Covid-19, Martial Law, and the Psychology of Panic Buying

A tale of panic buying from nearly forty years ago. My attempt to lift the spirits as we all contemplate lock down

Meticulous Government planning reveals benefits of being outside the EU

On Saturday morning I battled through a local Sainsburys the size of an aircraft hangar to do the weekly shop, expecting to find acres of empty space as the fear of contagion gripped the good burghers of Bromley, sending them scurrying to their online grocery accounts. No such luck. The shop was rammed with anxious shoppers doing a remake of supermarket sweep. For the second week in a row, the toilet paper aisle was stripped bare by the pillaging hordes, followed closely by the dried pasta aisle and the sanitiser and paracetamol sections. No-one seems remotely bothered about their cats or dogs, however, and the unspoken fear remains that eventually this crisis will end with everyone making spag bol from Pedigree Chum. Without the spag.

As I prepare for an extended period of self-isolation (previously known as “getting old”) my mind has wandered back in time to an earlier period in my life, when I encountered the full range of panic buying experiences, and learned something invaluable about the standard human response to moments lived in extremis. The year, gentle reader, was 1981, and I found myself living Spain in an early version of the gap year. Back then, this was simply a way for wasters to put off clambering onto the mortgage treadmill. Having greatly enjoyed three years at York University, an educative holiday generously funded at the taxpayer’s expense, I was searching for an innovative means of extending this period of investigative scholarship. I had dipped my toe into the waters of full-time paid work and, to be honest, it was not to my taste. It was certainly not what my years of training had prepared me for.

Thankfully, existential crisis was averted when an old school friend, who had spent the previous year doing TEFL in Madrid, contacted me and suggested I go out to Spain to play. And so it was that in the late summer of 1980 we found ourselves in Valencia looking for English teaching jobs. I had no experience, no training and not much idea. My friend had at least done it before, but that was the extent of his advantage. What we did have on our side, however, was luck and good timing, historically speaking. We were both English graduates in Spain at a time when the TEFL industry was, to put it mildly, a bit of a cowboy operation. We were, to our surprise, snapped up and began life as teachers at the Global School of Languages, under the guidance of proprietor Senor Petit, a huge French Algerian man of prodigious appetites and precarious finances.

Valencia before Social Distancing

He was a true eccentric who constantly surprised. (not least in his approach to the regular payment of salary owed) He would at intervals arrive at the office dressed in full, traditional Arab robes and head dress, complete with mirror shades and would wander in and out of lessons, much to the delight of the little old well-to-do Spanish ladies who made up the bulk of the clientele. At least once  a week, during quiet moments he would announce to the group of young English lads that worked there, “Muchachos, vamos a jugar” and he would take us all down to the bar in the street and pay for all the drinks while we did a Space Invaders tournament. We literally never knew what to expect from him, from one day to the next, and forgave him many missed or late payments because he was rather fun. It might have been different of course if we had had families and responsibilities, but we were, to a man (and it was all men) feckless wasters, so it all seemed part of a glorious adventure.

And then, one afternoon of a pretty slow day “teaching” a group of IBM business men (how he had secured this extremely prestigious contract with IBM was baffling to us all and was never satisfactorily explained) the door swung violently open and Senor Petit burst into the room.  

“Everyone out! There’s been a coup d’etat. Go home. There’s an announcement due. The army are out on the streets!”

We all, teacher and students, looked at each other and after a pause, burst out laughing. That Senor Petit, eh? What a card! Always the joker.

He looked baffled at our reaction. “No, no, I’m serious. There’s been a coup in Parliament. Everywhere is closing. You’ve all got to go. Now.”

Eventually the penny dropped and we all realised he meant it. Spain was in the first flush of democracy after surviving under the jackboot of the fascism of General Franco (or General Francissimo, as our Spanish chums  rather disrespectfully called him) and a few disgruntled members of the old Guard, under the leadership of a ridiculous character, Lieutenant Tejero, had marched into Parliament , fired a few shots and declared a military coup. For a local point of comparison, imagine Mark Francois doing the same thing in Westminster to “save” Brexit. Francois is actually more likely to shoot himself in the foot, but you get my point. It was serious and there was mass panic, with no-one knowing what side the King of Spain, Juan Carlos, would come down on: Democracy or Military rule.

