The School Prom, part 1

An extract from “Zero Tolerance” by The Old Grey Owl

Rick, Deputy Head at Fairfield High School, is the senior member of staff on duty at the annual leavers’ Prom. It’s a hot summer’s evening and resentment runs high over the Zero Tolerance regime instituted by the new Head, Camilla Everson.

Rick looked at his watch again. It was seven thirty, the official start time and still there was no sign of any guests approaching. There were a few knots of teachers standing outside, all in their finest party outfits, apart from those, like Rick, who had had to go there straight from school. Kevin, had, as usual been assigned official photographer status, and his tuxedo and Dickie-bow combination, was completed by a camera with a huge zoom lens. It was a serious bit of kit and Kevin spent his time in between chatting to some of the other teachers, fiddling with knobs and dials. He also took the opportunity, every year, to limber up by taking photos of the staff, singly and in groups, wearing their glad rags in front of the shabbily impressive Longdon Park, an eighteenth century mansion in acres of countryside that had been used as the venue for the Prom for as long as anyone could remember.

Rick paced to the bend in the drive, his shoes crunching pleasingly on the gravel, so that he could get an extended view of the long sweep to the main road. Nothing. He turned and retraced his steps, checking his watch again as he went. It was a beautiful early July evening, warm and sultry, with the scent of honeysuckle heavy on the air. Everything was set for a fitting send off for the Year 11 students, but the nervous shifting from foot to foot, the glances down the drive, and the stilted conversations spoke of anxiety. This was not like any of the other Prom celebrations any of them had ever attended.

In the previous week the school had been alive with rumours: Camilla had cancelled it. Only forty tickets had been sold. Social Media was facilitating a planned storming of the Bastille by the disaffected and dispossessed. In Camilla’s new Fairfield there were many members of both groups. There was even a rumour that had surfaced only the day before, that those students who had  bought tickets, were planning on boycotting at the last moment and had hired a club in town, where alcohol and other stimulants could be ingested.

Rick had considered that the boycott was a realistic proposition and that it had been avoided by the final rumour that had sprung up on Thursday, that Camilla, breaking over thirty years of tradition, was not going to attend. As he himself knew, that rumour was firmly rooted in the truth, and he had made a good job of ensuring the news got around the students.

He thought back to Monday of that week and his surprise at being summoned to Camilla’s office. Was she finally going to spring a trumped up disciplinary on him? Alastair’s protection could only last so long. He steeled himself, knocked on her door and went in.

“You wanted to see me?” he began. She was sitting at her desk, hand on mouse, and he just caught a glimpse of the familiar orange of the EasyJet site before she minimised it.

She looked up. “Ah yes, Rick. Come in.”

Rick hovered just inside the door. She rarely invited him to sit down.

“I won’t keep you long.”

That was the phrase she used when she meant “Don’t sit down”

He stood in front of her desk, like a naughty student about to be told off.

“I assume that you are going to the Prom on Friday?”

“Yes,” he replied, “I always do.”

“Good, I thought so. I just wanted to make sure that you know I’m expecting you to stay for the duration and make sure that everyone has left the site.”

“So, you won’t be there, I take it?” Rick asked the question in his most innocent voice.

Her eyes flicked left and right. “No, I have another meeting that night.”

“Bollocks you have,” thought Rick, “A meeting with a bottle of red in an expensive restaurant more like.”

He smiled at her. “I suppose you’ve heard the rumours that there is going to be trouble? Students you excluded and banned coming en-masse to gate crash?”

She bristled. “Oh, I’m sure that’s all just talk. But just in case, I need you to be there for the whole event please. You have a, ….er.., good relationship with the students, even the feral ones, and it’s about time it actually came in useful.”

“Will O’Malley be there?”

“Patrick? Yes Patrick will be there. Well, at least at the beginning.”

“Yes,” thought Rick, “someone else who is wetting himself at the prospect of meeting a group of kids he’s bullied and brutalised all year.”

He contented himself with a thin smile. “Fine. So, was there anything else?”

She thought for a moment and then finally took the plunge.

“Have you heard anything about this Rick? What do you think are the chances of there being trouble? We must avoid any bad press in the Advertiser. Alastair is still exercised about the last front page.”

He considered the question. He knew the answer, he just wanted to make her sweat a little.

“I think it’s highly likely. There are a lot of students, past and present, who hate your guts. Lot of staff too, but at least you can be fairly confident that they won’t burn the building down. Well, most of them. Just saying.”

A look of pure hatred tinged with fury took possession of her face.

“How dare you? Don’t you think I deserve some support from my Deputy?”

“Calm down Camilla. I’m not saying that’s what I think, I’m simply reporting what other people think.”

“And what do you think?”

“Oh,” he said, making for the door, “I couldn’t possibly comment on that. I’ll be there Friday.”

