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:
Here’s an extract from my novel, Zero Tolerance, a satire on toxic schools and Government policy on refugees, published by Matador books. It’s the last day of the Autumn term and an exhausted group of staff gather in the staffroom for farewell drinks. Sound familiar? See how many characters and scenarios you can recognise. If you enjoy this chapter, you can buy the book from the following link:
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 7.30 am. 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 shopkeeper 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, found herself in between Kevin and Kwame.
“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 sister’s 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 harpy 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.
“Okay, 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 into 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 pigeonhole. 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 all right. 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, an 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 onto 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.
Marcus Grovelle, the Tory Education Secretary, in an eerie foreshadowing of Gavin Williamson, solves the problems of the NHS, Social care and Teacher recruitment at a stroke.
In this extract from “Zero Tolerance”, Grovelle, speaking at a conference of POCSE, a teachers’ group designed to raise exam performance, tackles the pressing issues of the day.
Grovelle’s speech was reaching its zenith and the crowd, seduced by the charisma of power, were lapping it up, with its strange mixture of flattery, eccentricity and outright madness.
“And there are so many points of agreement between this Government’s challenging of the status quo and the Partnership’s challenging of sloppy teaching and low standards in exams. We have broken the dead hand of Local Authorities and their monopoly control of education, we’ve provided real choice with the creation of Academies that have transformed educational standards in this country and took that step further with a whole new category of Free Schools, giving parents the right to set up schools that will give greater priority to standards and old-fashioned values. We’ve finally dealt with the runaway grade inflation and cheating that flourished under the last socialist government, introducing exams that are rigorous and which don’t patronise working class children and instead expect the same high standards for students whether they come from a council estate or a country estate.
So, Ladies and Gentlemen, we are clearly cut from the same cloth. We want the same things, we have the same passion, we refuse to accept the same old excuses. Now, I ask you to join me in our new venture, the next step in transforming Britain’s education system and moving from being the laughing stock of the free world to being the best in the world. I can announce today, that after consultation, from next September we will be introducing the following major reforms:
All students will have an entitlement to follow a five-year course, leading to GCSE, of Latin and Greek. These courses will be double weighted in the performance tables, to incentivise more timid institutions to embrace the reform. Let’s bring back the standards from historically our finest institutions and spread them to Bash Street Kids Comprehensive.
We are going to tackle the problem of teacher recruitment with a series of bold and innovative initiatives. Every University, College and Higher Education Institute will be affiliated to a network of local schools and undergraduates will be able to supplement their Maintenance Loans by taking up the places that will be on offer as affiliated teachers. This will, at a stroke, get the brightest and the best of our young people working in the Secondary School system without the need for costly and time-consuming training, most of which frankly, could have come out of Jeremy Corbyn’s Marxist handbook.”
Here he paused and beamed at his audience, evidently delighted with his clever joke, one he had personally inserted in the text of the speech, against the wishes of his Central Office writers. The audience nervously blinked back, not sure of what their response should be to these extraordinary proposals. Grovelle steamed forward.
“We will tackle once and for all the divide between vocational education and academic. For too long we have been in thrall to the crazy notion that everyone should go to University. We have denigrated practical subjects and sneered at those who have chosen to follow their aptitude for hands-on work. Our new apprenticeships were a start in tackling the ludicrous, over-complicated schemes of the last Labour Government, but now we are going to go one step further. I am delighted to be able to announce today that, from September, from the age of fourteen all students will be able to choose to sign up to do National Service, either in any of the armed forces, or, and this idea is truly inspired and revolutionary, in our National Health Service, with particular emphasis on Social Care. The sneering naysayers in the Remoaners camp, who constantly talk this great country of ours down, have carped and moaned continually about how our great institutions would collapse without foreign workers to staff them. Why on earth should we condemn the bottom forty percent of our young people to failure in the academic exam system, just for the sake of political correctness? We anticipate that, in the first instance, there will be a traditional gender split, with boys opting for the armed forces and girls for the caring professions, but the choice will be available for anyone who to express a preference for either. The only obstacle they would have to face would be the comments of their friends.” Again, Grovelle paused to allow the audience to show their appreciation of his daring joke. He was rewarded with a few nervous titters.
“Imagine, the problems of Social care, the NHS, the Armed Forces in the face of the conventional threat posed by Russia and by terrorism and the academic standards of the bottom 40% of our young people, all solved at a stroke.”