I did my usual walk home, several hours earlier than normal, through the centre of Valencia. The streets were absolutely packed and you could feel the atmosphere – a strange mixture of fear, excitement and shock. Just about everyone was scurrying through the streets with small transistor radios jammed up against their ears, desperate for the latest news. The local newspaper was published every two hours and the whole thing felt like being in a film. You know the sort of thing: brave, principled British journalist in a far-flung former colony, caught up in a military coup carried out by brutal extremists. Said journo risks life to get the truth out, while getting involved in a liberal, caring way with local little-person campaigners, with a bit of love interest thrown in. Local colour is dispensable as far as the plot is concerned and a couple of those characters die, including, tragically, the love interest, despite the heroic best efforts of plucky liberal journalist. Brit journalist returns to Blighty at the end of the film a sadder and a wiser man. That, of course, was the scenario I was running through my head on my fevered walk back to my flat. It was tremendously exciting, not least because at the back of my mind I was pretty certain that, as a Brit, I was safe because there were certain rules about this sort of thing. As I was to discover later, it was an entirely different scenario for most of my Spanish friends, all card-carrying members of the Spanish Socialist party. More of that later.

I noticed, as I dodged the crowds and weaved in and out of the traffic that was choking the city streets, that lots of people were struggling with heavy bags of shopping, and that at several shops I passed, queues had formed which snaked out of the doorway and down the street. I did a double take, a bit baffled that now of all times, people would choose to do their shopping, but then I realised what was going on. They were panic buying. The news on the radio was sufficiently apocalyptic to ensure that everyone feared the worst. Good news was in short supply and the best response to this unprecedented situation was to assume that we would be holed up at home for days and that food was likely to run out.

By the time I had worked this out I was nearly back at my flat, away from the main drag, in the splendidly seedy streets of Barrio Carmen, a neighbourhood of prostitutes, drug takers, revolutionaries, artists and ne’er-do-wells. Blindfold, one could always tell when one had arrived back in those familiar alleys because of the smell: a heady cocktail of sewers, garlic and marijuana, a smell redolent of adventure and contagion.  Of Risk.

My flat was in a crumbling four story tenement block arranged with several others around a tiny plaza in the middle of Carmen. It was litter strewn and daubed with graffiti, but the shabbiness was brilliantly illuminated by a neon purple Bougainvillea that clung to the wall of the block opposite. I use the word “plaza”  loosely. It was in fact the tiny bit of space created when, to steal from Charles Dickens, the surrounding blocks leaped apart out their conspiratorial huddle when disturbed by members of the Guardia Civil. One block went off to help the police with their enquiries and the others hung back a little smoking a Ducados and looking a bit shifty. That was the Plaza where my flat was situated.

El Barrio Carmen, gentrified

But there was one notable oasis in this desert – a tiny shop in the next block from us. It was the human equivalent of the Bougainvillea. Milagritos it was known as. “Little Miracles”, so called because its cramped interior was crammed with every conceivable item of Spanish food and wine known to man. Just before going up to my flat I popped in there expecting to have to wait patently in a queue, but the inhabitants of Plaza Lowlife were a little more laidback than their mainstream contemporaries. It would take more than a military coup to get them to lengthen their stride. The shop was empty and I was able to casually select some choice delicacies: Several plump chorizos, beans, tuna, fruit salad, bread, coffee, two cartons of UHT milk and a ridiculously cheap bottle of Rioja.

The toothless owner grinned and cackled at me, “Eh, Chico, has ganada el Gordo, no?”, the sentence delivered with her Ducados precariously balanced in the corner of her mouth, its familiar, pungent black-tobacco smoke contributing to the curing of the Serrano hams that hung from the yellowing ceiling. “El Gordo”, or “The Fat One” was the big Spanish lottery rollover. She was clearly surprised to see me buying anything more substantial than a baguette and a hunk of cheese. I smiled, and staggered out of the shop with my bags cradled in both arms, struggling with the door while trying to keep everything balanced and secure.