He closed the door behind him and walked down the corridors to his office with a spring in his step. He had rather enjoyed that.

And so here he was, spending a precious Friday night on duty, expecting trouble. He sidled over to Kevin, who had taken as many photographs as he could of the staff and was now standing in the shade so he could flick through the thumbnails to check them out.

“So, Kev, do you think anyone’s coming tonight?” he asked.

Kevin looked up from his camera. “Yeah, I do actually.”

“How come you’re so confident? They’re leaving it a bit late, aren’t they?”

“Look,” he said, jerking his head in the direction of the road.

Rick turned around. There, sweeping round the bend, was the first stretch limo of the evening. Kevin got himself into position with the camera and the car crunched to a halt outside the entrance. The doors opened and eight young people, four girls and four boys, self-consciously unfolded themselves from the limo. They were in strict regulation prom outfits. The girls tottered on high heels, in tight satiny dresses that showcased cleavages of all sizes. They had extraordinary bouffant hairstyles, that had to be slightly repaired or adjusted after removing themselves from the car and encountering the slight summer breeze that drifted across the gardens. There were a variety of shades of spray tan on display, and as they negotiated the treacherous gravel in their heels, they left a trail of glitter behind them.

The boys seemed to have all got their prom suit from the same shop and this year’s look was the ever popular, very shiny, skin-tight suit, winkle pickers, gold bling jewellery and an assortment of silk ties and waistcoats. The more daring young men had taken a chance on either a floral shirt or a dickie bow.

Their procession into the venue followed a set of unchanging rules that, although not written down anywhere, seemed to be known by all. There was a spontaneous round of applause from the gathered staff, followed by five minutes of photographs, and squeals from the female staff, approving every dress and accessory. The male staff confined themselves to comments about football and mercilessly took the piss out of the rather awkward looking boys, in an oddly affectionate and good-natured manner.

Then, after a few minutes of this small talk, they made their way into the main building. Their slightly unsteady progress was down to more than the combination of stillettos and gravel. Like all fifteen year old prom-goers all over the country, they had dealt with the alcohol ban that was always strictly enforced, by getting drunk at home or in the pub, beforehand.

After this first arrival there was a steady stream of students in a variety of modes of transport. Some long -suffering parents had drawn the short straw and had driven groups there. There were several more limos, a couple of horse drawn carriages and one girl, resplendent in leather and Doc Martens who roared along the gravel and round the turning circle, riding pillion on her Dad’s Harley Davison. She was shortly followed by her soul mate, similarly attired, on the back of her father’s moped. They embraced, had their photograph taken and disappeared into the bowels of the Palladian mansion.

In the middle of all this, one of the cars that drove in didn’t stop in front of the house but carried on around the side to the car park. Rick peered against the sun that was getting quite low in the sky, and made out the figure of Patrick O’Malley, a set line of a mouth and a furrowed brow, behind the wheel. He did not look as if this was where he wanted to be sending his Friday night.

“Oh great,” he muttered to Kevin, “Torquemada’s here.”

“I’ll leave him to you Mr Westfield,” Kevin smirked, “I’ll go in and you can do small talk. That is way above my pay grade” And then he sloped off, whistling.

A minute later O’Malley came round the corner, remembering at the last minute to fix a smile on his face. He seemed to have been practising it on the way from the car park. Rick was the only person left out front now, bar the burly, taciturn security guard. Everyone had gone into the venue and the disco had started.

“Rick,” he said, drawing up next to him.

“Patrick,” he replied.

“This was going to be a good conversation,” he thought. “I’m not going to make it easy for him. He needs me more than I need him.”

O’Malley’s smile was beginning to fray at the edges.

“So, are there many here?”

“Not bad. About fifty or sixty. They’re all inside. You should go in. I don’t think there’ll be any more arriving now.”

“What do you make of the rumours that some of the banned kids are going to try and get in later?”

He said this with a smile and in a light, airy tone as if he were idly speculating about something unlikely, like an extra-terrestrial invasion, but Rick could see he was petrified and was probably already calculating a respectable time of departure.

“Well, it’s possible, I suppose. It’s happened before, but we’ve got security on the gate at the main road and on the door here, so I don’t think there’ll be a real problem.”

O’Malley glanced down at his watch.

“You’ll be able to go soon Patrick, don’t worry. But you do have to make an appearance inside before you can leave. Come on, I’ll hold your hand.”

He led the way to the entrance and the security guard stepped aside grudgingly to let them in. Rick was loving this. For the first time for months, he had O’Malley exactly where he wanted him. On his territory.

