still, the guy in the Micra couldn’t hear him, so he reasoned a foul -mouthed bellow at the rear-view mirror wouldn’t harm anyone and provided a healthy release for him. And God knows, he needed some kind of release at the moment. Particularly today. Another bloody lesson observation, another evening spent tweaking a lesson plan and polishing his PowerPoint, another troubled night’s sleep, worrying about whether he would get into school early enough to do the photocopying he really should have done on Friday. And to add yet more pressure, he’d been asked to bring in his identity documents because his DBS clearance had run out. That had been another forty -five minutes wasted the night before, ransacking filing cabinets in his study, trying to remember where he usually kept his passport, birth certificate and proof of address. Pressure, pressure, pressure.

He glanced up ahead. Shit. The signals that straddled the M25 blared their amber numbers. Just as he clocked the row of 50s, the car crested the brow of the hill and there laid out below him, in that familiar descent towards the Dartford crossing, was the beginnings of the banked -up lines of traffic, the red stop lights spreading back towards him like an incoming tide. He slowed, checked his rear-view mirror and indicated to move into the left-hand lane, ready to leave the motorway and join the A2. There was a grim satisfaction to be had from deftly slipping in between two gargantuan lorries, into a space barely big enough for that Micra he’d seen moments before. He smirked to himself. Micraman would need a space the size of three cricket pitches before he dared to change lanes. The smirk died on his lips almost as soon as it had formed, as the line of traffic he’d just joined slowed to walking pace and then stopped all together. The knot in his stomach tightened.

“Come on, come on,” he shouted at the windscreen, slapping the steering wheel and then gripping it white knuckled. He looked across at the car to his left and just caught a glimpse of the driver, a young blonde woman looking at him horrified, mouth agape. Their eyes met and she looked away, embarrassed. She began talking into her phone and her eyes flicked across at him a couple of times. His mouth set into a straight line. Now he was an object of fear and ridicule. How much worse could things get. The last time this had happened on the way to work, he had ended up sitting in traffic in this very spot for about two hours

He couldn’t be late. He couldn’t walk into his lesson without that photocopying. Maybe he could just explain and apologise and reschedule. “Sorry, dreadful traffic on the M25 this morning” Even just trying it out for size he knew what the response would be. Excuses were letting the kids down. They’ve only got one shot at their time at Secondary school. If you had any kind of moral purpose, you’d get up an hour earlier and make sure you got in on time. It’s not as if it’s a surprise, the traffic on the M25 being bad. His heart pounded against his chest and that familiar tightening behind his eyes began as his head started to throb.

Deep down, he knew that it wouldn’t make any difference anyway. He knew he was going to fail the observation. It was his third in a row after all, and according to their Performance Management protocols, it was three strikes and you’re out. Each one had come up with different reasons why his lesson was unsatisfactory. The first time he’d been baffled and then confused and then angry. It had never happened to him before. He’d always been a Good or Outstanding. He was so used to being good at his job, being the member of Senior Management who could hack it in the corridors and the classroom, the expert, the person that others sought out for advice or help. And now, suddenly, when he wasn’t that person anymore, he was adrift. He didn’t know who he was.

Back in the day, on the rare occasions when something went wrong, he would have talked it through with Helen. Her calm, rational reassurance would have made everything alright again, but now, since the divorce, he didn’t really talk to anyone, well, not about big stuff anyway. And so, he was left with the growing understanding that he was yesterday’s man, whose views on how to run schools and deal with “challenging” kids, were deemed old fashioned and unfit for purpose. He had, almost overnight, turned from being part of the solution, to being part of the problem.

And so, he knew that he could have spent all night perfecting his lesson plan, could have photocopied the entire contents of the schemes of work filing cabinet, could have slept overnight in his classroom to ensure he was there in time on Monday, and they would still have found a reason to fail him. And from there it was a matter of weeks to competency procedures, union representation and a hush-hush deal being offered to him to resign for a pittance.

This analysis was already there in the murky depths of his consciousness, fully formed, but it was only now, in the strange stillness of a choked and stationary M25, that it revealed itself to him and that he accepted it with a calm, zen like feeling of inevitability and release. The knot in his stomach eased slightly and the pounding behind his eyes relented. He would do his lesson, whenever he got into school and they could say what they liked. Just an ordinary lesson, one of those that over the years had generated hundreds and thousands of excellent exam results, one that he could churn out without spending hours of agonised preparation on. And then, what would be, would be.