The expressions on the sea of faces in front of him told their own story of people picturing the reality of what had just been described to them. There were expressions of bafflement, incomprehension, with a few furrowed brows of those who were turning to anger. Grovelle, oblivious to his audience, ploughed on. The unthinkable had to be thought, and he was the man to think it.
Will Williamson have more success than Grovelle? Read the rest of “Zero Tolerance” to find out.
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?
“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.”
“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.
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
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.
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
Buy the book, and, if you like it:
Leave a review
Share the link with friends and colleagues
If you’re in a book club suggest that this is your next read
If you’re a teacher, do a whole staff email in your school with links to the book
Follow my blog and Twitter feed
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.
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.
Marley was alive, to begin with, but that’s not how it stayed. After a while, he died. This is how everyone’s story turns out, yours and mine, in the end.
They discovered the body when they finally unlocked the door to the loft, expecting to find a decaying rat or pigeon. The smell, which had steadily grown stronger over the previous weeks, was like a punch in the face when the cold, stale air billowed through the open doorway.
The old building was full of musty smells, creaking floorboards and hidden, disused rooms. They had been promising to refurbish it for years: the addition of a new block here, replacement windows there. There was even talk at one stage of razing it to the ground and replacing it with a plate glass, chromium and cedar-clad cathedral of prize-winning architect design. Staff had joined focus groups to talk to the architects and builders and pastel coloured plans had been drawn up and displayed with much pride in the old library. When the crash pulled the plug on all of the planned public sector investments, the grand schemes were quietly forgotten and the crumbling pile slumbered on undisturbed as the occasional tile or stained piece of plaster flaked and fell to the ground, as if the building was an ancient sleeping behemoth suffering from psoriasis.
It was the thing that Marley was most looking forward to about his new job. A Headship in a new school, in a gleaming new building, fit for the 21st century. Like him, he thought smugly. Fit for the 21st century. A Headteacher who had jettisoned all of those tired, ridiculous practices so common when he had started teaching. Learning styles, group work, discovery learning, thinking skills. What on earth had they all been thinking of? Marley had sniffed the way the wind was blowing early. He’d read the right books, gone on the right courses, networked on Twitter with the right people and had adopted the right poses.
The head he had first worked under, Richard Fitzwig, seemed like an exhibit from a museum now. Yes, it had been a happy place, but it’s easy to be happy when the Head lets you do what you want. Wiggy wouldn’t last five minutes in a school today. How happy would those kids be now, applying for jobs and courses on the back of crap grades? At least now, after three years of relentless focus on results and behaviour, they had something to show for it. And of course, there had been casualties on the way. Collateral damage, as he liked to think of it. Exclusions, “arrangements” for off-rolling, the endless detentions and uniform checks and silent lines and mobile phone battles. Not to mention the set piece assemblies to humiliate the ring leaders. What were they called again? “Flattening the Grass” assemblies, yes that was it. He smiled grimly at the memory.
And if many of the kids and more of the staff resented what he had had to do, then so be it. No-one had said it was a popularity contest. But, in his more reflective moments, usually alone in the small hours, he wondered. Part of him envied the easy camaraderie some of his colleagues seemed to have. And the same part was relieved he was leaving. The headship was just reward for hours of thankless work turning the school round, but more than that it was an opportunity to start afresh as the coming man in a shiny new building.
He looked around his bare flat, magnolia walls hardly troubled with pictures, shelves untouched by photos or books. A kitchen littered with a week’s worth of pizza boxes and foil trays. One Christmas card, from his mother, a bleak accusation of the lack of personal success to match his professional achievements. Not even a jokey card from Bella, for old times sake. Her poetry was for someone else now. Not that he’d ever understood it, mind you. He was a scientist, a rationalist, who chose the minimum number of words to communicate exact meaning, not nuance. She’d tried to explain it to him one day, when he was newly qualified, and it had sort of made sense then, but not any more. Nuance was for losers. Once he’d settled into his new job, the salary would mean he could buy somewhere bigger, somewhere more appropriate to his new status. And maybe then it would be worth investing something of himself in it, so it became his home, rather than an extension of his office. Whether it would be worth investing anything in anyone else was a different question. He had been badly burned last time. People always let you down, he thought, and the only way to guard against that was to keep everyone at arm’s length. Easier that way.
