Their motto’s lovely and Latin but schools are similar. There are yards, classrooms and lavatories, tidy and untidy, fragrant and smelly. There are teachers scooping up stragglers with threats and jokes. There are local rules: don’t ask for cups, don’t knock on this door. There are queues being supervised simultaneously by the highest and lowest paid. There are traps for the adult unwary at every stage. How do you get in if the door’s locked? Where exactly is the loo? Is there a sink anywhere or shall I do that teacher thing and only wash my cup every half term in the dishwasher at home?
In the old days you found out through the staffroom. After waiting some weeks to be invited to sit, a new teacher would worm his way into a sub-group. You’d soon know where new exercise books slept unattended or another department’s photocopying code. Segregated by age, you could moan about your elders or recent graduates. You could unite in dismissal of the senior team and lay traps for the uppity, useless or ambitious. You could argue, play cards, mark books in a hassled sort of way, knit or, in the old days, smoke yourself to death.My first job was a huge school in south Birmingham. There wasn’t a smoking room but a smoking end, which you couldn’t see through the fumes: we were all smokers there, passive or active. My second staffroom was dominated by Marxist vegetarians and the third by a scots ex-PE teacher who’d had to come in from the cold when his knees went and learn how to teach poetry. (Which he did through Phil Collins lyrics: I taught in the room next door). That school was half-empty in a post-pit town. We huddled together at one end of a giant room like shipwrecked mariners, appositely sharing a dramatic sea view.
My first London staffroom was angry and overcrowded. It had a tea lady and a bar after hours on Fridays. There was a staffroom committee and the Head was only allowed in by invitation. The next one had staffrooms and smoking rooms on two sites, one in a barely-converted lavvy. It had a whiff of the grammar school with large tables and traditional seating arrangements. Colleagues would trick you into sitting in Miss’s armchair then watch her take your ears off. My final oldschool staffroom had the remnants of a school flat from secondary modern Domestic Science. One inhabitant rearranged the furniture whenever he fell out with someone so it was hard to know where to sit and impossible to know where not to.
Once we started rebuilding schools staffrooms died. Teachers got space to work in their departments, a huge improvement to working conditions but a genuine loss to school life. People don’t mix up so well any more and you have to make a real effort to meet. Worst of all, for the Head, you can’t just wander in and take the school’s temperature anymore. Everything’s a bit more formal, and we need to guard against too much of that. ‘Reply all’ emails, the scourge of modern life, don’t really do the trick.
But anyway, it’s on the concourses, corridors and yards of these beautiful new buildings that you really get the temperature. I’ve hardly had a moment to meet a child at the other school, but three year nines dropped by to bring me an ulterior motive. ‘Hello Miss’ they greeted me, politely. ‘Are you from Tallis? Does that mean we can wear trainers?’. So much for our marketing as the place for creativity and A level excellence, it’s the footwear options they’re interested in. I gave it to ‘em straight: ‘No’. An omnicompetent Scotsman appeared through the carpet. ’You taking a chance, boys? Away with you!’ They laughed, he shooed, learning was resumed.
The much-misquoted ED Hirsch described state schools as common schools not because we’re lowly but because we all do the same thing. Our character isn’t in besieged staffrooms but the characters of our young people. We should serve and support one another as we serve and support our young. It’s good to see that reflected in a another place, and to be welcomed. Honore et labore.