Educating Yorkshire 6: The Big C
Educating Yorkshire’s Viewmaster has two windows: a teacher and a pupil, loosely tied together by a narrative thread. This week: the charismatic workaholic Mr Steer, and Sheridan, who likes her mates, drawing her eyebrows on, and maths- probably thanks to the burly ringmaster Mr Steer. It's exam time, and those who flopped their November exams (remember them? That’s showbusiness!) have found themselves in Steer's resit class (remember them? That's showbusiness!). The aim? The Big C. Not cancer, but something that's equally become a blight on the way schools are run: the damned C pass.
It’s not that there shouldn't be accountability measures, but the way in which the Big C became a fetish for education has led to perverse gaming at the expense of professionalism and the intrinsic aims of educating. Once adopted as the key league table metric, like a cancer cell, it inhabited and overlewered the host. Perhaps we should call the show Attaining and Exceeding Target Measures Yorkshire.
Lots of us struggle on through illness, but Christ, did any teacher ever swim upstream so doggedly as our man Steer? Four weeks from the exams and he comes down with an allergy to…well, everything it seems. Remember when you used to hear about people who were 'allergic to the 20th century'? Well Mr Steer has that beat. The list of things he's allergic to sounds like a list of Julia Andrews’s favourite things, if Salvador Dali had written The Sound of Music: yellow lines, the colour red, raw chicken….I was waiting for him to say ‘ennui, ambivalence and Renaissance madrigals.’
And suddenly I realised who Mr Steer was, where I’d seen him before. He's the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. 'It’s only a scratch!' he shouts as he hops along on one leg. His disintegration accelerated, until we saw him dragging himself around the corridors like Brundlefly, and I- and all of Christendom- were shouting at the TV, for God’s sake man go home, see a GP, call a *** priest. Through the TV screen, this looked as clear a case of stress-induced obsession as could be imagined: the monomania, the unshakeable belief that without you the sky will fall, the slavish dedication to a mission despite the personal cost. Someone needed to step in and tell him to go home, because it didn’t look like self-preservation, that reptilian alarm call, would be enough. Fortunately Sheriff Mitchell did. Stress is a sad and funny thing: it drives some men to their sick beds, and others to the battlefield. It makes madmen of us all, and of course the anecdotal truth about true madness is that we fail to perceive it in ourselves.
All of us are important; none of us are essential. School is a curious blend of the individual messiah and the calm, anodyne support of the community. Children were learning before we entered the profession, and they will, presumably, learn when we finally take the Long Walk into the Last Playground. But you can hardly blame Mr Steer. The pressures of the job are enormous, and especially his job- Head of Student Progress. It isn’t enough that students do well, but now they have to do well relative to their own previous progress, and the cohort within which they reside. Yesterday’s personal bests become today’s minimum expectations, the market of intelligence and achievement must expand infinitely, and more than just grades depend on the outcomes: careers, schools, self-esteem teeter on such pivots. Schools aren’t islands in this world of high stakes accountability, but competitive archipelagos expected to cooperate, but judged comparatively. It’s hard to see this market as unlike any other market: the state of nature, a Darwinian war of all against all. There are a million Mr Steers, ostensibly in charge of great fleets, in reality at the mercy of the tides. Freud described stress as the gap between what we seek to achieve and our ability to achieve it. Has there ever been a role more responsible but less powerful than that of a middle- even a senior middle- leader at school? Pressure from above and below, from each side and from within. You’d need to live in a hyperbaric chamber to survive the pressure of those depths.
Steer was one of two Heroes of Education this week, not because he attempted to pass the Maths exam for every single one of his students- although he would have if he could- but because he cared so much about his kids he practically glowed; because his classes clearly loved him; and because he wasn’t afraid to step up to the kids when they disappointed him. Thornhill is lucky to have him. My other hero is Miss Stephens, Head of Geography, who made the unfortunate mistake of being new and a bit young, which is enough to make many kids build voodoo effigies of you. My favourite quote from her website bio: ‘When she's not teaching the kids geography, she's encouraging them to hoola-hoop, juggle and walk on stilts in her circus skills club.’ What’s not to love? Sheridan, this week’s Student Under The Microscope gave her a hard time, but Miss did what good teachers do, and nagged, prodded, poked and hassled her until she had no choice left but to succeed, which she did, nailing an A in her coursework (remember that? That’s showbusiness! etc). Maybe this was as good an advert as any for why coursework has been all but abandoned, but you’d need a heart of granite not to feel glad for her when she realised, maybe for the first time, that she could do well if she tried.
- Mr Barrowclough. I’m waiting for his episode, and there better be one dedicated to the Laird of Pragmatism, coming out with such gems as ‘There comes a time when bollocking is the only thing that will work,’ and, ‘Year 11 today are ***, and will probably stay *** for the rest of the day.’ Christ, I remember when one of the staff of Educating Essex got harrowed by the Scandal Rags for ‘Clear off ***.’ How far we’ve come.
- Hannah (or was it Lauren?)’s comment about their dreamboat Mr Steer. ‘He’s as brainy as Stephen Hawking. I’d love to see him versus Stephen Hawking.’ What, cage fighting? That’s dark.
- Sheridan in Geography: ‘Miss, this is the worst work in the history of work,’ she said, perhaps being a little unfair to the pyramid slave gangs of Rameses II. If justice ruled the world, we’d be allowed ejector seats for when kids say things like that. No crocodile pits, mind, I’m not that strict.
- Miss Stephens describing how the scales fall from your eyes after the first year in a tough school: ‘You start thinking that you’re going to change lives and it’s all going to be brilliant. Then you learn.’ Sad, true, and necessary.
And then after a few years you learn something else: you do change lives, but by degrees, mostly, not in a flash. And sometimes- just sometimes- you make a miracle happen.