It left two very clear memories. First, of an ice-breaker task on the first residential. If you’ve been on leadership training you’ll recognise the type of thing, build the tallest free-standing structure you can with newspaper, string, straws and suchlike. I thrust myself into a leadership space pronto and we set about winning the session.
Not only did we lose but collapsed without a useful tower of any height because I’d put myself into a position for which I didn’t have the skills. I’m spatially poor and struggle to imagine or manipulate shapes in my head, the last person you want engineering any kind of tower. I had no idea how to do the task and failed, taking others with me. In the collective debrief, I became angrily defensive and quite upset. Too few educators have those experiences, so common to children, yet still they bone on about resilience. Hold that thought.
The other memory is of my group of three for the year-long programme. A colleague served at the school in Middlesbrough where a child was stabbed to death by an intruder in 1994. Wisely, he wouldn’t be drawn on how the school was recovering, always answering ‘too early to tell’.
We’ve had quite an exciting time since I last wrote, but it’s too early to tell how it’s all going to go. We won’t really know for at least 10 years, actually. An unexciting half-term break was followed by announcements about the return and the not-exams. Tallis logisticians and the blessed LA have leapt into action and we’ll manage the return just fine, looking forward to it. The not-exams are more complicated and we are slowly gathering guidance from exam boards, to whom we are still paying huge amounts this year. Which seems peculiar, but there you are. Old rope, anyone?
Playing alongside, the relentless refrain about lost learning, catch-up and recovery, about potential lost earnings and disadvantage all as a result of lockdown. We use no such language on HMS Tallis. The children have had an extraordinary experience and they know less stuff, but they’re still adolescents with expanding and developing brains, which will get back to feeding properly very soon. Politicians, be quiet.
Which led to a discussion about the budget. I say discussion, but actually I was arrested by my interlocutor’s opening gambit: why are very rich people allowed to make decisions about money for poor people? She got the benefit of Roberts’ maxim 427 which is that no one who’s never stood in a supermarket queue worrying that their card will be declined should serve in Parliament. Young Sunak not being short of a bob.
Following it up in the paper yesterday morning, I discover that Sunak quoted old Tennyson’s wondrous Ulysses. Well, he said ‘that which we are, we are’.
..that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
- Ulysses is misused by schools in the same way that Invictus is misused. Carve it on your doorposts all you like, but you’ll still expect children to yield most days. Not yielding is useful for a mythic warrior but very unhelpful in a Behaviour Policy.
- The definitive quoting of same was by Judi Dench’s M in Skyfall. Leave it there.
- It’s completely inconsistent with the message from Sanctuary Buildings where the mood music is set to Benny Hill-style panic with The Devil’s Gallop perpetually playing over the tannoy.
Yes, we are where we are. Yes, we want heroic effort when we get back together. Yes, young people may have been made weak by time and fate as everyone’s been locked in. Yes, they will be strong in will because that’s almost a definition of adolescence. Yes, we want them to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield in their learning.
But we expect many of them to do it in poverty. We expect them to do it trapped in a GCSE system where a third of them have to fail. We expect all of them to do it in the context of reverse social mobility which is worse than immobility because it entrenches, structures and guards advantage. Stories about lost earnings and the long-term failure of disadvantaged children, neither of which started with the pandemic, are messages from the heart of elitism to austerity’s children.
That which we are, we are. Know your place. Stop talking about rethinking assessment, school funding, the narrowing of the curriculum and the death of the arts. Stop talking about children’s mental health and teachers’ pay. Strive if you like, but you’re not equal, and we won’t yield.