20 years and out: So long and thanks for all the fish

Bernard Trafford takes a bow on two decades as a Tes writer and columnist - and calls on Douglas Adams for some final sage advice

Bernard Trafford

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Way back in 1978, when I was doing my teacher training, the first radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was broadcast.

It starts with the scheduled demolition of planet Earth by a Vogon space-fleet to make room for a new Intergalactic Space Highway.

Our hero, Arthur Dent, escapes, with his alien friend Ford Prefect.

But they’re not alone.

It’s later revealed that the global population of dolphins, those supremely intelligent mammals, left the planet in the nick of time, leaving a message for humanity: “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”

My generation still delights in such cultural references as “knowing where your towel is”.

Moreover, at times of crisis (such as the present), we know that the rallying cry of “Don’t panic” relates not so much to Dad’s Army’s Corporal Jones as to the large, friendly lettering on the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide.

Meaningful advice

Fast forward from 1978 to 2020 and I’m being sent some touching messages of thanks from two former students, long-established professional musicians to whom I taught music variously between 1978 and 1984.

Both are elite performers: you’ll have seen one regularly on TV, backing top artists, while the other conducts regularly and inspirationally in major concert halls.

I presume both are freelance and self-employed so, unless their normal patrons or employers are especially generous, they’ll be receiving no income. My heart aches for the performing arts, and for those who work in them.

I worry about them, and about performing artists in general. Alas, so many things and so many people demand our concern in this unprecedented time: and there’s little advice one can usefully give.

Advice, experience and criticisms

That’s something new. When I retired in 2018, I reckoned 28 years of headship qualified me to keep writing regularly about education.

I could claim to have encountered most problems likely to confront someone brave (or unwise) enough to try running a school. And, if I hadn’t, I surely knew someone who had, not least because I’d served on the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL)’s Council for many years and done a lot of work across sectors and phases.

Thus I’ve felt able to sound off where I’ve thought my experienced voice might help. I’ve lambasted successive governments for underfunding, micromanaging, messing with structures, failing to listen to teachers and school leaders: for bullying parents as well as schools, talking tosh about standards and, too often, trying to drag education backwards to a mythical golden age that never existed.

I’ve criticised bodies and quangos for too readily bowing to government pressure: exam boards and Ofqual for perpetuating bureaucratic and mechanistic systems that discourage creativity and originality; safeguarding authorities for creating labyrinthine procedures that spread more confusion than light; and Ofsted for adding to the problem of over-accountability.

By contrast, I hope I’ve sufficiently praised and encouraged teachers, school leaders and support staff: those wonderful people who work miracles day in, day out, create opportunities for their pupils and share their joy when they surprise themselves and their parents with what they achieve.

However, I’m not convinced that any of my long experience actually equips me to advise teachers or their leaders on how to “do” school in the current pandemic.

Don't panic

The principles and values that drive us remain unchanged and must never be compromised, but the “how to” is an area in which I’d be arrogant to claim expertise.

Although, I guess I could simply repeat that helpful mantra, “Don’t Panic!”

Thus I must conclude that the bell has finally rung to mark the end of school for me: after many years of writing for Tes (I’m not sure how many, but possibly 20, on and off), and the last four or five contributing a weekly blog, it’s time to call a halt.

I’d like to express my thanks to anyone who has been able to face reading me more than once, and heartfelt gratitude to the great people at Tes who have put up with me, badgered me to meet deadlines and knocked my writing into shape.

Above all, good luck to everyone who continues to serve that noblest of purposes: the education of the young.

Finally, since I’m bailing out while my erstwhile colleagues battle with the most difficult of periods in education, I’ll close with Douglas Adams’s dolphins to say: “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”

Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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