Nigel Henderson, Photograph of children playing outside, 1949–1954
You’re never more than 6 feet from a lawyer in London. I had a great email last term from one who’d had the commuter’s nightmare of being at a bus stop with a load of schoolchildren. Despite this, she wrote to offer work experience to the sixth former whom she’d heard expostulating so eloquently and accurately on Donoghue v Stevenson (about negligence, I had to look it up). ‘She formulated a perfect argument and wouldn’t let it go’ she wrote. ‘She’ll be perfect in court’.
Last week I stood in a queue for the Palace of Westminster, how I do gad about, earwigging on the conversations behind me. A brace of English lawyers were explaining life to a Polish third. They talked about the public school to which one had sent his children and the other was about to (no, I shan’t tell you which one). The Polish person asked if it was good: chuckling in a knowing way, one said ‘well, the sixth form’s pretty good for studying, playing poker and smoking’. I mused on this while ostensibly reading a report on teacher supply. First: I suppose if children are sent off to board then they have to do these things among strangers. Second: say that about Gasworks Comprehensive and it’ll bring the inspectors running across the fields in their long black coats. How the other half (7%) live.
We’re pretty pleased with our new reports this term so year 8 were experimented on. That happens a lot to year 8, just as well no-one’s stuck there permanently. Parents could see at a glance where offspring were doing well by the jolly shades of green: yellow and red not such happy news. Wily parents grasped this instantaneously and couldn’t be thrown off course by flimsy excuses. ‘Very useful’ one grimaced at me as she dragged the Boxer off to account for himself in Science.
He’ll recover. I stood on the bridge today and watched Break. Children swarm and mooch, muttering and shouting. I watched a new starter rush to hug her new friend (she’s got that Tallis habit quickly) and some older boys trying to eat crisps and chase each other at the same time. A laughing year 10 was having her hair re-done. Footballs were being simultaneously confiscated and encouraged depending on the zone. At the end we did our outrageous whistling, clapping, shooing and shouting routine to hassle the hordes back into class. I explained for the fiftieth time why we’ve put part of the bridge out of bounds and thought for the sixtieth time about whether there’s a better way of doing it.
We’ve invited consultants amongst us recently to give a couple of areas the onceover. They’ve been worth every penny, encouraging us to think in a slightly different way about the future. How do you get the Boxer dog to a state where he can’t stop himself explaining tort law at the bus stop? How do you get the reluctant 12 year old scientist onto a space shuttle?
We start with the end in mind while seizing the present reality of a child. It’s quite a balancing act: we value the person she is now while we hope to help her become someone we won’t know and may not even recognise. We do it in partnership with parents and the people at the bus stop. We let them be children while we form then into adults that might make a better go of changing the world. And the richness of our community gives them something extra so they can hope to breach the fortresses of privileges. They have to smoke and play poker in their own time.