He roused himself, making a deliberate effort to shake off this dangerous introspection. Through the window he could see the blurred grey light of Christmas Eve ebbing away. There was a gust of wind and a flurry of thin snowflakes swirled across the pane. He shivered. Maybe this run was not a good idea after all. He could always leave it until January. But no, he needed to get it out of the way so he could leave the school and that life behind him, and the run would do him some good. Once he got going, he wouldn’t feel the biting wind. He reached for his rucksack, checked his laces and grabbed the keys before heading downstairs to the front door of his block.
There was already a thin dusting of snow on the pavement, and the knifing wind blew it up into dancing clouds and the beginnings of drifts in the corners. He took one final look at his watch underneath the gloves. One o’clock. He should be back in a couple of hours if all went well and the building was empty. He’d unlock and disable the alarm as usual, collect the last of his stuff from his office and most importantly, remove a couple of things from his computer, just in case. He’d intended to do it on his last day, but there had been too many people milling around, so he had resolved to wait until now, Christmas Eve, when he could be sure that he’d be the only human being in the building.
Fifteen minutes later, he rounded the corner, and saw the familiar turrets and towers of the sprawling, dirty red brick institution where he had worked for the last ten years. When he told people where he worked, they would invariably gush about how amazing it was. Hogwarts they called it. He had tried to explain the first few times it had happened that, close up, it was a dirty, crumbling, inefficient, fire hazard, but gave up when it became clear that people didn’t want their gothic fantasies to be spoiled. After a while he just smiled and nodded and agreed with them. And then, inevitably, they would move on to what a shame it was that the school had gone downhill so far and so fast, and how it was all down to the sorts of children that went there these days. He’d be glad to leave that behind as well.
As he pounded the last few metres, his breath steaming into the darkening sky, he noticed with a start that the gate was open. Turning into the car park, his worst fears were confirmed. There were half a dozen cars parked in front of the school, and the yellow lights blazed out into the gathering gloom. He pulled up, and leaned forward, his hands resting heavily on his knees, his breath coming in laboured pants and gasps.
“Shit,” he thought, “It’s open. Who the hell is in there?”
The poster on the plate glass of the entrance answered the question. The Longdon Players production of “A Christmas Carol”. Damn. Of course, how could he have been so stupid? And, yes there had been an email about it to all staff, but he had been so caught up in his leaving that it hadn’t registered. The local amateur theatre group had a two-week run at the school, before and after Christmas. They must be in doing some last-minute tweaking before they went again on December 30th.
He removed his headphones and pushed tentatively at the main entrance door. There was no-one behind the desk on reception and no signing-in book. Gary, the site manager, must have come to some arrangement with the Theatre group. He’d be hunkered down somewhere watching the football, and he’d re-emerge to switch off the lights and lock up when they had all gone. He looked up. Beyond the harsh neon lights that flooded the foyer, all was in darkness, but he could hear the distant noise of people, from the small theatre space in the far corner of the building. Good, he thought. If he slipped in and up to his office, he could avoid anyone noticing him and get away without any awkward conversations. If it took longer than he thought, he had the keys to be able to lock up again after he had set the alarm.
He switched on the torch on his phone and crept up the main staircase. If he turned on the main lights that would bring someone running, so he followed the eery, silvery light from his phone, occasionally catching his breath at the strange looming shadows it conjured up as he made his way to his office on the second floor. He had been here late at night on his own many times before and there was no doubt about it, it was a creepy place. In the wind, the building emitted the full panoply of creaks and groans and whispers, and with no lights save for the shimmering, unsteady beam from his phone, the shaky pools of darkness would have tested the most determined rationalist.
Still, that had worked to his advantage many times in the past. Being a key holder, and often on call for building and alarm issues, he had had to unlock and have a quick check many times in the past. And once in, on his own, he was free to do a little sneaking around. Hacking in to the passwords of every member of staff was child’s play for someone like him. He had never done anything criminal. He wasn’t stupid after all. But information was very powerful and he had information on everyone. He was conflicted about leaving all of this behind. One the one hand it would be something of a relief to not have that capacity in the future. As a Headteacher, he would have power of a different, more respectable kind, and it would be a triumph of sorts to have got away with some of his deceptions. But then again.