The sun peeked through a sudden gap in the bank of clouds above, bathing the lines of cars in a warm, golden glow and he felt himself caressed by a gentle wave of relief. At exactly the same time the traffic began to move. It was not just one of those five-yard crawls that resulted in another forty minutes of stasis, it was proper, genuine movement. All around him, in cars, lorries and vans of all descriptions, drivers broke into smiles, tentative and hesitant at first but then as the traffic accelerated, broad and strong. Some even laughed out loud.

As Ollie pulled on to the A2, he couldn’t remember a time when he had felt happier. The birth of his children, perhaps? Meeting his wife? The surge of the traffic, blue sky above and bright sunshine all around kindled an almost alchemical reaction. Base metal had turned to gold, somehow, and his spirit soared. The silence in the car suddenly seemed at odds with this feeling of euphoria and his finger automatically jabbed out at the volume button.

He knew even before the first word reached his ears. Something in the tone, an uncomfortable agglomeration of vibrating air patterns, a dog whistle like scream, whatever it was, it announced itself to the world. Thought For The Fucking Day.

“…. and so, although Jesus exhorted us all to turn the other cheek, there are times when we must make a stand, no matter how uncomfortable that might be. We too, must be prepared to throw the money lenders out of the Temple and be prepared to face the consequences of our actions, no matter how daunting those consequences might be.”

His initial instinct to scream at the radio, so strongly embedded, suddenly faded as he listened to the words. He never listened to the words. He didn’t have to. Whatever it was, it would end up with some God or other telling all of the sinners to be nice. Comfort for the simple -minded, he always thought. But this morning of all mornings, the words caught somehow. The moneylenders in the Temple. He frowned and hit the mute button again before the pantomime of political debate started up again.

Looking up, he realised that he’d taken his eye off the ball and his exit was fast approaching. For some reason, maybe the volume of traffic that had build up on the M25, maybe the return to school of the Private school kids in their massive pretend off-road vehicles, the lane of traffic to his left was full. Full and fast. He indicated to move left and waited for a gap, or for someone to slow a little and let him in. His eyes flicked rapidly to rear view mirror, then side mirror and back again. Nothing.

“Come on, come on, come on. Let me in you bastards,” he muttered.

He looked ahead, checking the road ahead. It was then he noticed. Right in front of him, also signalling left and trying to squeeze into the exit lane, was Micraman.

“How the hell have you got there?” he wondered aloud.

Maybe it was a different Micra, he thought. But no, there was the “Leave means leave“ sticker, and there, bobbing up and down around it, was the flat cap. Unless Micras were always sold to aging Brexiteers, it was definitely him. And he was in some distress, if the behaviour of the car was anything to go by. It veered and wobbled alarmingly in the lane in front of him, and the flat cap was frantically moving left to right like a set of demented windscreen wipers. Framing the picture in his own windscreen was the traffic signal above, indicating the road options on the A2 after his exit. Canterbury. Car ferries. Ramsgate. Dover. The Channel Tunnel.

The road was running out for him to make his manoeuvre. He was going to have to go for it in the next couple of seconds, or he wouldn’t make it. The nose to tail lorries closed ranks, like roman centurions forming a shield wall. Suddenly, up in front of him, a tiny gap appeared and he prepared himself, clenching and unclenching his knuckles around the steering wheel. Just as he was about to dart into the gap, the Micra swerved at the last moment, and by a miracle, managed to insert himself in the chink they had left. Micraman had either had his eyes closed or had nerves of steel. The lorry at the back of the gap blared his horn, the driver’s hand jabbing down at it in fury, and there was an accompanying screech of brakes.

Ollie had watched the whole thing unfold in terrible slow motion. He instinctively flinched as the Micra jagged across the lanes, waiting for the impact that would surely follow, but apart from the horrible, accusing vibrato horn screaming, there was nothing but the smooth flow of traffic. The last thing he saw of the Micra, as it disappeared off to his left, was the sign in the rear window, “Leave means Leave”, being swallowed up by the chasing pack of lorries.

His own car sailed on down the A2, the signs for Dover, Ramsgate and The Channel Tunnel now a comforting reminder of where he was headed. He looked down at the passenger seat. The burgundy cover of his passport peeped out from underneath a folder of his documents, its gold lettering catching the sun pouring through the windscreen. “European Union. United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.

“Yes,” he thought, the beginnings of a smile playing across his lips, “Leave really does mean leave.”