Part 2 will follow in a day or two. Sign up to the blog to get an email alert every time a new post is issued. You can buy a copy of the novel, Zero Tolerance, using the links below:

Signed copies available here

‘Twas the last day of the Christmas term

Rick was already dreaming of starting his marking on Boxing Day

Now social distancing is ingrained in the psyche of all teachers, it seems impossible to remember what “fun” the end of the Christmas term used to be. Last Day non-uniform hysteria, form parties, the final assembly, comedy socks and jumpers and manically excited kids being supervised by terminally exhausted teachers. A recipe for a major disaster if ever there was one. But wouldn’t it be nice if those days could come back? To remind yourself of more innocent times, have a look at this extract from my novel, Zero Tolerance. It’s the last day before the Christmas holidays at Fairfield High School, in the London Borough of Longon. Ho!Ho! Ho!

Remember, don’t try this at home kids……alcohol’s not big and it’s not clever.

Zero Tolerance, Chapter 14

It had been the kind of December day that never really gets light, a smudgy, damp greyness having hung over the day for hours. It was completely at odds with the manic, unhinged hysteria that had reigned at Fairfield from the moment the first students had arrived at about 7.30am. A non-uniform day, strictly in aid of charity of course, the last day before the Christmas holidays was traditionally a day to be endured. Damage limitation was the name of the game. Students were arrayed in tinsel, hats and flashing festive jumpers and nearly all of them were toting huge bags full of cards and sweets and presents. The whole day was a battle between staff and students to keep them all off the corridors and in classrooms. This had always been a struggle, but since the advent of mobile phones and messaging in all its forms, it was now nigh on impossible as students were alerted to the best party (“Miss has got Pizza for everyone!”), the best DVD showing or when and where the assembly entertainers were rehearsing.

Just after the lunch the final students were escorted off the premises, the last bus duty had been completed and the last angry phone call from a local shop keeper or resident about behaviour on the buses had been taken. Senior Team and the long-suffering Heads of Year had answered the calls and patrolled the local area, trying to keep a lid on high spirits. Now, at about two o’clock, with early darkness closing in, everyone congregated in the staff room for the farewells and drinks. The first couple of drinks took the edge of the empty-eyed, numbed exhaustion that pervaded the room. This first half an hour at the end of the Autumn term was almost painful, so exquisite and acute was the sense of release from torment. So much time stretching out in front of them, with no early starts, no marking, no planning, no late meetings.

There were just a couple of staff leaving, so the event would be mercifully short, allowing the younger staff to pile down the pub before going out on the lash for the rest of the evening and the older staff time to get home early and have a nap on the sofa before a quiet night in in front of the telly. The real victims were those in between with young children, who would have already calculated the amount of Christmas shopping they could get in before getting home to play with the children and make the dinner.

As they were waiting for everyone to arrive and for the speeches to begin, staff congregated in their friendship groups, staking out territory in comfy chairs around low tables, hoovering up twiglets and warm white wine. Charlotte, the head of English, found herself in between Kevin and Kwame the Head of Maths.

“So, you going away in the holidays either of you?“ she asked.

“No such luck,” grumbled Kevin, “We’re hosting this year. We’ve got a house full for about five days. It’s costing me an arm and a leg.”

“What about you Kwame?”

“Yeah, we’re taking the kids to my sisters in Leeds. We’re not setting off until Christmas Eve. So, I’m looking forward to a few days of sleep before then. She’s a great cook my sister and the kids really get on well with her kids so it should be good. Then it’s our turn next year.”

“Lucky you,“ said Kevin, “Enjoy this one while you can. What about you Charlotte?”

“We’ve got John’s mother staying with us for the week, so that’s a week of back breaking hard work, with no thanks and constant moaning from the Queen.”

“Difficult, is she?”

“Nightmare. She thinks I don’t look after him properly and that I’m a mad career -obsessed harpie who couldn’t wait to farm the kids off to childcare.”

“Knows you well then, by the sound of it.”

She shot him a look. “Hmm, very funny. Honestly though, it’s just a week of torment. I’ll be glad to get back to school, I’m telling you.”

“See, I told you, she’s got your number perfectly,” retorted Kevin, warming to his second glass of wine

“Oh, I’m not talking to you anyway, Kevin, after you let us all down so badly with the snow. What was it you said, ‘Definitely snow before and after Christmas.’ I can’t tell you how that promise has got me through some tricky days in the last few weeks. And for what? Absolutely nothing. Not even a bit of frost. I thought you said that Norwegian site was infallible.”

“Sorry guys, believe me no-one’s sorrier than me. I don’t know what went wrong.”

Kwame changed the subject. “So, who’s leaving today then? How many speeches do we have to sit through?

“Just a couple ,” said Charlotte. “That young technician, Matt, I think his name is, you know the one that looks about twelve years old and that woman who was on long term supply in Science.”

“Plankton, then,” said Kevin. “Good, we’ll be out of here in twenty minutes.”

“Ey up, here she comes,” said Charlotte as a quietening of the crowd indicated that something was afoot.