He unlocked his office and switched on the light, blinking as it pinked into life. There was a chill in the air as the seasonal shut down of the boiler had begun to take its toll. Those people down in the theatre must be freezing, he thought. He could just about hear the strains of one of the songs from the show, floating up from the rehearsal. The office was stripped down to the bare bones, with just a few reminders of the previous five years. He went over to his computer and switched it on. There, on the key board, was a Christmas card. It was sealed and addressed to “Ben Marley”.
He sat down and shook his head. What a waste of money. People were so stupid. Why on earth didn’t they just send a group email to everyone? The virtue-signallers could link it to some charity thing if they really felt the need. And the Greens could feel smug about cutting down on waste. He just didn’t want to spend money and he didn’t feel the need to dress that up in any finer motive. Christmas was just one big con.
Still, he could take it home with him and it could join the one from his mother. He ripped open the envelope and pulled out the card. A bog-standard holly and robin snow scene. At least he was spared the sanctimonious Christian nonsense. He opened it up.
“Dear Ben. Thanks for all of your hard work and support over the years. Enjoy your well-deserved promotion. Now you will really find out what it’s all about! Here’s some advice from someone who knows. Take some time and trouble nurturing relationships with your colleagues. It will help in the long run. Regards, Margaret.”
His pleasure at getting a hand-written card from the Head, who normally got her PA to do all of that for her, was soured by his annoyance at the thinly veiled criticism of her advice. Relationships indeed. She should mind her own bloody business. Maybe he wouldn’t take it home after all. He picked it up and looked at it closely again. With a flourish, he ripped it into pieces and dropped them into his bin. He’d like to think of her finding it on her return in the New Year. That would show her.
And then he saw it, just to the side of the monitor. A neatly stacked pile of what looked like more cards, all identical in white envelopes. There must have been about twenty-five of them all in the same pile. Who the hell were these from? He took the top one from the pile and examined it. In black biro in capital letters on the front of the envelope was a single word: MARLEY. The card inside had a simple message: “Fuck off and Die, you miserable bastard.” It was signed “Jack, 10B4”.
He grabbed at the second card in the pile and ripped it open. It had exactly the same message, this time signed, “Sophie, 10B4”. He didn’t bother with the others. His heart sank. All of them, every single one, hated him with a passion. Yes, he had been very harsh with them since September, but that was necessary to knock them into shape for their GCSEs. Yes, the exam specification and the league tables demanded that everyone be drilled to within an inch of their lives, and he wasn’t paid to be an entertainer or a social worker. It would be him that would get it in the neck if they didn’t get the results that the school needed. People got the sack for that kind of poor performance. There were no second chances these days.
The first flush of pain he had felt converted steadily into anger. How dare they? What cowards, to wait until he was leaving the school before they were brave enough to put their names to this outrage, after months of lessons with sullen faces brought on by screaming and shouting and eventual compliant silence. In a fit of rage, he swept the pile of cards from his desk onto the floor, before turning his attention to his computer and memory stick.
He worked steadily for a couple of hours, deleting files, copying them, and getting rid of emails. Finally, he stretched and yawned and looked away from his computer for the first time. The window was a dark square now and to his surprise it framed a blizzard of thick snowflakes. It was time to go. He rubbed away at the condensation on the window and looked outside. The show had settled and there was a couple of inches laying in the car park. There were no cars there now and, strangely, no tracks. They must have all gone before the snow had really got going. Now he came to think of it, he hadn’t heard anything from the theatricals downstairs for some time. He shivered at the sight of the snow swirling in the darkness outside. His run back home was going to be a lot more challenging than the one earlier.
He took one last look around the office, the cards still strewn across the floor, and locked the door, fumbling with his keys in the darkness. The corridor was heavy with darkness, but right at the far end, a thin yellow light leaked from the doorframe of the last classroom. This high up he could hear the wind moan and the walls creak, as if the old bones of the building were flexing in the aches and pains of accumulated years. And then, just as he was about to feel his way to the staircase, there was another noise.
He stopped and listened. There it was again. But it couldn’t be, surely? He narrowed his eyes and bent his head down towards the far end of the corridor. Yes, again. The sound of a distant child softly crying. Using the torch on his phone again, he navigated his way to the end of the corridor and flung open the door of the lighted classroom. A small boy, sitting at a table at the back of the room, jumped out of his seat in fright, shocked by the violent entrance.
