Walter Langley – Never Morning Wore to Evening but Some Heart Did Break, 1894
Friday night detention is for those who are yet to learn from previous mistakes. It's an unpopular gig and opinions can overheat. Madam decided that the universe intended better for her and flounced out. Fuelled only by righteous indignation as far as the block 6 stairs she found a younger inmate in despair. Anger drained away at the sight of a soul in distress, needing safety and help. She knew where to find it - in the detention room under its firm but kindly Ms. Madam returns, discovery in tow, this one won't stop crying miss, we need help. All are bundled into my room next door and support summoned. She is immaculately kind. She promises undying help and support and when her protege is spirited off to a kinder place, reviews her earlier decision and sticks into some science. An apology is effected, detention done, soul saved, all's well etc. Her internal watchman prevailed.
I've spent the last 4 Saturdays with an outfit that trains heads of department and suchlike recipients of the above unreasonable behaviour.
Do you know the Principles for Public Life? What matters to you? Can you recognise malpractice and irregularity? Has anyone tried to make you do something professionally you know to be wrong? On what grounds do you make decisions?
We look at the Aristotelean virtues of courage, temperance, greatness of soul, magnificence, friendliness, justice, wit, friendship, generosity, even temper and truthfulness. We think about what kind of role models we are to the young. We consider old Kant who said that our duty to make children's lives bearable is a consequence of the act of procreation. We reflect on justice and I tell them that equal opportunities lip-service just gets you meritocracy, a cabinet full of old Etonians and a list of top 20 universities with shameful numbers of undergraduates educated at state schools.
We move on to the great American jurist Rawls and his Veil of Ignorance : if you knew nothing at all about this child, would this education you offer be right, be just? We consider the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the failure of schools under murderous regimes to protect their young. I suggest (tediously, year after endless year) that we need a code of ethics, like the medical Royal Colleges. After that, good old English case law can do its stuff and build up our understanding and our practice. I make them think about how their teams and their future schools should run on ethical principles. About how to translate all of this into talking to actual teachers about their actual behaviour and practice and making children's lives better.
So aren't I Mrs Perfect with all this theory? Never an error, never a duff decision, philosophical purity perpetually oiling the Tallis wheels? One of the exercises in the sessions is to plan a meeting to set out the way a staff team should behave. I'm not talking about inspirational visionary speeches to launch a new role: any old fool can use fine words with people you don't know. I get them to think about what they'll say to people with whom they have some history, where emotion and embarrassment might blister fine words a bit. About trying to make the right decisions in circumstances of unavoidable ambiguity, about marrying fundamental principles and democratic demands, about the pitch and roll of school life. About doing the best you can.
Madam can be manipulative and witty, furious and foul, but this week she made a split-second decision that required getting over herself. She came up against someone else’s pain and put herself second. She had faith she'd find help because she trusted her teachers to be unyielding walls of security against which to batter herself in safety. In an optimistic moment, before she drives me barmy again I dream that one day she'll remember that kindness, integrity and learning go hand in hand, and that might help her into the future. It heartens me, when times are out of joint.
Unlike the Irritating Pronouncement From An Academy Chain Leader #400 this month. Say it in an outrageous Yorkshire accent: 'You can turn a school round in 7 weeks' [whatever that means]. No you can't. You can make self-satisfyingly macho decisions in 7 weeks, and change some stuff that's egregiously wrong. Building a community on right principles takes years, and it involves, maddeningly, keeping faith with Madam.
I finally read Harper Lee on the train last week and her magnificent musing on morality, principle and relationships. Bringing up Madam takes time. Don’t cut corners. Look to your ethics. Go set a watchman.