I crashed into the flat, the door swinging on its hinges as I made it to the kitchen table, lunging the last couple of steps so that the bags spilled their contents out onto the bleached and scarred wooden surface. Just as I did so, there came a voice from behind me.

“Hey, you beat me to it. You been shopping as well? What did you get?”

It was Alan, my flatmate and general partner in crime. He was equally laden as I had been, two bulging brown paper bags in his arms. I proudly itemised my purchases one by one as I laid them out on the table. It was an impressive haul. We could survive a siege with the supplies arrayed on the table.

“Not bad,“ conceded Alan, grudgingly, “Not bad at all. Well done that man. We’ll not starve at any rate.”

“Yeah, it’ll do for a bit of panic buying, “ I replied, feeling rather pleased with myself. “What did you get?”

Alan smiled, knowingly, and placed his bags on the table.

“No panic buying for me, old boy. Mine are carefully considered essential supplies” And with that he emptied the bags.

Four hundred cigarettes, premium Ducados of course, three bottles of Scotch and three bottles of Larios Gin.

“Man cannot live by bread alone,” he explained, catching my wide-eyed reception of his shopping expedition, “Especially when one is living through the eye of the storm of History.”

He smiled, evidently pleased with his preparations, and then a frown passed across his face, like a cloud. “Oh, nearly forgot.” He fumbled in the pockets of his jacket and extricated two bottles of San Miguel, opened them and passed one over to me.

“Cheers” he said as we clinked bottles, “It’s gonna be a long night.”

And it was. He was right about that and right about his emergency supplies compared to mine. So, please, don’t stockpile toilet paper and paracetamol, stockpile alcohol and books. It was a long, long night full of extraordinary adventures that seem barely credible now, nearly forty years later here in mainstream Europe. Part two will follow, as my contribution to keeping spirits up during this Coronovirus nightmare. I have a terrible feeling that I’m going to have to do parts 3 , 4 and more because this thing is going to get worse. Keep safe everyone and best of luck.

Readers’ reactions to “Zero Tolerance”

My new novel, “Zero Tolerance”, was published on February 28th and so far the response has been fantastic. The book is a satirical look at the state of secondary schools in the UK in 2020, and casts a critical eye on trends in management, leadership and teaching. Here are a few of the early reactions from readers:

“Loved, loved, loved this book by The Old Grey Owl”

“Barry Pugh is a creation of comic genius”

“I couldn’t put it down”

“Funny, sad and maddening. Satirical, but very close to the bone.”

If you care about schools, children and teaching, please spread the word about the book by passing on the links and retweeting. All feedback welcome! You can buy the book at the links below:

https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/contemporary/zero-tolerance/

e-book and overseas readers

Silent Corridors, Still Lives

An extract from “Zero Tolerance” by The Old Grey Owl, available from https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/contemporary/zero-tolerance/ and for Overseas readers, from https://t.co/DzFZBP7ElE?amp=1

Learning, Fifties style

To help little Gavin Williamson, the UK Secretary of State for Education out, I’ve reproduced an extract here from my new novel, “Zero Tolerance”. He’s clearly been badly advised on schools and behaviour policies by that nasty Mr Cummings and needs some alternative advice. Because the book is 400 pages long and has a lot of long words in it, I’ve produced this particular scene that deals with the behaviour policy of silent corridors specifically for Gavin. Gavin, if you ask him nicely, I’m sure Dominic will read it to you when he tucks you up in bed tonight

He strode out into the middle of the corridor, where it widened out to accommodate traffic from four tributaries, and checked his watch, walkie talkie in one hand and a letter in the other. The silence was broken by the shrill tones of the bell, and the doors opposite him and further down the corridor opened, spilling students of all shapes, ages and sizes into the thoroughfare. Soon, it was a raging torrent, a white water surge of kids and he stood in the middle of the corridor where he had a sight of all four corridors that led into this larger space. He was like a huge rock in the middle of spring meltwater. At six foot four, he towered above the rapids careering past him, kids on their way to their next lesson.