His face was tear stained and he was wide-eyed and staring. He was about ten or eleven years old, and he was wearing a shabby, old-fashioned looking uniform. He held a cap in his hands.
“What on earth are you doing here? Who are you?” Marley demanded.
“Please Sir,“ stammered the boy, “I’m Ignorance. Or was it Want? I can never remember which I am. Maybe I’m both.”
He wrung the cap between his hands and wiped his runny nose on one of his wrists.
Marley looked utterly baffled. “Ignorance? Want? What are you talking about lad? And what the hell are you doing here? Who else is here?”
He scanned the four corners of the room, as if a gang of the young boy’s accomplices were about to spring out and attack him.
“No-one Sir. I am quite alone. Quite alone in the world.”
Marley looked more closely at him. He was filthy. His hands and finger nails were black with accumulated grime, and his clothes were threadbare. Marley’s frown deepened and then suddenly broke into a smile.
“Of course!” he exclaimed, “The production. You’re from the Theatre thing, aren’t you? Do they know you’re up here on your own? They’ve all gone, I think.”
The boy wiped the tears from his face. “Beggin’ your pardon Sir, but I dunno. I dunno nuffink about no theatre group.”
“What are you talking about? You must be from the production. Don’t play games with me lad. Otherwise, where’ve you sprung from? Who are you? What are you doing here?”
The boy looked up at him, his eyelashes jewelled with tears. “But I’m always ‘ere Sir. Always ‘ave been. Always will be.”
“What do you mean, ‘Always here’? I’ve never seen you before.”
“No, Sir, you ain’t. I’m always ‘ere, but you never seem to see me. No-one sees me. I sees you and I hears yer shout at the kids. Always shoutin’, never listenin’, that’s you. Not that you’re the only one, Sir, oh no. There’s plenty like you. More in the last few years, if anyfing. But you’re the worst.”
The boy pointed a bony finger at him and fixed him with his beady eye.
“You’re the worst,” he repeated.
Marley stared at him, mouth open. The chill in the room had started to bite and he shivered involuntarily.
“Is some kind of a joke?” he demanded. “Did someone in 10B4 put you up to this? “
The boy’s eyes flicked to the back of the room. There was a set of rickety stairs leading to a tiny landing in front of a door. Marley’s eyes followed the boy’s. The door led to the loft, a kind of attic space under the eaves. It had been used for storage before Health and Safety regulations prevented it. Nobody went in there now.
“They’re in the loft, aren’t they?” he demanded, a triumphant smirk on his face. “Aren’t they?”
The boy simply smiled without answering. In the silence that filled the gap came the moaning of the wind outside. It was really starting to blow hard now, and the rafters creaked and groaned as the gusts of wind battered them. Marley stared again at the door. Slowly, the handle started to turn.
“I knew it!” Marley exclaimed. “We’ll soon settle this nonsense.”
He strode up to the staircase, leaped up the five or six steps to the landing and grabbed the handle. The door would not open.
“Locked in, are you?“ he shouted through the door. “Shall I leave you in there? Wouldn’t be so brave spending the night in darkness locked in the loft, would you? You know what they say about it don’t you? Haunted it is. Haunted.”
As he was shouting these threats through the door, he fumbled with his keys. He found the right one, unlocked the door and opened it. It was pitch black inside.
“Come on out,“ he called into the room, “ You’re caught. You might as well give up now before you make things worse for yourself.”
He reached for the light switch which was outside the loft on the balcony and pressed it. The loft space was suddenly flooded with white-bright lighting, revealing the cobwebbed beams and dusty floorboards inside. There was a sound of scuffling, as if a rat had scuttled away into a distant corner. Marley stepped inside.
“I know you’re in here,” he said in a raised voice. “Just come out from where you’re hiding so we can get this thing over with.”
There was a sharp chill to the air inside and the wind in the darkness beyond was howling steadily now. He took another step inside. There was a sudden noise behind him. He whirled round to see the boy, still holding his cap, out of his seat and standing just outside the doorway on the landing.
“What are you doing? You’re not helping, you know” Marley said. “You kids, you’re your own worst enemies sometimes.”
The boy smiled at him, his tear-tracked, dirty face lit up like a beacon.
“Sometimes,” he repeated.