Jane stepped up to the front of the room, waited a second for quiet to descend and then encouraged it on its way.

“Ok colleagues, the sooner we begin the sooner we can finish. I know we’re all desperate to draw a line under this term and to have some quality time with our nearest and dearest.”

The hum of chatter subsided and all eyes were on the front. Jane, normally so easy and generous with her end of term addresses, that had become something of a local legend for their humanity and good humour, was strangely clipped. The two speeches and exchange of gifts for the two admittedly minor departures were rattled through and almost before people had settled in, they were at the end.

Almost before the departing IT technician had mumbled his thank-yous and farewells Jane was back out front, resuming her role as Mistress of Ceremonies.

“So, not long to go now,” she started with a smile. Encouraged by the ripple of laughter this created she pressed on. “I don’t want to keep you much longer. I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank you all, particularly those of you who have been with me on this journey for the past ten years, but all of the rest of you as well, for all of the hard work and dedication you show to the children in our care every day you come to work. We don’t get much thanks these days for the work we do with our client group, our students, as they used to be known. And since no-one ever went into teaching for the money, thanks are an important currency in terms of morale. Our kids are frequently described in the outside word as problems, burdens, difficulties to overcome. I’m quite used to that lack of understanding from the media, who frankly get just about everything wrong that they report, but it gets harder and harder to take when the people who should know better, our glorious leaders, seem to revel in their own ignorance and parade their prejudices as if they were great new insights to be proud of.”

Jane’s voice had dropped and the audience, raucous and irreverent minutes before, were enveloped in an air of intense concentration. What was happening here? This was not the speech they had been expecting. She continued.

“I want to thank all of you for your outstanding work during Ofsted, but more than that, the outstanding work you do day after day, not to get a pat on the back from Big Brother, but because it makes a difference to our kids, many of whom arrive at our doors looking for respite from damaged and difficult family circumstances. The kid who has spent the night in emergency accommodation. The kid who has not eaten since Free school meals the day before. The kid who lives in fear of a family member coming in to their room at night. The kid who watches their mother battered and brutalised. For those kids, we are the nearest thing they have to love and security. And on their behalf, I want to thank all of you for that.”

Rick, standing to the side, felt a lump rise in his throat. He battled his stinging eyes and wondered where this was going next. If he hadn’t known better, he would have sworn this was a resignation speech.

“Many of you will have worked out that this will be the last ever farewell speech I will give”

What?! Rick’s heart skipped a beat and his mouth fell open. Avril, standing next to him, held her breath.

“in a Fairfield High that is a local authority-controlled school.”

They both began breathing a little easier. Rick remembered to close his mouth.

“Now, I’m sure you will all agree that Longdon have been a signally useless local authority for much of that time, but at the very least, they have been our useless local authority, with human beings we know and can talk to and have some kind of productive relationship with. With some sense of accountability and transparency. From January, we move over to the control of the Bellingford Multi-Academy Trust, and things will change, inevitably. So far, I am reassured by what Alastair Goodall and the trust have been saying about their plans for the future, and I hope that this marks the beginning of a prosperous and harmonious new relationship.”

She paused and looked around the crowd. The gap she had left grew, and in it everyone in the audience mentally inserted the next part of her speech for her: “But I don’t think it will.”

She left that unsaid, of course and pressed on. “So, I am sure that the trust has lots of additional work lined up for all of us in January. That makes it even more important that we all have a relaxing and enjoyable holiday. Spend quality time with those you love, family and friends. Just in case, in January, work takes over, and it becomes harder to give those people the time they deserve. Merry Christmas to you all.” She raised her glass to the audience who did the same and chorused, “Merry Christmas”.

While conversations carried on, mostly about the weirdly affecting tone of Jane’s speech and everyone’s holiday plans, and people decided to have one last drink or another sausage roll, Jane slipped out of the staffroom before Avril or Rick could buttonhole her. Avril was about to follow her, when she was collared by someone who was rather exercised by a mistake in her December payslip that had just materialised in her pigeon hole. She watched her go, over the shoulder of Joyce, who was worried about how she was going to pay for Christmas without the correct salary. Just in time, Avril averted her eyes from Jane’s departure, and gave Joyce her full, smiling, yet concerned, attention.

By about four in the afternoon the school site was just about deserted, with a mere handful of cars left in the car park. Rick and Avril both found themselves outside the closed door of Jane’s office.

“You as well? “ said Avril as Rick rounded the end of the corridor.

“I just wanted to check she was alright. I’ve never heard her give a speech like that before.”

“Me neither. But she’s gone. I knocked and tried the door. It’s locked.”

“Gone? But she’s always the last to leave. Without fail.”

“Listen, It’s probably nothing. I’ll ring her later, just to check. Don’t worry about it. Go home and start the holiday.”

“Yeah. Yeah, you’re probably right. I will. Have a good Christmas.”