“Oi, don’t do that you chief….”

*

“Where’s English this year?”

“We’re out in the huts, I think.”

“Ah man, it’ll be freezing out there come December….”

*

“Kelly! Kelly! Wait up…..”

*

“Eh, did you see Eastenders last night?”

“It’s lame, man…”

*

“You done your Science homework, Deepak?”

“It’s not for today, is it?

“Yeah, man.”

“Oh, nah. I thought he said Friday.”

*

“Is your Mum alright then?”

“She’s gotta go hospital today, so I dunno. I’m waitin’ for a message.”

*

“Love those Vans, man. Seriously. Has no-one seen you wearing ’em yet?”

*

“It’s Messi, obviously bruv.”

“Messi? Don’t be weird. He can’t head the ball, man. Ronaldo is the king…”

*

“You goin’ rehearsal after school?”

“Nah, forgot my cello, innit.”

“Sir’ll let you lend his, betcha.”

“Borrow. It’s borrow.”

“Uh?”

*

“I jus’ don’t get why Trump was voted in. Pussy grabber.”

“Terrible hair, as well. It’s like a flap or something.”

“I swear it’s like a wig, you know.”

*

“Have you read it? Its brilliant. Like Harry Potter, but cooler.”

You got it then?”

“Yeah, I’ll lend it you if you like.”

“Will ya? Brilliant. Bring it tomorrow, yeah?”

*

“Remember, Miss said she was gonna blow something up in the lesson today.”

“Oh, yeah. Come on then..”

*

“I reckon Miss is havin’ a baby y’ know.”

“Nah, she’s just got a bit fat.”

“I’m tellin’ you. She’s pregnant. I reckon it was Mr Brooks, as well..”

*

“Come on, Darlene, our group is goin’ first. We gotta get the scripts and everything..”

“Yeah, man, whatever.”

“Darlene, come on, it’s important.”

*

Far above the tide of humanity that swept past him, he bellowed his usual litany of instructions, exhortations and threats, and took his part in the regular conversations that the children attempted, always returning to the key message: Get to your lesson quickly.

And then, almost as quickly as it had sprung up, the surge died down to a trickle and then eventually the riverbed was dry, with just the odd straggler to chivvy along. At this time of year, it tended to be small, bewildered Year seven kids, bent double under their new school bags that seemed bigger than them, blinking around, desperately trying to locate room B26 without looking like a loser or in any way drawing attention to themselves. Satisfied that the changeover had been successfully managed, he turned to the letter in his hand and it read it again. He had read it so many timed he would have been able to recite it if asked. The message it contained was not improving with repetition

Dear Parent, Carer or Guardian,

I am writing to you to inform you of a change to our behaviour policy that will come into effect from next Monday, September 10th.

Building on the remarkable success of last year, when the new leadership of the school transformed the behaviour of students in lessons, we are now planning to turn our attention to behaviour in the corridors. Last year a lot of learning time was lost by students arriving late for lessons or, when they did arrive, causing disruption by their unruly, noisy and boisterous behaviour. To prevent this lost of focus during lesson changeover, we are introducing a new system where students will be required to walk in single file on the right hand side of the corridor in silence. This will ensure that they arrive at their next lesson on time and in the correct frame of mind to begin learning at once.

To make sure that this new policy works from the beginning, all staff have been instructed to be in the corridors between lessons. Any student who breaks this new rule, either by talking, running or by not being in single file, will be given a same day detention of one hour. Students committing the same offence again will be placed in the internal inclusion room for two days in the first instance. Further infringements will result in Saturday detentions and exclusions.

I am sure I can count on your support as we continue to transform Fairfield High School into the best school in the area, a school of real excellence. In parallel with this development I would also like to announce a change to lunchtime arrangements. Lunch will now be taken in the dining Hall in Form groups, supervised by Form Tutors. Form tutors will lead their form through structured discussion of topical issues taken from the day’s newspapers. This practice, common in many Private schools, will teach Fairfield students how to interact in a calm and quiet manner at mealtimes and will also train them to take part in civilized debate about current issues.

