Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends. We’re so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside.
Its jolly nice to be back after half term. Holidays are funny things: we press pause for a few days, then start again exactly as before, knowing what we’re doing and when, pressing play on the second half of the year. Schools are always running. No matter where in the world you are, someone is teaching fractions, someone is asking a child a rhetorical question, someone is mopping a tearstained face and someone is irritably counting back scissors.
We’ve had a visitor this week to the show that never ends, another civil servant on the DfE Immersion Scheme. It’s good to be put on the spot by an intelligent stranger who’s come to learn. The first thing they say is ‘I thought it would be different’ meaning ‘inner-city, multi-ethnic, big, sweatshirted, I expected to be terrified’. The second thing is to try to make sense of what they’re seeing through the lens of their own experience at school. We all do that and it’s a besetting problem in education policy. Everyone’s been to school, so we carry our bags, heavy or light, from that experience for the rest of our lives. Adults either want schools to be better for children now, or as good as they used to be. Generally, it doesn’t make for clear analytical thought.
Despite that, we had lots of long and really interesting conversations. Our guest met with Head of year 11 and learned some pretty arresting facts about children who don’t have much English. He tangled with our budget and the flexibilities (ahem) of the PFI scheme that maintains our building. He spent time talking about teaching quality, and teacher workload, and reflecting on the pressures that social media bring to the nation’s young. He did a walkabout and couple of break and lunch duties, and some A level philosophy. He heard an options assembly and spent three hours in the same seat in a classroom watching a skilled teacher swap from A level, to mixed ability year 8, to a group of children for whom learning is more slowly acquired. And he asked a lot of questions about policy, and why we aren’t an academy. And while he watched and asked, the show went on.
The sharper readers will have spotted ’walkabout’ above and might have raised a quizzical eyebrow. We have a timetable of senior staff who use non-teaching time to keep an eye on the place and monitor behaviour and learning. We literally walk about, covering the whole building every hour, all by slightly different routes and methods. It takes me nearly an hour to get around, but I am shorter in the leg as well as longer in the tooth. Others nip around quicker, other stop to chat. Sometimes you can be waylaid by an incident that means you don’t get very far: a truculent child, a seagull in the building, a nasty smell. Usually everything is quiet, the show running smoothly.
In school there’s always something to do next and somewhere to go, something to discover and something to achieve and the show is multidimensional. But as you leave block one and go to block two, art and English don’t stop existing because you’re looking at science and tech, and the children you see in year 10 are still the same people you taught in year 8. ‘Walkabout’ isn’t a derogatory use of an ancient spiritual quest, but a vital experience for all of us who do it, convenient or not. As we walk we interpret the school as it develops and the children grow around us. The show is never-ending and always the same, but the children are all different from the others who have gone before and from who they were themselves a year ago, a week ago, a day ago. Our institution protects them because we’re unending and stable, always the same but always changing too. With all that going on, we walk it because we have to know it.
When I set out on Tuesday I saw a pair of year 8 girls whom I love to watch at play. Both had an awkward and difficult start to year 7. It took time and tears to settle, too much of it alone. Somehow, someone put them together and now, utterly inseparable, gloriously happy in each other’s company they laugh all the time and it make me smile just to see them. I hope their friendship is a show that never ends.
And I hope our guest remembers the never-ending show when he’s back in Sanctuary Buildings. When I waved him off I told him to come back any time. He’s been on walkabout too and he can come back to check out his thinking. We’ll all be the better for it, now and into future. Come inside, come inside.