“You too. See you in January.”

By four thirty there was only one car left in the playground. Tony, the Site manager, was stomping around jangling a huge bunch of keys. He was desperate to lock up and put his feet up. The school was a much pleasanter place to work when there were no students in it and a positively delightful place to work when there no teachers either.

“Bloody Kevin. What the hell is he still doing here?”

Up in the top floor observatory that was his classroom, Kevin was putting the finishing touches to his leaving preparations. He had spent the previous twenty minutes doing last minute checks of the Norwegian weather site. This was partly because Kwame and Charlotte had spent the twenty minutes before that mercilessly taking the piss out of him for his snow closure obsession and the failure of his predictions.

He stared at the screen, and expression of triumph on his face. “Ha! I knew it! It was right all along.”

Then triumph turned to disappointment. “What a bloody waste of a fall of snow. What a criminal waste,” he lamented.

Five minutes later he passed Tony jangling his keys as he went through the main entrance to the car park.

“Sorry mate, didn’t mean to keep you. Have a good Christmas.”

“Same to you,” he grunted, rattling the doors as he locked up behind him.

Kevin loaded up his boot with marking and a bag full of cartons of Celebrations and bottles of wine his grateful students had given him for Christmas and opened the driver’s door to get in. At that moment, the first fat snowflake floated down from the lowering darkened skies and landed on the bonnet of his car. By the time he drove through the car park entrance on to the road, the air was thick with flakes.

Kevin peered out of his window at the sky full of silent white feathers. He shook his head, as he drove off. “What a terrible waste,” he muttered.

If you liked that chapter, why not try the rest of the novel? It’s available at the links below:

https://growl.blog/2020/12/01/on-the-first-day-of-christmas-my-true-love-gave-to-me/

“The Fascist Painting – What is Cultural Capital?” reviewed.

Phil Beadle’s latest book is a must-read for anyone serious about going beyond OFSTED’s hopeless misunderstanding of cultural capital and its place in the curriculum

Phil Beadle’s latest book is a timely contribution to the current debate about cultural capital and its place in UK schools. It’s not a wishy-washy dispassionate overview of the terrain, with practical suggestions for how overworked school leaders can get that OFSTED box ticked, thank goodness. I was amused when reading it at the thought that some people may have bought it expecting just that, scrolling through edu-books on Twitter and Amazon, desperately looking for inspiration in advance of writing the proposal for SLT the next day. Anyone who does mistakenly buy it thinking they were about to get a how-to guide to cultural capital is in for a shock. It’s too much to hope, I suppose, that anyone in that situation would actually pause to consider whether the pursuit of cultural capital provision in school was worth a candle, but it’s a nice thought nonetheless. I’ve been there myself. You are charged with rolling out an initiative that you have real misgivings about, but your half-hearted, timorously voiced objections are steamrollered, and the institutional imperative takes over. Careers are built on championing the new, fashioning current buzzwords into practical and procedural systems. And jobs are lost, or opportunities missed, for anyone who is lukewarm. The only show in town these days is evangelical zeal, so reluctant turd polishing is not enough. The turd must be buffed with pride and passion.

If you are an agnostic, or you are a fully paid up member of the non-believer wing of the profession (sometimes referred to as “Progs”) you’ll find much to admire and enjoy in this book. It comprehensively demolishes the nonsense that is OFSTED’s understanding of cultural capital, and along the way many of the other sacred cows of The New Brutalists (I particularly enjoyed the withering critique of Doug Lemov’s ideas in general and SLANT in particular. This will almost immediately cause sceptical readers devoted to “Teach Like a Champion” to harrumph, stop reading and unfollow, but woah there! Take a breath.  As Educationalists, let’s at least give ideas we don’t like an airing and disagree politely. No need for no-platforming here)

In OFSTED’s view, cultural capital is what working class kids lack. Familiarity with “the best that has been thought and said” becomes an inspectable thread in schools’ provision and so schools are scrambling around trying to design a crash course in high culture. Beadle, with his scalpel- like analysis, shows that the adoption of the ideas of Matthew Arnold, are simply yet another incarnation of the rubbishing of working class culture as second class and inauthentic. It is an unquestioning espousal of ideas rooted in a racist, violent, homophobic and upper class superiority, all transmitted from generation to generation via model public schools, right down to Mr Michael Gove. These are the views, courtesy of Mr Gove (assisted by the lovely Dominic) and the last ten years of Tory Government, that have left teachers and students with a barren educational wasteland to inhabit, a world where students are subjected to a coercive and joyless trudge through a slurry of facts. It would be a disservice to Beadle to leave the impression that all it amounts to is Dave Spart class warrior polemics. That’s the tone of my review, but not of the book.