Both of these measures have been implemented in several schools across London, run by the most inspirational and impressive young Headteachers who are prepared to think out of the box and challenge the way things have always been done. These early pioneers have been very successful, and some of the most challenging schools in London have been transformed, attracting the attention of ambitious and forward- thinking educationalists across the world. In following a similar path, Fairfield High is blazing a trail and challenging the sloppy approaches to Education that have held us back for far too long. One day, all schools will be adopting these methods, and they will be trying to catch up with us, not the other way round.

Remember, the next stage of our transformation starts on Monday September 10th.

Yours sincerely

Camilla Everson

Headteacher

He looked around the empty echoing corridor and thought of the energy and vitality and community of just a few moments before. All human life had been there, good and bad, and now it was to be crushed. Stamped on. Excised. He shook his head and, screwing up the letter in his hand into a tight ball, set off for his office. With every step, he recalled the incandescent fury he had unleashed at the Senior Leadership meeting the day before. His policy of withdrawing from comment, of keeping his head down and just getting on with the job had disappeared the minute he had sat through the first of the assemblies that Camilla had called to introduce the new policy.

By the time Rick had walked into the Senior Leadership meeting at the end of the afternoon, he was a coiled spring of outrage. He had spent the day stoking the fires of his opposition, heaping fuel on the fire by seeking out like -minded people to chew it over with. If only Avril had still been there. There was no way she would have taken this lying down.

He took his seat and a second later Camilla arrived.

“Well, good afternoon everyone, if we can get straight down to business. I’ve got another meeting to go to after this, so we need to be quick. Item one on the agenda is..”

She wasn’t able to tell everyone what exactly item one was. Rick interrupted her. There were horrified glances around the table and the sound of hell freezing over.

“No, Camilla, we can’t get straight down to business actually.”

She stared at him, an eyebrow raised.

“What on earth do you mean Rick?” she said, a tone of menace in her voice.

“You can’t seriously expect us to just sit here and discuss paperclips when you’ve just announced an utterly monstrous change to our behaviour policy without any consultation whatsoever.”

“I can and, what’s more, I do, actually,” she replied. “What you describe as a monstrous change is seen by the silent majority as common sense. What’s wrong with being the adults in the room and imposing silence on unruly kids? What’s so marvellous about allowing pupils to run amok in the corridors, so that they burst into lessons late, loud and disruptive?”

“Run amok? My God Camilla, what’s wrong with you? Why on earth did you become teacher in the first place if you hate children so much? You can’t stand them being human beings and talking to each other, can you? Or the staff either, come to think of it. Yes, it’s messy and a bit ragged at the edges, and you are not in complete control of it, but that’s life. You can’t control everything.”

“Oh, you’re such a cliché Rick. A bleeding heart Guardian reading liberal. ‘The poor children, how can we be so mean to them?’ Get a grip, for goodness sake, it’s embarrassing listening to you. This will deliver better results for the children because they’ll learn more. That’s what they need, tough love. It’s a hard world out there, and they need to be ready for it. We have to prepare them.”

“Prepare them?! What sort of world do you think this is preparing them for, exactly? Which profession or employer wants its workers to move around the building in silence? Not the prison service. Not the Army. Are we training everyone to take Holy orders with the Trappist monks? Have you heard of the Human Rights Act? Or is that being a big wuss as well? Did you read George Orwell at school? Did you ever stop to …”

“Enough!” Camilla screamed at him, her face contorted in reddening fury, “That’s enough. How dare you question my decisions in such an offensive manner.”

She banged the table with such force that their cups rattled. All the other members of the team looked down with set faces at their paperwork, and fiddled nervously with their pens.

Camilla, liberated by her unusual loss of control, carried on.

“When I took over this school, it was a madhouse. The children were rude, ill-disciplined and scruffy. The staff weren’t much better. And now, after a lot of hard work, in the teeth of opposition from dinosaurs like yourself, someone who’s more like a union rep than a Deputy Head, the school is a place of order and calm.”

