TV's John D'Abbro invited me to speak at his annual behaviour conference this week. Fans of telly school owe him a debt beyond measure, for it was he who provided weapons grade entertainment for us in 2010's now legendary Jamie's Dream School, which older viewers might recall as being after Crackerjack but before Will O the Wisp.
D'Abbro was the beleaguered head teacher of the cockney connoisseur Oliver’s optimistic celebrity edu-bingo. While Jamie was handing out well-dones to everyone - no matter how surly or unproductive - John was firefighter-in-chief. I gave him blog beats over his apparent lack of impact, until the man himself told me that due to the narrative rules of Jamie's Fight Club, no one could be expelled or excluded because it's telly. Which rather cut his balls off as a head teacher - after all, with no terminal sanction, all other sanctions can be ignored. This is something that non-excluders often forget. It's a lovely sentiment, to say that no one gets left behind, but smart, surly kids realise this means that God is dead, and anything is possible, if you have the front to just say no to teachers, ad infinitum.
John's one of my heroes of education, and I use that word rarely. He runs the New Rush Hall Group; EBD schools and PRUs in Redbridge, with more laurels from Ofsted and others than is decent . Those of us in mainstream schools complain about behaviour, but almost every one of the NRH kids have EBD statements or SEN.
It would be easy - understandable even - to conduct such institutions as a panopticons, and make them Alcatrazes. But NRH School is no such beast. John's heart pumps for these kids - I have rarely witnessed such raw compassion for the well-being of his charges, and he does what the best heads do - bleeds for the school, feels it like one of his limbs. Like the Fisher King, the land and the King are one.
I expected his staff to be straight outta Prisoner: Cell Block H, but instead I found warmth and certainty. The SAS of behaviour management are, it seems, more Florence Nightingale than Dogs of War. The devotion they showed to excellence in behaviour management was shown by the fact that they hold a behaviour conference, every year. How many schools do that, or even treat behaviour as more than a footnote to the agenda?
I wish I didn't have to write about behaviour so much, but I do. The TES Behaviour forum still hums, and new teachers still drop out like Chelsea managers because of student misconduct. The tough, or merely stubborn usually survive, but Darwinism shouldn't be the way we select teachers. One day I hope I'll be out of this second odd job of mine, but I don't see it happening any time soon. Not until schools start treating ‘behaviour’ with the same importance as ‘teaching and learning’, the latter being the agenda point that ate Manhattan.
Until then, I’m glad that headteachers with vision like John still place good behaviour at the heart of their training and mission statements, knowing that it makes the difference between success and failure for most kids. Nowhere is this more apparent than in schools like New Rush Hall; but these are merely polar extremes of what happens in schools every day.
The same day I dropped into the annual TES School Awards, this year in the Park Plaza, Westminster Bridge, presumably because last year’s Mayfair Hilton was too downmarket. Last year’s charge d’affairs Rob Brydon was outgunned by this year’s Dara O’ Briain, who rattled through *** and jaysuses at Tommy-gun speed. (Sample line: ‘Three o’clock in the afternoon? Are you not all working a bit late?’ ). He reminisced about exam hall-roulette, where invigilators would play chicken as they walked towards each other in the columns between anxious children; he also suggested the shameful practice where one invigilator would pep up the boredom by standing behind the ugliest child they could find, and challenge their colleague to top it. The last time I saw anything like that was in West End saloons, where bartenders would hand out red balloons to girls they fancied, and white ones to...well, you get the picture, albeit not a pretty one.
The awards (all red balloons, of course) were handed out in gloriously rapid measure (Dara: ‘Say thanks and beat it’) but nobody minded. The joy of the participants was contagious; the delight of those grabbing the Gold was incendiary. A table next to me went full Krakatoa as they hooted and back-flipped to hear Dara repeat their name.
Some decry award ceremonies for teachers: after all, they aren’t an objective measure in any way. But that misses the point: this isn’t the Olympics, where fastest times and longest leaps can be measured by a tape; this is the Oscars, a celebration of the profession with no need to feel representative or claim to be definitive. This was a room full of people who worked hard because they felt children deserved it. People who turn up to the cross on the floor, say their lines, go home, and do the whole damn thing the next day and then the next. Because, unlike fiction, the job of the educator isn’t to inspire - that’s a by-product, if you’re lucky, and a fool’s errand towards which to aim unless you’re ruined with Messiah-complexes, in which case you shouldn’t be allowed near a school. The job of a teacher is to reach out to children with love, and boundaries set by love, and show them a world beyond their imaginations. To steer them, not simply along their factory settings of what is convenient, appealing or novel, but through dark woods, difficult terrain, and deserts. Every day we offer them the chance to trip full speed into failure, then wait for them to get up, offering a hand if needed. Then we help them do it again and again, until they don’t trip. Every winner at the awards deserved their medals and more for remembering this.
This isn’t a job for an egotist; it’s the career choice of a chess player; you push pieces together and try to get every one of them to the other side of the board. You might have to settle for check, or a draw, but you never concede mate, right up to the minute they leave the school. Sometimes not even then.
This isn’t a game for people who want adoration; it’s a game of graft, patience, and hope. It’s a long game, because growing up is a long game, because learning is a long game. You give them everything you’ve got for every second you stand in front of them and you never once ask them to be grateful because that was the deal when you signed it. Even if you inspire someone, you don’t get to call yourself inspirational, because it doesn’t work like that; we don’t self-anoint. If a kid leaves school and later says you were good, that is the highest accolade you can have, irrespective of whether they showed it at the time. If you’re lucky and you get a card, or more likely an email of thanks, then pin it to a wall and look at it every time one of your kid believes in himself less than you do, which will be frequently.
We do this because it is our duty; we do it because we must; we do it because they need us to do it.
We do it because it is the endless debt we owe to each other. As we finish another school year, we should never forget this