A bigger threat than pirates and a wobbly crocodile

9th January 2009 at 00:00

Bin bags? Check. Wet wipes? Check. Latex gloves? Check. A large box of headache pills? Check. The list can only mean one thing: the annual pantomime trip for Year 7. Madness, I know. The headache pills are for staff, the other items for the inevitable vomiting child. Coach journey, excitement and sweeties galore always prove fatal.

This year we are off to see Peter Pan. A pupil confidently tells me that Peter lives in Neverland, which apparently you can reach via the second star to the right and by going straight on until morning. We are going in a convoy of coaches - hopefully equipped with sat-nav.

We arrive and scale the dizzying heights of the upper circle to take our seats. I rue the decision to wear my stilettos: the vertigo is literally nauseating.

The opening scene depicts the idealised family life of the Darlings. A stay-at-home Mom, a professionally employed Dad, three kids and a dog - oh, and servants. It is indeed family life, but clearly not as we know it.

The pupils do not seem to mind and are already making a cacophony, not unlike a flock of sugar-fuelled parrots. Ten minutes in and the all-too-familiar chorus of "It's behind you!" has begun, along with hissing and booing at Captain Hook, the villain we all love to hate. There are fairies, pirates, even feminist Red Indians, so it is an ideal choice for our first co-educational trip.

Indeed, the girls seem to be holding their own rather well, especially when the school gets a name check in the second half and the entire year group goes wild with pride. I never knew that girls could scream that loud, that high, or indeed for that long.

In the interval, I regret not having ignored the credit crisis and invested in ice cream shares, given the gallons that Year 7 manage to consume.

We laugh collectively at the most ridiculous, wobbling crocodile I have ever seen, in a shamefully bad costume on wheels. Its presence on stage is announced by the music from the shower scene in Hitchcock's Psycho, which is rather alarming. No wonder Captain Hook has crocodile issues. I think I, too, might have them now.

Support for Peter Pan is immense. When Captain Hook uses pirate poison to try to kill him, one of our boys yells out "Evil!", and who would disagree? We love the Lost Boys with neither a father nor mother to read them a bedtime story.

We adore Tinkerbell and gasp when we realise that tragedy is almost upon us as her light fades after another evil trick from Captain Hook. Fortunately, the magic cure of fast hand-clapping and wild stomping of feet is one that our Year 7s are experts at, and Tinkerbell lives to twinkle another day.

We even suspend our disbelief at Peter's flying, despite the wires being utterly visible. For a while we believe - we really do believe - in flying and magic and happy ever after.

The curtain falls and we trudge back in the drizzle to the waiting coaches. I try thinking wonderful thoughts to make us fly over the traffic, to no avail. Maybe it's because we lack a sprinkling of fairy dust.

I sit and hope that this year there will be no more lost boys, or girls come to that; that a child does not have to grow up in a household like the Darlings' to do well at school; and that the link between poverty and educational attainment can be firmly broken.

No amount of magic cures can take away the hard reality that our pupils' life chances are determined by the disadvantage of social class. Looked-after children are five times less likely to get five good GCSEs than the average. It is even worse for white working-class pupils.

Those Lost Boys really did not have much of a chance, did they? Perhaps that explains why Peter Pan just did not want to grow up. Perhaps he knew that his life chances were not looking that good.

Research commissioned by the National Union of Teachers and National College for School Leadership shows that after 60 years of the welfare state and a decade of free compulsory education, family income and status are by far the most significant correlates of success in the school system. Gender is also a significant factor, but the social class attainment gap at 16 is allegedly three times as wide as the gender gap. No wonder the Lost Boys were keen to be taken in by the Darlings.

All children, except one, grow up, begins the tale of Peter Pan. This year, let us ensure all our children not only grow up, but grow out of the cycle of poverty.

Julie Greenhough, Teacher of English at a London independent school.

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