Jem Southam, The Raft of Carrots, 1992
We have returned to school and I have returned to the classroom after a year's absence. Even the most experienced and capable teacher gets increasingly anxious after prolonged separation from the chalk face. You wonder if you've lost it and you're plagued by bizarre dreams in which you are utterly useless. My last one was about carrots which wouldn't line up sensibly because I’d lost my voice.
I've two year 7 RE classes and so far they are adorable. They do precisely as they're asked, and laugh politely at my many witticisms. If you've never experienced a class of 11-year olds ready to learn and happy to chuckle you've truly missed one of life's joys. I'll keep you informed about our collective progress towards The Meaning of Life on Monday mornings.
In the gap between the two lessons I've found myself a little nest on the maths corridor, where I can hear the purr of year 11 starting the long run up to GCSEs in June. Much has been said - shouted, even - about the changes in GCSE and the uses of modular courses, but it remains that this year is different to any other.
September is a time for reporting and planning, for bedding-in and shaking down. We pick over results and set new targets. We simplify and explain. We congratulate, worry and plan. We set the tone. As well as the subject learning we remember how to queue politely and are reminded that leggings do not school trousers make. By week three the little ones are still rushing in the wrong direction: the older ones treat them kindly and propel them to their destinations. The lunch queue is speeding up and the hopeful question overheard on the first day ('if you're on the A side do you not get any lessons in week B?') answered. A year 7 boy who doesn’t want to dance is reminded that Tallis dances. New staff look a little less lost. We get over our surprise at the long-awaited drainage work being done unexpectedly and inconveniently at the end of the holidays and reconfigure our playtime arrangements. Our reception area is nearly finished with bright splashes of colour transformed by the designer‘s hand from our students’ designs. We have a photographer in and the senior team are posed artfully against our newly-wrapped bright pillars. I become obsessed with tidiness in the hall.
And all against a backdrop of unprecedented turbulence in the ways we are judged and measured. This year's GCSE results are not to be compared with any previous years, we're told. That’s good news for schools and beyond interesting in a profession dominated by three-year trends. What about next year's? When I did my O levels shortly after the Boer War I had little idea about what grades I might get and no one ever talked to me about it. Now young people are used to detailed and personal conversations about their learning and how to improve. They expect us to be able to fit their progress into a big picture and prepare them for the best they can do. That's harder for us this year: if the system has been re-calibrated we'll need time to rebuild our expertise. It's hard for teachers when we have to doubt our own advice. We worry. We look forward to a time when we know what's happening to our children and we can advise them with confidence. We rely on the practical wisdom which protects and supports them, which models the best in adult life.
The new Secretary of State writes to us to congratulate us on our good work and pledge herself to supporting our endeavours. We look forward to a whole new world, then no-notice inspections are announced. Ah well.
But we don't waste the exuberance of September. The staged grumpiness as year 10 have to put their phones away; the excited pleasure of a year 12 who's delighted she came to us this year. The shrieks of year 8 cross country bucketing across the yard and the cartwheel girls who’ve been practicing for a year. Tallis life: we know what we're doing and we love it.