School Days-not Always the Best Days

For four years, from the age of seven until eleven I lived with my family in a village in a remote part of north Norfolk-the part which is generally known as ‘The Fens’. Here the landscape is, at best minimalist-bearing no hills or trees as far as the horizon-only flat cultivated fields bordered by drainage ditches or ‘dykes’. At that time, the early 1960s, transport links were sketchy. Many village inhabitants had travelled no further than the village boundary and never to the nearest metropolis of Wisbech, six miles away, which was accessible by private car or by the school bus-leaving in the early morning and returning in the late afternoon. I attended the small village school until the ’11 plus’ examination decreed that I should make the daily journey to Wisbech High School, a grammar school for girls housed in an old building along the side of the River Nene. It was a culture shock. My primary school in the remote village had been tiny-only two classes-and now I entered an institution as disturbing as a mausoleum, with winding staircases, austere classrooms and landscaped grounds. We wore scarlet berets as part of our ‘outer wear’ and many of these could be spotted floating along the river each morning as we crossed the bridge from the bus stop, so that we soon learned to clutch our hands to our heads on the way over. I was relieved that my best friend, Gillian Farley had also ‘passed’ the exam and could share an experience which could only be described as a kind of endurance test for small girls. Our form mistress, Miss MacFarlane presided over us in a ferocious manner and with a draconian set of rules and regulations. She was also our mathematics teacher, an unhappy situation for those of us for whom maths was a constant mystery. Gillian was even worse off than I and was sent home one weekend with 2,000 [yes-2,000] lines to write on the subject of x times x = x squared. She’d committed the unforgivable sin of writing x times x = 2x. What a shocking crime! My red shoe-bag, proudly constructed by my mother as a money-saving ploy, was not quite the same ‘red’ as everyone else’s. My gymslip, again a proud home-make, did not appear to be shop bought. These differences led to daily mortification. Small errors, omissions or mishaps were punished by shaming order marks, a collection of three leading to detention. This would mean staying behind after school in the library and copying from books, a huge deterrent to those of us who would then miss the only bus home at the end of the day. When I collected an order mark for forgetting to bring a text book to a class and having to share with someone I spent weeks worrying about getting two more. After we sat end of term exams our desks in the form room were positioned in ‘exam order’ beginning at the back of class, to affirm the superior status of those whose average was top as opposed to those at the front-near Miss MacFarlane’s elevated platform-who had struggled. Poor Gillian was one of these, doomed to spend form time under Miss MacFarlane’s disapproving nose. I had somehow managed to get myself into the anonymous ranks of the middle. Do schools like this still exist? I hope not! I could never reflect that days at Wisbech High School were the happiest of my life. No child should ever be terrified of school!

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School is nearly out

“Michael Gove axes six-week summer holidays for schools

The education secretary is warned a ‘free for all’ could emerge after headteachers get the freedom to set their own term dates”

 

                Little Govey, I suspect is one of the ‘teachers’ have too easy a life’ brigade. Once upon a time, when I was a key stage one school teacher I was, along with everyone else I knew in teaching, subjected to those old chestnut phrases long beloved of non teachers:

  • Nine to three job
  • Lovely! All those long holidays
  • What, another holiday?
  • Easy life!

                In time I learned a retort which was to silence the barbed, jealous swipes people made about my job. I’d simply say-“Why aren’t you doing it, then?”

                There are still numerous myths surrounding teaching as a job. Firstly, the ‘long, six week, summer holiday’ no longer exists [in the state sector]. It just about struggles to five weeks, for children. Take another two weeks off for the teachers. That’s the minimum time it takes to clear up from one class and prepare for the next. A primary phase teacher will have to organise a [probably new to her] classroom, label everything, cover display boards [like wallpapering an enormous room], put up initial displays covering aspects of reward systems etc, organise the students into different ability groups for at least two curriculum areas and prepare curriculum long term, medium term and lesson plans for each of those groups in each curriculum area, besides preparing the accompanying resources and making individual provision for anyone with individual needs. After the first year of teaching there will also be at least one curriculum area to manage, including an ‘action plan’ and the ordering and organisation of resources.

                How, I wonder does the education secretary imagine that all this is to be done if holidays are taken at random?

                For children nowadays it is more important than ever not to miss out parts of the term. The curriculum is carefully constructed in steps, with each next step built on the progress made in the last. To miss two weeks would be like watching the first part of a TV thriller followed by the last. You would be unlikely to understand what was going on without the middle section.

                Once the term begins, a teacher will be in place long before the bell rings for registration, getting out all the resources, loading up the computer with all the pre-planned teaching aids and preparing the classroom for the morning onslaught-then the same frantic activity at ‘lunchtime’ ready for the afternoon. Once the pupils have left there is sorting out, marking, assessment, adjustment of plans, meetings, training sessions, report writing, etc-on top of a demanding day with small children. More often than not, there will be more work to take home for the evening.

                There will also be stressful observations [both internal and with the dreaded ‘OFSTED’] to undergo. Manifestations of disruptive behaviour or low ability during observations are deemed to be the fault of the teacher, always.

                So, little Mr Gove, understand that such holidays as there are exist as a lifeline for beleaguered teachers.

                Oh…and parents…your children don’t go to school to be babysat…a school holiday is an opportunity for you to share experiences and fun as a family, not a time to be carped about as a nuisance. OK?

                Here endeth the lecture!