Michael Kidner, Circle after Image 1959-60
Have you seen our field of jeans? Do potter along if you haven’t. The jeans on poles at the front of our building are part of a brilliant experimental programme called Catalytic Clothing. It’s the brainchild of artist designer Helen Storey and chemist Tony Ryan – people from different worlds in a highly successful art and science collaboration. They’re working with the R&D departments of big laundry brands, exploring how clothing and textiles can be used as a catalytic surface to purify air. Saving the planet while you wander about. Yet another practical use for teenagers.
So we’ve got the Field of Jeans as part of our Catalytic Learning programme. We love the idea of an artist and a scientist working together for public benefit, and we’ve had cross-curricular days, staff and students, to expand our thinking. Look at it on the website: such fun! Our last day was just before Easter, but the tragedy of contemporary education is that young people have become so focused on exams that many of them were troubled about having an off-timetable day to explore new ideas. ‘Is it on the exam?’ they demand. ‘If not, why do it?’ So we work hard to demonstrate that it’s the things in between the exam questions that matter too.
It was at this point in composition that I looked at the clock on Tuesday. It was 12:05, and I bethought myself that (a) OFSTED were due sometime after Easter, (b) they always ring immediately after 12:00 and (c) is that the phone? Time has behaved oddly since then and the last 54 hours seems like (a) weeks or (b) seconds. Thank you, but I can’t tell you how it went. Rules are rules.
Children are both oblivious to and troubled by OFSTED. Generally speaking, adult concerns are tedious and while they are nosey about what’s going on, they get back to the dramas of their own existence sharpish. Suits and clipboards are not crowd-pullers. They’re more likely to be outraged by the sheer impertinence of inspection – who are these people? What do you mean, they’re seeing if the school’s alright? Of course it is. Young people see themselves as arbiters of quality: who are these amateurs?
One inspector had had a conversation with a couple of young people over a bin. The responses were thoughtful and interesting, one pictures chin-stroking. I think that’s a good way to find out about a school, but the child was unimpressed ‘He talked to me over a bin. Seriously?’ Another small member was perturbed by the whole experience. Tuesday break he asked me if they’d arrived, and at lunchtime how long they were staying. When we reconvened Wednesday break he shook his head in disbelief that they were still among us. ‘How long can this go on?’ he despaired. He’d have hated it when they stayed for a week.
But after it was over school life picked up again as if the previous 54 hours hadn’t happened. Last week’s dance showcase had fully 29 acts and the time flew, like the dancers. Despite the suits we had a street hockey launch day with remarkably few bruises. 30 Norwegians came to maths. New teachers have been interviewed and appointed for this expanding school: 4 this week, despite OFSTED. Outdoor ping pong proves popular. Photography and art exams happen.
Last night, immediately post inspection, our A level creative writing students performed work from their residential week, to a packed studio audience. Their poetry and prose was witty, poised, serious and a balm to the soul. The anthology is called Everything In between, an apt title for the week. We’ve been scrutinised and picked over, our practice laid bare under 4 inspection headings but it’s everything in between that makes us what we are and who we are: Tallis happy, Tallis proud.