As well as using this as a place to discuss my ideas, I thought it might also be useful as a place to stick bits of writing – from shorter pieces to slices of a larger whole piece – on to get people reading, commenting and sharing ideas about my ideas and their own ideas when it comes to writing.
One of my current ideas was to tell a story based around the idea of academy schools, comprehensive schools, and the dangers of where they might end up if things kept changing to the nth degree. I am currently a teacher, and every year things change – nothing remains consistent. There are always new initiatives, new ideas, new ways of getting the pupils engaged and learning. Where might this end up? What would the education system be willing to change to make this happen? How far might accountability need to go to make the education system ‘work’?
Below is what I termed Chapter 1, but is effectively setting the scene. This isn’t specifically based on any school I’ve worked at, merely collating some of the issues that are reported in the news and exaggerating for narrative effect. I do hope that there aren’t any schools like this!
NB: The name ‘Inadequate’ is a link to the Ofsted gradings for lessons (though these don’t technically exist anymore). Inadequate, unsurprisingly, is the lowest grade a teacher could get.
If you took an hour out of your day and chose to walk the corridors of Mayfield Comprehensive School, there would be little to really surprise you – especially if you were a reader of the Mayfield Gazette. As expected of a rural regional newspaper, where the closest thing to ‘real’ news involved illegal fertilizer use in the run up to the annual Mayfair’s Biggest Vegetable competition, any hint of scandal was leapt upon like a bottle of water in the desert found by a lost, wandering man. To the Gazette, Mayfield Comprehensive might as well have been an oasis, and they had no desire to move until they had gulped down their fill.
If you took a walk through the wrought-iron gates, you’d begin to realise that unlike some media outlets, the Gazette only reported on stories that could be legitimately considered as ‘fact’. Admittedly, the types of stories that seeped out of the school wouldn’t need ‘sexing up’, any additional information liable to make the story even less believable, if that was possible.
As always, seeing is believing. Braving your way down the dimly lit corridors, you’ll see everything that was suggested in the newspaper – and more. Lack of funds may have caused many of the issues faced by the school, but all institutions these days know the value of a good PR manager. The stories that ended up in the paper were just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
As you walk down through the concrete playground, you’ll notice the eight smashed windows spread liberally across the school building, victims to balls blasted hopefully towards the rusting goalposts at either end. Cardboard covered the holes as best as possible, a vain attempt to make them less dangerous. Even as you watch, the wind catches the corner of a square of cardboard covering a ground-floor window, exposing the glass with minimal fuss.
In most schools, your first run in with the pupils would be in a classroom. Luckily for you, at Mayfield you would be welcomed by the Year 11 smokers, who stand in one corner of the otherwise empty playground. Ties, blazers and shoes were clearly optional, the crowd instead choosing to wear a general air of menace, surrounded by a suspicious smelling fog. Teachers who walked past would glance over and shake their heads, but quicken their steps less they made eye contact. This social norm opened up the opportunity to be attacked with a volley of abuse, merely for existing, it would seem.
First impressions of the teachers wouldn’t exactly be better. As far as advertising went, the reams of newspaper columns didn’t exactly inspire the best and the brightest of the teaching profession to sign their life away and work at the school. Some good teachers remained, blinded to the terminal decline of the school by their desire to ‘give back’ and ‘make a difference’, tired clichés that seemed to excuse poor choices.
Neurotic, alcoholic, disorganised, perverted – just a cross-section of the qualities the teachers of Mayfield Comprehensive brought to the educational table; arguably, the best ones. You’d see the twenty-two year old PE teacher who smoked forty a day, often to be found supplementing the Year 11s cigarette stash under duress. Similarly, you’d find the middle aged party girl, a perpetual hangover impinging on what limited skills she already had. At the other end of the scale, a creased, threadbare shirt would be wrapped around a creased, threadbare man who seemed to spend more time snoring than teaching. Rumour had it that he should have retired several years ago, a staff shortage and general ignorance being the only thing keeping him in a job.
Depending on the time of day, and what rooms you chose to look into on your wander round, you’d potentially see a myriad of other ‘features’ of the school. Year 10 students making out in the janitor’s closet. A screaming match between two Year 8 students using language that would make a marine blush. Petty and mindless acts of destruction and vandalism, each more pointless than the last: every third display board ripped and torn; suggestive smudges on white walls down the art corridor; A4 sheets of paper cut into the smallest pieces of confetti and chucked across the classroom; the crusts of a limp-looking ham sandwich rammed down the back of a radiator.
There is the classroom where the Head of Science and a cleaner made a sex tape that somehow found its way onto to school network. The closet where one of the Year 11 girls gave birth to a baby she didn’t realise she was having until her waters broke in Period 5 Religious Education. The corridor which still has the blood stains on the wall from a particularly violent altercation between two Year 7 boys involving a makeshift stabbing implement made out of a sharpened protractor. The office where an ex-English teacher chose to take photos of himself to share with the girls in Year 9, much to their dismay.
As you head back down the pathway, your steps will be quicker on your departure than your arrival. The air will smell sweeter, the sunlight just that little bit brighter. If you make the decision to take one last look at the school (unsurprisingly, some wouldn’t), you’ll be left with one overriding thought.
This is not teaching.
If, like me, you came from a privileged background where school was a place to enjoy the opportunity to learn, the world of Mayfield Comprehensive couldn’t be further from your own experiences, even with the slightly hazy rose tinting around the edges. That these places exist would be shocking enough; that they make up a significant minority of the potential places a child might spend their formative experiences makes the thought of their existence even worse.
No professional deserves to work somewhere like Mayfield. No child deserves to get an education from somewhere like Mayfield.
But it happens. Yet arguably, it could be worse.