First and foremost, this is a scholarly work, built on a rock solid foundation of sociological theory and analysis. Beadle is a clever guy and a very good writer who has bothered to do the work. He’s read Phillipe Bourdieu extensively and it shows. Each chapter is shored up with a mountain of foot notes. But interestingly, the foot notes reveal the dichotomy at the heart of the book ( and the author, I suspect) Because as well as showing the scholarly heft of the work, they are also very funny. Beadle doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is self-deprecating, sarcastic and barbed by turns. But every time you think the book is going to descend into a political piss-take (welcome and justified though that would be) he then veers back into serious academic and pedagogic considerations.

In that sense, the book takes no prisoners. It makes a lot of demands on the reader. Some of the sociological stuff is heavy duty Marxism and can be like wading through treacle at times, but it’s worth persisting with that, because it’s always leavened by an anecdote or a well-chosen, apposite cultural comparison. My take on this was that, whenever the book got to be hard going, well, that was my fault not Beadle’s. Ultimately, it’s refreshing to read a book where the author pays you the respect of treating you seriously as a sentient, intelligent adult. The idea of persistence is important in the context of resilience, another fashionable shibboleth that Beadle examines. He is at his best when skewering the idea that a teenager from a single parent family in temporary accommodation, using food banks and with no access to IT, a quiet space or books might benefit from “Resilience Lessons”. Patronising doesn’t even begin to cover it.

The same thought comes to mind when thinking about giving the same kid a dollop of High Culture at discrete weekly sessions (the whole year group in the hall in front of a powerpoint and a harassed member of SLT, no doubt). It’s like a teaspoon of cod liver oil on your bowl of thin gruel doled out by do-gooder in the workhouse. This is another strength of Beadle’s analysis – his reclamation of the idea that working class culture is real and vibrant and powerful. It’s not second class, a pale substitute for the real thing. It is the real thing. These children do not need to know about Mozart or Shakespeare or the latest Stoppard so that they can hold an intelligent conversation at a posh dinner in the West End with rich clients (I think that was the gist of a recent tweet on cultural capital from Ms Birbalsingh). They need to know about Mozart and Shakespeare and Stoppard because they are good and interesting and make life a little bit more worth living. Just like the other cultural products that they consume.

And this is where Beadle’s book turns from being interesting and thought provoking into being useful and inspiring. At the end, he addresses the notion of what schools could usefully do in terms of promoting culture. He affirms the positive value to individuals of experiencing all forms of truth and beauty, and puts forward the idea of a programme of cultural experience woven into the everyday life of schools. Culture, in this programme, is all forms of culture not just the upper class approved versions of high culture. Teaching high and low together in a dialectical comparison would produce a synergy of deeper understanding. Integral to his approach would be the explicit teaching of the provenance of cultural artefacts. Where are they from? Who are they produced by, how and why? How are they perceived?  All of these are powerful questions that illuminate and empower. So far from rejecting high culture as belonging to the rich and powerful and privileged, he reasserts its value and leaves the reader with a genuinely exciting idea of a curriculum entirely designed around culture. So, duh, of course it’s not Stormzy or Mozart, it’s Stormzy and Mozart, and much , much more.

No doubt the defenders of traditional approaches to culture will be up in arms at this pinko threat to standards, but that is the ultimate proof that Beadle is genuinely on to something here. Whether you agree with its thesis or not, this is a great book that deserves to be widely read, and you may enjoy being outraged. Give it a go – all you have to lose is your prejudices. You can buy it using the link below.

A Journal of the Plague Year

Enter the Nightingale University Programme, stage left.

World Class Higher Education

They really are the gift that keeps on giving. If you thought a nadir of some sort had been reached with the Dominic Cummings jolly to Barnard Castle, the Tories have shown, week by week, that they are genuinely world leaders in arse -from-elbow confusion. And that’s genuinely world leaders as opposed to Boris Johnson-type world leaders (ie embarrassingly feeble).

Each day of the Great Exam Grade Debacle, has sent the collective jaw ever further nearer the floor. It doesn’t seem possible that even vaguely sentient human beings could get things quite as badly wrong as this. And yet still their supporters plead mitigation. Katherine Birbalsingh says she feels sorry for Gavin Williamson. Her compassion does her some credit, if not her judgement. She’s joined by Toby Gobfull of Brylcreem Young, Michael Gove and his wife, Sarah Vine, who just the other day told us she too feels sorry for Johnson, saying that the stress and exhaustion of worrying day and night is bound to generate bad decisions. Nobody has ever been that worried before, judging by the tsunami of bad decisions we’ve been submerged under. And, really, Johnson’s only worry is can he get another holiday in before people start dying in their droves again in the autumn. The only person in the entire country who must be feeling rather chipper about all of this is Chris Failing Grayling, who suddenly doesn’t stand out from his peers as being a complete knob. He is surrounded by complete knobs. There is a veritable Bullingdon club of knobs whichever way he looks. He has never felt so at home. He has heard on the QT, that he has been lined up to replace Private Pike at Education, because it needs a safe pair of hands. Relatively.