There was a sudden gust of wind and the timbers of the loft screeched and shifted. The door, caught in the blast, slammed with a tremendous bang. The boy turned the key in the door, reached for the light switch and the loft was plunged into inky darkness.
In the darkness outside, all was still and the sky was full of fat snowflakes gently floating down. The wind of earlier had subsided completely and the thick layer of snow on the ground muffled all the sounds of traffic. Gary drew the entrance gates shut, pulled off his gloves and fiddled with the padlock and key, cursing against the cold.
“Bloody theatre company. A no show on Christmas Eve. That administrator bloke must think I was born yesterday, saying he hadn’t sent any email booking a rehearsal.”
He paused, struggling to get his gloves back on over his frozen fingers. “Still,” he smiled, “It’s not all bad. Double time is double time, whether anyone showed up or not.”
Several weeks later, Gary was in his office taking the detectives through the CCTV footage of the holidays. They finally located Christmas Eve, and there, in grainy black and white, was film of Marley walking across the car park. Walking next to him was what appeared to be a young boy, from the theatre group, dressed as a Dickensian urchin. From the moment the camera picked him up until he entered the building, Marley didn’t turn or appear to talk to the boy. It was almost as if he did not know he was there.
They ran the film on, hoping to see someone, anyone, leave the school later. There was nothing. “That kid must still be in the building, “ said the senior detective on the case, a balding, corpulent man who gave the impression that he’d really rather be back in his warm office tidying up paperwork.
“But who is he?” asked Gary. “I’ve never seen him here before.”
The detective raised an eyebrow. “I think the question is, ‘Where is he?’”
In the months that followed, there were several TV appeals, posters all over the neighbourhood, and an extensive search of the school. The boy, whose blurred image stared out accusingly at anyone who chose to look, was never identified, nor found. Eventually, they were all discreetly taken down, discoloured and tatty by this time, as if people did not want to be reminded of the harsh realities of the world for which, somehow, they felt they were unfairly being made responsible. More comfortable to take them down, rather than look away.
When the police left, with cursory thanks and platitudes, Gary was left alone in front of the screen. He scrolled back to the point when Marley and the boy entered the school, and, on a whim, switched to one of the other cameras on the feed, pointing out from the main entrance, towards the front gate. There they were again, together but entirely separate, walking through the steadily mounting snow. And then he stopped. He froze the final shot. There on the screen, stretching back from the entrance to the main gate, like a line of punctuation marks, was a track of footprints.
One line for two people.
He stared, and shivered, as the wind rattled the panes of his window and the bones of the building creaked and groaned.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
The grass flattening takes my mind back nearly
twenty years ago when I was on the Deputy head interview treadmill. At one
gruelling interview process lasting three days (including an evening meeting the
Governors, who appeared to be the Tory Party at play in deepest Surrey. The
point of this bit seemed to be to see whether you could hold a plate of
canapes, a glass of dry white wine and still engage in small talk about
property prices and skiing holidays) I found myself in a group of five
candidates sitting in a circle. There was an outer circle, accommodating
members of the panel with clipboards, frantically scribbling notes as we all
strutted our stuff. We were meant to be members of the Senior Leadership group
and, at intervals, we were given a little slip of paper with a hot educational
topic on it. Each candidate took it in turns to introduce and chair the
discussion of the topic.
All was going well until a new topic was
introduced. To combat vandalism and poor behaviour in the toilets, the school
was going to introduce CCTV cameras inside the toilets and the cubicles. Three
of the candidates fell over themselves in their eagerness to demonstrate their
toughness. Nothing would stand in their way of stamping out bad behaviour.
Their proposals got wilder and wilder as they tried to trump each other’s
hardman credentials. I felt increasingly uncomfortable as this authoritarian
auction proceeded, but shamefully, I kept my counsel. But then, the fifth
candidate, a young woman who had been under the radar until this point,
interjected and gently pointed out that perhaps the issue of privacy had not
been given a proper airing. Silence filled the room and a look of horror spread
across the faces as they all realised that they had just made themselves look
rather foolish. It would be lovely to report that the young woman got the job,
but I’m afraid this story does not have a fairytale ending, not even for me.
One of the brutalist, authoritarian, sharp suited chaps got it, despite not
having uttered a word of sense nor imagination throughout the three days. I’m
pretty sure that he would have been first in the queue for grass flattening had
it been around back in the day. He’s probably advising them on it now.