“The school is a place of fear, and repression and bullying. And all you’ve done is got rid of the kids with the most challenging needs.”

“Be quiet. Nobody has the right to disrupt the learning of others.”

“No-one except you, apparently,“ Rick snapped back

“I make absolutely no apologies for insisting on a scholastic atmosphere in this school.”

She carried on in the same vein but Rick switched off at the ‘no apologies’ line. In his experience, any authority figure , a school leader or a politician, who used the phrase, “I make no apologies for..” were inevitably going to justify some appallingly draconian change. He imagined that petty dictators throughout history had done the same. “I make no apologies for………” (insert the example of historic abuse of human rights of your choice) Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin – any of them would have appealed to common sense of their victims and the commentariat in the same way.

To read more, why not buy the book. “Zero Tolerance” is available from the links below

https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/contemporary/zero-tolerance/

Overseas buyers should use the following link:

https://t.co/DzFZBP7ElE?amp=1

Or you could just go to the opening post on my blog:

www.growl.blog

Zero Tolerance – Out Now!

“This is a novel that should be read by anyone who works in education or cares about our schools..”

Please use the link below to buy the book:

Buy Zero Tolerance now!

Please note: Readers outside the UK should use the Amazon link and save themselves some money on postage. Overseas Readers

My first published novel, “Zero Tolerance” is out now and available from Matador books. I have no idea how good it is, I’m far too close to it for that. Previous experience teaches me that I’m an unreliable witness as far as that kind of judgement is concerned. One thing I am certain of, though, is this. The book deliberately takes a particular view of recent developments in school leadership and management practices, accompanied by changing fashions in pedagogy and curriculum. Readers will either agree enthusiastically or they will be enraged that the new orthodoxy (Zero Tolerance behaviour management approaches, Direct Instruction, Knowledge Rich Curricula, Academies and Free schools) is being called in to question. But being outraged can be very entertaining and it is deliberately intended to provoke debate. Some things in the book, however, are not open to debate and just need to be called out: the corruption, bullying and unethical behaviour that continue to spread through our schools. There is no ideology that can justify that. Much of this behaviour is located in the Academies programme and the Free Schools movement, a monumental waste of resources chasing ideology over evidence to my mind. Having said that, there are good academies, staffed by genuine, talented people, and I don’t mean to offend anyone trying to do the right thing by our pupils.

All human life is here. And some not quite so human……

Goodness, it sounds terribly dull, doesn’t it? But all of that stuff above lurks under the surface of the book. It is, primarily, a good story, I hope. A funny story with engaging characters and situations that anyone who has been in a school in the last ten years will recognise. A story that will make you laugh and cry and think. I’ve spent a long time working on it and a not inconsiderable sum of money to self-publish it, and it would be nice to cover my costs at least.

So, with that in mind, let me make this appeal to you. Please

  1. Buy the book, and, if you like it:
  2. Leave a review
  3. Share the link with friends and colleagues
  4. If you’re in a book club suggest that this is your next read
  5. If you’re a teacher, do a whole staff email in your school with links to the book
  6. Follow my blog and Twitter feed
  7. Retweet your enthusiasm for it, with a link of course

If you don’t like it, just miss out step 2 above!

I would be interested in constructive criticism, as long as you remember this is the first novel I’ve published, so be gentle. I’ve put this out there, not for world domination or ego-massage, but out of a commitment to ethical practices in schools for the benefit of pupils and staff. It’s self-published under my pseudonym, on the advice of my union, because I am currently labouring under a non-disclosure agreement – another piece of malpractice that is spreading insidiously through the Academies programme.

Finally, let me just say, I am more than a little nervous. I really do hope that you enjoy the book.

Lose the Booths?

The Isolation Room in StalagLuft III runs out of A4 lined paper again

In the light of the forthcoming conference, Lose the Booths, and the fact that the issue has recently made headlines in the national media, I thought it was worth revisiting an earlier blog on the topic, as someone who still works in schools, albeit at a lowly, part-time level now, but who was once a Deputy Head helping to implement a system of enlightened withdrawal from classes. So, here goes….