Separated at birth….

But now, Gavin has other fish to fry. On the back of his frankly brilliant wheeze to save the nation’s  children, by going with CAGs (how on earth did little Gav think of that one all by himself?) he has another problem to deal with. Universities now have to accommodate thousands of extra students, and there is no chance whatsoever that having clambered out of one trench of excrement, Gavin is going to dive into another by not allowing any of the Great Northern Unwashed to go to a university of their choice. (Rumour has it that Johnson was genuinely surprised, when Dom told him, that anyone from a northern town went to university anywhere. The last time he saw an oik from the north at university, it was warming his toilet seat, for a small fee and a roasting at the common room fireplace.)

Taking back control, one gaffe at a time…

Although Johnson finds it tiresome, he has been told time and time again that he has got to make an effort to be nice to the Oiks, despite their body odour and skin disease. And so he will give his imperial assent to the Great Education Plan. To accommodate the additional working class hordes, he has given the green light to the building of a new generation of “Nightingale Universities”. Because he got a lot of praise for his “Nightingale hospitals” even though no-one was ever treated in one. He said he was going to build them and build them he did. Hurrah!  So it stands to reason that the same thing will work for University capacity. They’ll convert all of the empty shopping centres around the country – John Lewis, IKEA on out of town sites etc – and they will be staffed by (and this is the bit that Cummings is really pleased about) by all the new graduates who can’t get a job for love nor money. Graduate unemployment solved at a stroke. It’s just like Dom keeps saying, you just have to be prepared to think outside of the box and go for eccentrics, mavericks and loons.

And to make it as unsinkable as The Titanic, the new Nightingale Universities will be run by their new Chief Executive, Dido Noseintrough, fresh from her triumphs at TalkTalk and Track and Trace (motto: No infected individual knowingly informed), with fat contracts awarded, without tender, of course, to Tory chums in IT and Construction. And next year, when the dust has settled, a few discreet titles in the honours list. Taking back control to be World Leaders in corruption, nepotism and cronyism.

It’s clear to me that Johnson, Cummings, Gove et al have read my novel, “Zero Tolerance” and have taken it for an instruction manual. In that, the Education Secretary, Marcus Grovelle, solves the problem of Social Care, spending on the armed forces, school funding, graduate unemployment and teacher recruitment, with a brilliant solution. And I thought I was writing satire!

I’m going to publish the relevant chapter to whet your appetite for more. Coming soon!

A Journal of The Plague Year 2020

Week 14, June 19th

Spot the difference

One is articulate, community driven, and responsible and the other is hopelessly out of his depth

Amidst all of the hopeless Tory floundering over their pathetic handling of the pandemic, such that even hardened liars have started to look a little embarrassed at the nonsense Cummings has told them to spout, they have inadvertently stumbled on a get-out-jail-free card, like Bilbo in the tunnels under The Misty Mountains finding the ring of power in the darkness. (apologies – there will be no further fey Lord of the Rings type references in the remainder of this blog) And to their great relief, it’s a combination of bogeymen that they are very familiar with. Buried deep in the Tory psyche, is the fundamental conviction that The British People  (Pompous voice, serious expression) love bashing the unions and in particular, they love bashing teachers unions’ and Local Authorities (sometimes known as “Communists” and “Soviets”). So, at PM questions this week (shortly to be renamed, “Are you talkin’ to me?”) the execrable LiarMan Johnson was wetting himself with joy at his cunning wheeze for ignoring the questions by asking a load of his own. The use of the word “Asking” in this context is a little misleading. “Asking” implies complete sentences but The Great Orator will not be tied down by the restrictions imposed by Standard English Grammar. Those sort of rules are for losers and oiks. Bellowed single words, Latin phrases, and the stamping of feet takes Boris right back to the good old days at The Bullingdon club.

This was compounded by Robert Halfon at the Education select committee asking the unions (Mary Bousted, I think) why Students could go shopping in Primark but not go to school. Halfon is usually one of the more sympathetic Tories, someone who does a passable impersonation of a human being most of the time, so this intervention was particularly disappointing. It really does not take a lot of brain power to work out that easing the lockdown on shops is a question for his boss to answer, not the teaching unions. In the great new Tory spirit of nothing being their responsibility, they seem both baffled and outraged that the situation in schools is no more than the consequences arising from a responsible following through of the Government’s own safety  guidelines for Covid 19. Sorry guys, it’s not a Union plot, no matter how convenient that would have been for you.

