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Charity begins

Mr Burger or Strangleton psychiatric hospital: bright prospects at St Brian's

Oriel Greer, our resident LEA adviser, has decided that St Brian's isn't big enough on professional links. She says we need to share best practice with other providers. The head, Alastair Scarlett, points out that we already have affiliations with other local institutes and businesses. He is particularly proud of our tie-up with Mr Burger, a fast-food chain that is not only the school's sponsor and canteen menu adviser, but also the biggest employer of ex-pupils in the area.

St Brian's also has a successful joint venture with Strangleton, the local high-security psychiatric hospital. Wendy, our learning support co-ordinator, visits Strangleton regularly to lead staff workshops on restraining techniques; in return, a few of our long-term referral unit inmates are allowed to visit the day ward to get a taste of life on the outside.

Oriel Greer is not impressed; she says we're operating in the comfort zone and we have to stretch ourselves. Then she announces that she's set up a twinning arrangement with the Hugh Young community school, a beacon institution that's a few hundred yards up the road but might as well be in a different continent.

For some at St Brian's, Hugh Young is a Shangri-la, a magical place where there is no suffering, just lots of nice middle-class children who want to learn. "Hugh Young!" someone exclaims. "How marvellous." Many staff have been attempting to secure jobs there for years. I myself was offered a post there last year only to be thwarted when the deputy head, Nigel Horsmel, told them I was a convicted child molester.

"It's not marvellous," shouts Orlando Jones, head of drama or, as he prefers to be known, senior theatre practitioner. "It's a bloody travesty.

There's bugger all those ponces can teach me. Let's see their value-added! Give 'em 10C for a day and see how far they get with their bloody best practice!"

Scarlett nominates me as St Brian's liaison officer for the project. He says he's cleared up the "misunderstanding" about my job reference; he's told the head at Hugh Young that the Criminal Records Bureau got me muddled up with another Charity Casement, a notorious paedophile.

So the following week I'm scheduled to meet my opposite number, Sylvia Millington, in one of our 1950s mobile classrooms. As I nibble on a stale custard cream and scrape Happy Shopper coffee from a rancid jar, the phone goes and it's Scarlett telling me there's been a change of plan. I'll have to go to Hugh Young because Miss Millington is suffering from panic attacks and has been advised by her doctor to stay away from St Brian's.

I am ushered into the foyer of the Hugh Young community school by a confident Year 10 pupil called Odin. I recall my last visit here when a spookily well-adjusted teenager showed me round and gave an impromptu lecture on modern art. "Where's Finola?" I ask. "She was the young lady who was manning reception the last time I was here."

Odin coughs. "Oh yes, poor Fi. She's back at Strangleton's, in the eating disorder ward."

I nod sympathetically. Perhaps our schools aren't so different after all.

Charity Casement is the alter ego of a north London secondary school teacher. Next week: Who's the management mole?

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