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‘If our schools aren’t joyful, then society should feel scuppered’

The new ASCL general secretary misses school-life every day – but especially the joy of working with young people at this time of year

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The new ASCL general secretary misses school-life every day – but especially the joy of working with young people at this time of year

This time last year on the last day of term I was on stage belting out a crowd-pleaser from Les Misérables. In truth, given my voice and given my nerves, I suspect it proved a veritable crowd dis-pleaser.

But the audience of Year 11 and sixth-form pupils clapped and cheered anyway. They always did.

Another year, I was flaunting a wig, performing with a backing group of Year 11 football players, reprising my long-standing Christmas party-piece of Dolly Parton singing Jolene.

It’s a reminder that student audiences are very forgiving of their teachers.

Over the years I’ve been Justin Bieber, Michael Jackson, a never-specified member of Take That, various now-forgotten X-Factor celebrities, plus a character I’d never heard of from Pitch Perfect – a film I’d also never heard of.

The sixth-formers who persuaded me to learn that routine assured me that whatever I did, however badly I sang, however humiliating I found it all, the audience would love it. They did. Or, at least, they pretended to.

So many years, so many excruciating end-of-term performances, so many memories.

And here’s what I know now. It’s only when you step out of the rhythms of school and college life that you realise quite how joyful life with young people can be. For all we fixate on behaviour, progress and social media misdemeanours, there’s something that working on education’s frontline gives that few other careers can match.

A quirkiness to savour

I know that joy frequently rubs shoulders with fraying nerves and bone-aching tiredness, and I realise that teacher and leader workload is something we all have to address before the profession implodes. But there’s also a deep-rooted ethos in our schools and colleges that no office or factory can emulate for its life-enhancing optimism, its silliness, its authenticity.

I know this because it’s the first year in 33 when I haven’t been in the corridors or lunch queues.

The outside world only half gets this. Anyone of a certain age may recall that memorable moment in the 1981 movie Gregory’s Girl. It’s the story of a boy (Gregory) who falls in love with a girl (Dorothy) who’s just that bit more sophisticated, more aloof, more self-assured than he is. In truth, she’s never going to be Gregory’s girl, but she’s kind to him, and gentle, and lets him down in a way that leaves his dignity intact.

Then, in the background of one of the many school scenes, a penguin walks down the corridor. It’s a pupil of course in a penguin outfit apparently heading the wrong way. The teacher redirects him.

We never know why there’s a penguin in the corridor. But it’s as natural to those of us rooted in school culture as it is daft; it’s as predictable as it is unexpected.

Of course there’s a child in a penguin costume getting lost in a corridor. This is a normal school. Why wouldn’t there be?

And as the holidays kick in, that quirkiness of the UK’s schools and colleges is something we ought to savour. For all the trends towards corporate branding, conformity and compliance, these places must remain the joyful epicentres of our society. After all, they are filled with the nation’s young people, with their various skills and talents, hopes and dreams, aspirations and ideals.

Joyful and triumphant

If our schools of all places aren’t joyful, then society should feel scuppered.

Yes, I’ve missed being Dolly Barton this year. I’ve missed the communal Christmas dinners, the form rooms with their remnants of hastily unwrapped presents, children giddy and over-excited, irritating and irritable, and seeing even the surliest adolescent quietly caught up in the timeless charms of the season.

I’ve missed all this in a world now surrounded by adults.

But somehow not being so much on the inside has reaffirmed my commitment to the essence of what our schools and colleges ought to be – not children talked of as commodities for the results they might serve up next summer, where every conversation is about a target grade. Nor teachers measured in spreadsheets.

These are the places where one generation passes on its knowledge, culture, skills and ambitions to the next, doing so in all our frailties, our humanity, and sharing the joys of the silly things that make us human – smiles, laughter, unexpected performances by unexpected people, glitter and penguin outfits.

Happy Christmas.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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