James Gillray, Substitutes for Bread, 1795
Year 9 are a good distraction from education policy announcements. They lack the charm of children or the sense of adults and fall into disarray at the drop of a hat. Assembly presented some obstacles this week ; not huge, but they added up. 270 of them had to line up at the same time as 240 y11s doing a mock exam. A door to the hall was mysteriously locked. A step at the bottom of the raked seating was misplaced and much tripping begat some unseemly giggling, which had to be suppressed. Mind your step, we said. Don't be unkind. We are not toddlers.
Assembly started with a trailer for jolly jumper day, £1 for Young Epilepsy. We marvelled at year 12 Gina's jumper-I-made-earlier-out-of-one-of-my-gran's visual aid. Head of Year and I, doing our novelty double act, may have given the impression that we too would wear jolly jumpers of our own devising on Friday. Then we moved on to collections for Christmas hampers, as is our wont. The tone changed a bit then, to be honest.
Here are some things I didn't say : put your hand up if you didn't have breakfast because there wasn't any. Put your hand up if you had a meal last night. Put your hand up if you're hungry now at ten to nine. Put your hand up if you know there'll be food at home when you get in. Put your hand up if you're dreading Christmas because it makes you feel poor or if being away from your free school meal leaves you hungry for a fortnight. Head of year finished off: wear a Christmas jumper and bring in some thing for the hamper. You can do both - and most of our young people can, and will.
But I read that soldiers are needed to demonstrate character and grit to our children? I've seen skinny reprobates turned into respectable men by the army and, for some young people, it works a treat. Almost all the cases I remember were where young men were given some pretty basic support when they joined up: regular meals, reliable laundry, exercise, less access to drink and drugs, and a couple of years to grow up in. It's a rare serving soldier who's cold and hungry at home. What'll they say to a hungry and angry teenager? Join the army for a square meal? Show grit and determination in the food bank queue? Has anyone factored the high levels of ex-servicemen ending up in prison into this cosy picture?
I'm fed up with trivial and risible advice. We teach our young people character every day because its part of helping them grow up and we don't need a national award scheme to make us do it. True grit is doing your best under any circumstances without any hope of reward. Doing it when you're tired, upset, confused, cold, hungry. When no one's watching and it seems as if no one cares.
And fiddling about with private schools' charitable status is even more irrelevant. Are we meant to be grateful? Show me the public school with children who know how a food bank makes you feel. Show me the ancient foundation built for the poor that now serves only the unbelievably wealthy and the historically privileged and I'll show you a better way. And don't mistake privilege with learning: I'll match you top graduate for top graduate on my teaching staff and we'll see who can teach the hungry and the dispossessed and who only knows how to teach the wealthy.
The Tallis Christmas card says 'we remember the gift of children and our responsibilities to them'. To their development of character and learning, and to the things that'll help them grow up well and prosper, to succeed from a position of love and comfort or from a position where the bare necessities are sometimes out of reach.
Our Christmas concert was called Apricity - the warmth of the sun in winter. We'll have that warmth at our end of term celebrations as we enjoy each others' talents and idiosyncrasies. A bit of warmth and the light of understanding from government would be a welcome gift. Merry Christmas!