Then came the Great Tory Plan for saving a generation of students, probably purchased on line from the same CunningPlans ‘R Us store as the one they were supposed to have in place for Social Care. Oh, and the one for a comprehensive free trade deal (both “oven-ready” plans, if memory serves me well). This involves a startled looking Gavin Williamson, announcing a scheme to give one to one tuition next year so that no student will fall behind. Apart from the ones whose names are already down for a zero hours contract opportunity, when they leave school, because they don’t really count. Until Daniel Rashford (keep up, Mr Hancock!) gets wind of it, then at the last minute they will really, really count and will all be promised scholarships to Oxbridge, instead. Until everyone has forgotten about it, after we all get back from Tuscany in October.

The defenders of the Working Classes

This is a classic Tory response to a situation they have fundamentally misunderstood and then misrepresented. It is infuriating that it appears that, emerging from the mist, oven ready, so to speak, are teachers, to take on the role of Tory scapegoat. The narrative goes something like this. Lockdown and continued school closure is a tragedy for the life chances of young people. It is doing irreparable damage to their education and therefore to their eventual outcomes and prospects. It is doing particular damage to the lives of those working – class kids. You know, the ones the Tories really care about so much. Well, when Marcus Rashford tells them to. In order to mitigate the damage inflicted on young people by Marxists and Trade unions, teachers must give up some of their holidays, or work at the weekends for the next year so that the kids can catch up what they’ve missed. So much education has been lost, they say. So much Damage has been done, they say. Decent ordinary teachers want to work themselves into the ground to make things right, but they are being held back by the Socialist teaching unions, who, rumour has it, aren’t patriotic and think Churchill was a racist. (They do tend to get a bit confused, after a while. I think this is called “Cognitive overload”)

This, as you have probably gathered, drives me mad.

Lockdown and non-attendance at school has not done “irreparable damage” to the vast majority of students.

Learning has not been “Lost”, like a piece of PE kit without a name tag. It may well have been delayed, but it’s definitely not “Lost”

The idea of lost learning comes from a confusion about the distinction between learning and covering a set curriculum. Learning is vital. Covering a set curriculum to an arbitrary timescale and set of assessment criteria is as important as we deem it to be. And in this situation, that’s not very.

Two groups of students have suffered terribly during this period: Those at risk in child protection  terms and those whose mental health has worsened because of the lack of opportunities to socialise with their peers and adults other than those in their close family. It is vital that these children get back into school as quickly as possible, not to be crammed with the knowledge they have missed learning, but to experience positive interactions, whether that be play or discussion, with others.

The Tory plan to plug the gaps of what has been missed, by first testing, supposedly to identify “Gaps” and then by “catch up” programmes before and after school, at weekends and in the holidays is a dreadful, unimaginative, useless response to this unprecedented situation. More than anything else, children need to go back to normal. The situation envisaged in September is not normal. It piles pressure on staff and students after the extraordinary challenge that the pandemic has presented. In short, it’s the worst of all possible worlds.

One to one tuition can make a contribution, but it can also mess things up even more. Unknown tutors, teaching a programme uncalibrated to the needs of the school, the class and the individual, with little accountability is potentially a huge waste of money. And, at the risk of being cynical, who exactly will trouser the vast sums of money being talked about? The Government has specified that they will control the provision of accredited tutors from approved Tuition companies. And guess who will own those little beauties? Friends and family of The Conservative Party. And donors, of course. Some people will get a tidy little wedge from this “crisis”.

And, of course, if you think about this situation in terms of lost learning, you are immediately in crisis territory, leading to a panicked response. The minute you start to think of it as simply learning delayed, the crisis evaporates (notwithstanding the two groups mentioned above) and a rational plan can emerge.

Let me suggest my alternative. If education is so important, if the learning that would have taken place needs to be achieved, if the Government is prepared to spend considerable sums of money on this, then why not just repeat the year?

That’s right – Repeat the year.

No additional pressure. Going over some of the same ground will reinforce learning. Repeating will allow time for greater depth, nay, even mastery.

In Primary you could either keep the Year 6 children and devise the most thrilling transition programme ever. Reception would be deferred for a year because International best practice from those jurisdictions we so admire, is to give children more playing time by starting formal education at least a year later than the UK. Or, to avoid their disappointment, they could transition, and do their interim programme in secondary before staring the Year 7 curriculum. The departed Year 11s means that there is physical space in the schools, as usual.

This way you would cover the curriculum, but without a panicked sense of rush that “Catch up” implies. And students going on the Higher Education would do so, but just a year later than usual. No big loss there. People have been doing gap years for decades now, so it can’t do any damage, surely.

This is not quite a back of the fag packet solution. I have actually turned over and gone on to the front as well. But I do recognise that inevitably, there will be lots of things that my brilliant solution does not account for. But I imagine, given the adversarial nature of Twitter and Social media in general, that there will shortly be a tsunami of people telling me how dim I am not to have considered X, Y and particularly Z.

I’m looking forward to it.