Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, A Child's Face, 1944, Theresienstadt (Terezin)
Year 11 English last week considered loss and beauty in the poetry of the Great War. Diverted from a film still of la Redmayne (‘he really is beautiful, sir’) and recommending further reading (‘there’s a lovely sonnet of Milton’s’) we tussled over the number of horsepersons of the apocalypse. One amongst us had forgotten Death who, as you recall, brings hell in its wake. GCSE approaches so I investigated how close we are to peak poem. ‘I’m working for an A*’ said one no less beautiful specimen, skilfully tangling himself in a roller blind and nearly falling out of the window.
War troubles me for all the usual reasons, though I don’t think I’m a pacifist. Holocaust Memorial Day in January troubled me more after I went to Auschwitz in 2006: not so much the camp as the bureaucracy. I think to myself – if you were a headteacher in such times, when would you know something was amiss? When would you worry? When would you act? Would you worry about having to submit the names of children of a particular group? How would you feel about the yellow stars? About an edict to segregate classrooms? If the attendance of particular children became something you weren’t accountable for? If they disappeared? If you ran a really successful school, followed all instructions properly and kept the system stable for the others? When is a headteacher culpable? When the men in uniforms appear in a truck for the children you’ve been told to line up in the yard, doing it as they’ve been taught and telling jokes to keep each other cheerful? If not then, when?
Children are easy to miss. Many of them are small and all of them are powerless. They are either weak and easy to neglect or adolescently strong and easy to corrupt. They like certainty and are poor judges of what is good for them. They get hungry and tired quickly. They can’t vote and don’t pay taxes. They are easy to kill.
Schools keep children alive because schools are where this society looks after its young. School attendance is a human good. If we see them every day we know they are fit and well while we try to push a bit of Spanish or algebra into them. School is about regularity, routine, walls of safety to batter against until you can look after yourself. Chasing persistent non-attenders is depressingly hard and helping children escape from that chaos unbelievably difficult. It can’t all be done by a workforce occupied in the parts of a volcano or the uses of copper sulphate. An old head once described the perfect Education Welfare Officer as having the personality of a Sergeant-Major and the speed of Linford Christie (it was a while ago), but they are disappearing with the fading of public services. How does a school, or a council, choose between keeping children warm or paying the people who’ll check that they’re still alive?
Free schooling up to adulthood is a great achievement of civilisation and education makes people live longer. We have a duty in school to make sure that adults don’t mess up children’s lives by withholding or denigrating education. Here’s to the schools that know where all their children are, every day, and here’s to the workforce who make that possible. Here’s to the attendance officers, social workers, youth workers and police officers who support us and the parents who persevere. Here’s to the whining school-boy with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like a snail unwillingly to school and here’s to the teachers who make sure he knows that Shakespeare said it.
It takes a village to raise a child and some of our villagers have council identity tags and unreasonable workloads. We are partners in protecting ourselves from error and our children from harm. Who’s campaigning on that manifesto?