I don’t know if you’d agree but some weeks are like an in-tray exercise in a particularly tricky interview. That’s not to say that we aren’t up to the challenge, of course: a good team can handle most things a large school throws up with calm and wit. You’ll find that with your new bunch. But some times are so unusual that you just have to wait and see what they resolve into, like one of those compressed towels in a glass of water. Ah, you say quietly after a while, that’s what this is. All hands to plan 7b.
World Book Day next week can also take some decoding. Some of the little ones like to dress up, but most characters in most books aren’t in any recognisable clothes. A general dress-as-a-character-in-your-favourite-book day just looks like an unfocused non-uniform day. Q: what have you come as? A: one of the class in Pig-Heart boy. An investigator in Life of Pi. Christopher in the Dog in the Night-time. Vera Stanhope (that’s me, any day, but with a more convincing accent). So: IF your outfit isn’t instantly recognisable – Hamlet, Professor Snape, Fantastic Mr Fox – bring your favourite book in instead, eh? Show art some respect.
I read a lot of school stories as a child, Malory Towers, St Clare’s, Chalet School, but I was too old for Grange Hill and I still avoid school dramas on the telly. I like big schools and producers can’t ever reproduce the hustle and bustle with limited child actors: assemblies just look like a couple of classes have wandered into the hall. There was a Lenny Henry drama once where he ended up jumping off the roof, cheerful, a Julie Walters one where she was irascible all the time, Teachers where no one did any work, and then Waterloo Road.
I was reminded of Waterloo Road by a young friend, Lucy Holt, winning the 2020 Anthony Burgess Prize for arts journalism last week. She observed:
...it was never going to win any BAFTAs. The plotlines are preposterous and the script heavy-handed. It ….offered sympathetic readings of unsympathetic characters and showed teachers, exhausted, spread too thinly between demanding pupils and inflexible higher-ups. It’s nuanced and unashamedly pro-public sector workers.
What’s more jarring though is a sense of faith in the state. If the students just achieve the grades they need they’ll ‘go on to college and get a great job’. It feels very New Labour and sort of quaint. …Writing in the same month David Cameron published his memoirs of the 2008 financial crash and the opportunity-crushing austerity it would bring in, this straightforward reading of the trajectory of social mobility no longer holds. It’s not the haircuts and early depictions of cyberbullying which make Waterloo Road a cultural artefact, it’s a belief in a societal system which was poised so imminently to come crashing down.
There are, of course, schools where this is absolutely true. The outputs and attitudes of those educated exclusively in the private schools or selectively in the grammar schools are exceptionally well-matched to adult success. It is bizarre, then, that current education policy often appears to believe that ‘If only all our children went to schools like the public schools or the grammar schools, they would all be as successful as the children who went to those schools.’ They are not scalable because their ‘success’ depends upon their exclusivity.
What are our children to do? Our children with their individually crushing austerity life-events, their bewilderment at the world’s leaders and their ghastly struggle against an educational system that requires 33% of them to fail every year no matter how hard they try. Will they all get good jobs, Mr Williamson? Is the window of opportunity going to open again for them, some day?
I note – also from the Guardian, apols - that Michael Rosen is writing to you too. He knows a thing or two about children’s books and the values of World Book Day and can spot fiction with the best of us. I note there’s going to be money for rough sleeping, police constables and hospitals. When will we get some money to support the Shakespeares, Rowlings and Blackmans of the future, the children from ordinary backgrounds who changed the world by their writing?
I’m looking at your government and trying to hold my breath. Is it going to ration education or fling the window open? What will I have recognised when I say ‘ah, that’s what this is’?