I was making myself a pot of coffee (two scoops) when I noted a largish youth had breached the barrier and was using a roadblock bollard to try to hitch a stranded football out of the veranda gutter. I needed to remonstrate, but the locked soundproof door blighted the experience. As I mouthed ‘What are you doing, stop, depart’ and so on, he may have replied ‘only being useful, rescued two footballs already, no one else does it, what’s a boy to do?’ Or something else. Unable to get to him, I made a shooing gesture and he shooed.
Later that day I was in a zoom about the future of assessment, this being much on schools’ minds. We were discussing the utility of exams and their usefulness in encouraging people to think on their feet, against the clock, satisfactorily answering unexpected or devious questions. An interlocutor suggested that maybe only doctors or police sergeants needed this particular skill but I was having none of it. Everyone should have the pleasure of being able to dredge and reclaim a nugget of learning and apply it to an unexpected problem. Parents do it every day.
The problem is, of course, that that’s all we value now. Children’s 11-year education experience is validated by GCSE exams – or not, if exams don’t uncover your skills. Exams unlock the only door to the next stage of life. If you can’t open it, you’re trapped. Exams are really useful for competitive entry where places are short – onto some university courses, for example. They’re not a universal key. We’ve made them such because of it is an easy and cheap way of measuring education and, tragically, of measuring children.
Schools should prepare young people to be good citizens in later life. They need a range of experiences at school to help them feel common cause with their peers and they need to be equipped with the knowledge and skills that will help. We can’t afford to close the door on some young people because we can’t afford to find out what they know, what they can do for the common good as they grow.
May I make a diversion to Hartlepool, a windy spot on the north-east coast where I served some years? Many years ago the good burghers there elected a man dressed up as a monkey as Mayor. This is all to do with an incident during the Napoleonic Wars which you can look up somewhere if you’re so inclined and the chap in question – Stuart Drummond – did have a reason for the monkey outfit: he was Hartlepool FC’s mascot. At the same time, Peter Mandelson was MP, quite a contrast. The people of Hartlepool have been voting again this week.
Stuart was an old boy of the school which turned into the school where I was Head. He was a lovely man; thoughtful, humble and determined to do his best. He didn’t expect to get the gig but when he did he took off the monkey suit and set about being a figurehead for an exceptionally deprived town. Despite the shock he behaved in an entirely principled and proper manner through three terms as Mayor, a model politician in many ways. He didn’t bolt for the door, nor did he lock it behind him.
Doors open and close to admit and exclude. As Herbert and I discovered this week, shouting through a locked door gets you nowhere. Ours was locked until it’s safe to use again, but some doors are locked to keep people out and some doors only open to allow people to escape their responsibilities. We’d all be better off with two-way opening doors, like ours at school are meant to be – in both senses.
Today’s title is from a Louis MacNeice poem which caught my thoughts years ago
I will build myself a copper tower
With four doors out and no way in
But mine the glory, mine the power.
Whether he meant it like this or not, for me, the poem conjures an image of powerful people insulated from the lives of others, serving themselves, keeping people out while still protecting an escape route for themselves. It’s a depressing thought in an election season.
I hope that voters everywhere get politicians who’ll open doors wide enough to admit all of our citizens, present and future. I hope that folks who didn’t expect to win will be as good as Stuart Drummond. Most of all, I hope that they will prioritise education, schools, fairness and children.
Mr Williamson’s talking about phones again. Really, really, that’s not the most pressing issue in any school at the moment. My door’s open if you’d like to know what is.