A fictional hero with his roots in reality

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
John Mitchell looks back on one of our longest-running features, Morris Simpson's School Diary

Anniversaries tend to pull you up by the short and curlies, don't they? If you'll pardon the expression. But pulled up I was, by the revelation that 2005 sees The TESS's 40th year - and that I had thus been involved as Morris Simpson's amanuensis for over half of the newspaper's life.

It was never meant to be thus, you know. Obviously, I've known Morris Simpson intimately for many years; indeed, I have been so close to him that, as well as knowing his every waking thought, I am frequently called upon to blow his nose and eat his dinner. But when Morris asked me to suggest a regular column back in the summer of 1984, I hadn't anticipated it lasting beyond the two probationary years that were originally agreed.

I suppose, in some respects, 1984 was a propitious year for the start of the column. From where I sat, it was plain to see that some of Orwell's forecast absurdities were most definitely happening in the world of education; funnily enough, however, the longer I've written the column, the more apparent it's been that such absurdities have always been evident. And as it was in the beginning, it is now, and, I think, ever shall be.

Indeed, I can date my own decision to abandon the profession I loved from two events in those mid-1980s: firstly, an in-service day about Standard grades where it became apparent that our "facilitator" (if the word existed then) knew even less about Standard grades than I did; secondly, a departmental meeting wherein my principal teacher presented us (against his own better judgment, it has to be conceded) with a 21-point checklist of grade-related criteria that he wanted us to use for marking creative writing essays.

It seemed ridiculous then, and it seems ridiculous now, so I decided to get out. However, before my tunnel came up on the other side, I had one of those inspirational moments that only arrive once in a lifetime - or on those occasions when you're so bored that you've got nothing else to think about.

The occasion? A staff in-service day at the start of term in Paisley Grammar School, 1984. Our rector, the redoubtable Bob Corbett - a man for whom I had the utmost admiration in so many other ways - had, on this occasion, fallen slightly short on the inspirational front. He had taken to reading aloud the (already tedious) Strathclyde Regional Council circular that had been distributed to all staff at the start of the meeting. I recalled from my college days that this was never a good teaching strategy, and fell to wondering what an idealistic young teacher, fresh from teacher-training college would think of it all - Morris Simpson was born.

A suggestion for a regular feature to The TESS was warmly received, with the admonition that a monthly, rather than weekly, column might be more easily endured - by audience and writer alike. Twenty-one years on, Morris Simpson's teaching career still lurches from one episodic disaster to the next.

And, although the initial episodes of "Morris Simpson's Diary" were culled from my own teaching experiences, the fact that I left the profession six months later proved the best move I could have made to fuel the increasingly bizarre - but always reality-based - experiences of Scotland's rawest teaching recruit. Because I started to travel the length and breadth of the country in my new role (as a publisher's educational representative), and suddenly - visiting over 90 per cent of Scottish secondary schools on a regular two-year cycle - my story-pool was enhanced considerably.

I was certainly in a unique position, that oft-ignored visitor in the staffroom, ear-wigging on a hundred tales from the chalkface every month, and adapting them for appropriate use. Or - as increasingly proved the case - I was the recipient of many an anonymous tale from a friendly principal teacher who wished, like me, to expose some of the farcical elements that comprise everyday life in a typical Scottish school.

And although I visit schools less frequently now, I am still indebted to an enormous range of contacts - you know who you are, folks! - who make sure that I am completely in touch with what's happening in all aspects of Scottish education.

It is to those contacts that I offer thanks in this celebratory column. At one stage in its planning, I had intended to revisit some of the more emotionally deserving moments of Morris Simpson's teaching career, but space restrictions do not allow such luxury. Simpson's mentor-figure, the late, lamented David Pickup, would have figured large in such reflections, not least because Pickup's character was based on a real-life, and similarly (apparently) cynical character, who nevertheless had the interests of pupils - rather than education - at heart.

Alas, the time is out of joint (and so is my space). So I can only conclude with Pickup's words of advice to Morris, as outlined in his Circumlocutory Theory of Educational Reform. It sums it all up:

"Upon leaving teacher-training college, you should choose the style and methodology of teaching that you wish to follow for the rest of your career. In subsequent years, and on many different occasions, you will be encouraged to alter that style and amend that methodology, because new techniques will come into vogue. Yours may seem out of date. At all costs, resist the temptation to change it because, within 10 years or less, your style will be back in fashion once again, and you will then find yourself praised for being at the forefront of educational reform. The whole bloody thing just keeps going round in circles!"

After 21 years of Morris Simpson's School Diary, new teachers - and old - should bear this advice in mind. You know it makes sense.

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