I’ve followed the recent debate on the use of isolation rooms in schools with some interest. It seems to have divided opinion, with a vociferous group condemning their use matched by an equally passionate opposition who take the view that staff and students need to be protected from the disruption to teaching and learning that poor behaviour usually brings. I wonder if the two sides are as implacably opposed as they appear.

At the last school I worked in as a Deputy Head, a school that could reasonably be labelled “challenging”, the isolation room was an essential component of our behaviour management strategy. We called it “Inclusion” to try and signal that students were placed there as an alternative to exclusion. We were actively trying to keep them in school. When I first arrived at the school the room exhibited all the very worst characteristics of an isolation room. It was staffed by a motley collection of odds and sods, who just happened to be free at that time (including NQTs!). It was in a tiny room with a handful of graffiti -covered desks, no window, no computer and, most of the time no books, paper or equipment. Some students were placed there for days at a time. Some students placed themselves there, to escape lessons and to meet their mates for a bit of R and R.

We appointed a behaviour specialist to run it, moved it to a large, airy, well stocked room and linked it to the SEN department. Over the years it was staffed by outstanding individuals, most of them not teachers, whose skill and dedication brought about genuine and positive changes for many damaged students. We had exciting plans for its development. We intended to link it to SEN formally and have two distinct wings: a temporary short- term penal institution with strictly enforced rules and a work programme that mirrored the classes they had been removed from. The second wing was for an alternative curriculum provision for groups of up to fifteen students. This could be for a month. It had specialist subject teachers attached to it as part of their timetable and we devised therapeutic programmes with counsellors and specialists to help these students address and confront some of their issues.  The aim was for them to be readmitted to the mainstream at the end of their programme. It took a lot of negotiating and planning to set it up, but finally we were ready to implement the new system.

And then, after dodging the austerity bullet for several years, we couldn’t avoid it any longer and we had to cut. We could not afford to set it up as we had planned. It stayed as it was, still doing stirling work. And then we had to cut again. And again. And make the brilliant, skilful staff redundant, or move them out of behaviour provision and into delivering mainstream classes. By the time I left, it was just about functioning as a sinbin. And it could have been so much more than that.

Isolation, inclusion, whatever you want to call it, is necessary. The option of removal of a student from class has to exist, for the good of everyone concerned. But it can only be justified if it fits some kind of model similar to the one described above. And, no matter what the apologists say, its blindingly obvious that too many versions of withdrawal, in schools across the country, do not match up to this model of best practice. And every system that condemns challenging students to harsh, isolated, punitive supervision regimes, without proper access to expert teaching and appropriate curriculum, brings all withdrawal systems into disrepute.

There were staff at my school during this implementation described above, who completely misunderstood the purpose of Inclusion. For them it was one of a range of punishments, alongside detentions, exclusions, meetings with parents and governors. These people would openly advocate removing students from classes for days at a time and they didn’t much care what they did when they were banged up. The idea that removal was not a punishment, but a measure intended to protect the class they had come from, and an opportunity to flag up a student with issues and actually do some therapeutic work with them, was anathema to them. In their eyes, these kids had forfeited any right to teaching and learning and needed to be got rid of. They could only understand the internal aspect of this kind of removal as a necessary evil in terms of protecting the school from the consequences of racking up too many exclusions.

Looking back, it seems clear to me that isolation rooms, or whatever you choose to call them, only work if they are properly staffed and resourced and if there is a commitment to work with the students in there, rather than simply getting them to copy in silence, the educational equivalent of solitary confinement. Even Steve McQueen had a baseball and a glove. That was the trouble with those Prisoner of War camps. They just weren’t tough enough. Students should not be left in there for days on end, and neither should staff, unless that is their interest in terms of their career development. The trouble is, I suspect this controversy stems from the fact that the tough, zero tolerance devotees amongst headteachers will not see a problem with solitary confinement.

This is a new breed of ambitious senior leaders – openly contemptuous of ideas of rehabilitation or restorative justice, with no regard for the nuance, flexibility or judgement essential to the successful operation of social organisations like school. In their eyes, these are the ideas of a discredited liberal progressive establishment, and they want nothing to do with them. Populist, common sense ideas that can be badged with a slogan of not more than three words is what they want. It seems to me that children, whether they are complying with the school or not, deserve more than that.

There are very few educational ideas that are intrinsically good or bad in themselves. A rubbish Senior Leadership, that hasn’t read the “How to be an emotionally intelligent human” manual, can poison the most enlightened, liberal initiative. Just as an example, I used to work in a school that completely ruined Charity MUFTI days. The kids were asked to donate a pound for the privilege of wearing their own clothes for the day, with all proceeds going to the charity they had chosen. Pretty standard practice, huh? And this, believe it or not, turned into smiling, happy kids being confronted by stern faced suits at the school entrance, making them wait silently in line while they handed over their “donation”. And, of course, some of them were from families that didn’t have two pennies to rub together, never mind a pound. At a stroke, charitable engagement turned into a Sheriff of Nottingham type tax grab and the day started with a sour confrontation.

If they can’t even get that right, I certainly wouldn’t trust them to run an isolation room.

Little Women and The View From The Great North Wood

Little Women

Directed by Greta Gerwig

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Timothee Chalamet

Running time: 2hrs 15m

Rating:PG

The 1994 film of Little Women, starring Winona Rider, Christian Bale and Clare Danes was a really big deal in my house when our kids were growing up. We watched it avidly and regularly, revelling in the glorious snowy scenes in New England, and loving the early feminist role model of the completely splendid Jo March. It still means a huge amount to my children now, so when we proposed this as one of our Christmas family cultural outings, now that all four of us are fully fledged adults, there was more than a little trepidation that it wouldn’t measure up to the earlier version, wrapped, as it had become, in our own family mythology.

We needn’t have worried. We left the cinema two and a half hours later, buoyed by the wonderful experience we had just had. The world seemed a nobler, kinder, more splendid place than it had when we had stepped into the darkness earlier in the evening. Gerwig makes a bold decision with the structure of the plot, interleaving the later parts if the novel with the first half, and for the most part it works, showing us explicitly the adults the younger girls would become and the different ways they dealt with the realities of the adult world as women. Or not become in the case of Beth, whose tragedy would melt the heart of the Scroogiest of us, familiar though her part of the story is. On one or two occasions the structural leaps created a slightly furrowed brow as we had to focus to be certain which time frame a particular scene was in, but working hard in the cinema is no bad thing. I like a film that makes demands on its audience.

The other controversy was the casting of Louis Garrel as Friedrich Bhaer. Bhaer is explicitly old and unattractively foreign in the book. His appeal is in his refreshing attitude to Jo as a person and an artist. Here he is an altogether hunkier presence than Louisa May Alcott probably envisaged and although one can bemoan the superficiality of our celebrity airbrushed age, the movie does have to shift tickets and I for one can get behind the idea that bookish, unconventional, geeky types end up with the hot actor, as if it happens all the time. Which it doesn’t.

Ronan is wonderful as Jo, but then Jo is such a magnificent creation that anyone could seem impressive playing her. Anyone plucked from the pages of Hello magazine and dropped into the role would seem like a gritty feminist icon. (you can tell I’m too scared to name someone for fear of revealing my absolute ignorance of contemporary popular trash culture. I leave that to you.) The real revelation is Florence Pugh who, with Gerwig’s sure touch, transforms Amy March into a complex and sympathetic character, negotiating her passage through a man’s world without apology. Gerwig handles the contractual and financial nature of marriage for women explicitly, illuminating the relationships of the characters and the dilemmas faced by Alcott herself when trying to get published in 1860s New York.

It’s a wonderful film. Go and see it while it’s still showing. And when you do, wonder for a moment how on earth Gerwig was not nominated for an Oscar. It would have been enough to drive Alcott herself mad.