A scare on the eve of inspection

14th January 2005 at 00:00
For headteacher Willie Bailey, the moment of truth had almost arrived. He'd done all he could to put things right but what would the health police make of it? A short story by Douglas Blane

This is the life, Willie Bailey thought as he chomped on the last piece of burger and popped a fag in his mouth. Time for a smoke before a few hours' paper-shuffling. Then a short drive home, a fish supper and a night of telly. He scratched his belly in satisfaction. It was tough being a headteacher.

The door burst open and two policemen confronted him. "Are you coming quietly?" the taller demanded.

"What are you talking about? Get out. I'm in charge here."

"We're the Health Police, and what you're doing with this school is a crime."

The officer grabbed Bailey by the arm and shook him violently. But then the cold eyes of the law dissolved into the pretty features of Bailey's wife:

"What's the matter honey?"

"It's OK. It was just a nightmare."

But it was based on reality, Bailey realised while shaving that the inspectors were coming, and they were interested in more than test results.

These days they wanted to know if you were a health-promoting school.

Bailey tied a double knot in his running shoes and opened the front door on to a chilly morning of wet pavements and leaden sky.

Ten minutes into his four-mile run to school, the rain came. He recalled what an old fell-runner once told him: "Don't worry about rain, son. When you're soaked, you don't get any wetter."

By now the oxygen in his blood and the pink streaks of dawn had raised his spirits. Everybody worries when the inspectors come. But the slob in the dream wasn't him. These days he took care of himself, and his school.

Preparation was all. You had to be doing well, and to know where you could do better. Today, he would look at the school he had managed for five years through a stranger's eyes.

First impressions weren't bad, he admitted, as the old redbrick building came into view. It wasn't pretty, but it looked clean and cared for. No weeds in the playground, no litter or graffiti. These things made a big difference.

Pupils had been ambitious with their grant from Grounds for Learning. He'd been happy with the flower-boxes, the outdoor classroom, the games painted on the playground, and the wooden toadstools for infants - Drumbrochan being a primary-secondary campus.

But the joint pupil council had decided to turn a large corner of the playground into a wildlife garden, and some boys had volunteered to bring pick-axes to dig up the tarmac. When one lad proposed digging a swimming pool too, Bailey began to panic.

But there was no point, he believed, in telling kids they could make decisions and then overruling them. He was no longer surprised by how sensible pupils could be when they felt trusted. And sure enough, one of the girls had put his own thoughts into words: "Don't be daft, Tyrone."

And that was the end of the swimming-pool.

Then young Adam had said that tarmac didn't have to be removed: if you broke it up a little and spread topsoil, plants would grow fine. That was three years ago, and they had.

Parents, pupils, teachers and a couple of local businesses had made the garden a lovely place, Bailey thought, as he cooled down. In the teachers'

showers, he recalled that a priority this year was to install individual showers for boys. Girls' showers had been fitted in a bid to get them active - a big challenge.

It had worked to some extent, but communal showers were just one deterrent to physical activity for girls. Persuading them that running around and getting sweaty could be cool was tough. The secret, he thought, was to offer variety and single-sex activities.

Netball, hockey, rugby and football were still on offer at Drumbrochan, but also on offer were dance, aerobics, capoeira, yoga, climbing. And the list was growing.

Dressed now, Bailey surveyed the school gates from his office window. Kids and teachers had been arriving for a while, many on bikes that they parked in the new bike-sheds. All would have followed safe routes to school.

One of the walking buses that came from all directions and picked up kids and adults on the way, hove into view. And with that, Bailey sat down to plan his day.

Half an hour later he was amid a herd of animals, a role-play exercise from The Class Moves, a progressive programme of movement and relaxation for primary pupils.

As he watched an owl flap its wings, a stork stand on one leg, a cat arch its back, Bailey was struck by the variety of shapes, sizes and stages of development that meet the eyes of all teachers. A lad lying on the ground, his head gently rocking, puzzled Bailey since he didn't seem to be any of the animals suggested.

"What are you?" he asked.

"I'm a tortoise."

"But they don't do anything. Shouldn't you be a lion or a buffalo?"

"Leave Timmy alone," the active primary school co-ordinator told Bailey briskly. A well-muscled young woman, Dawn Adams had popped in today to see how the Drumbrochan teachers she trained last year were getting on.

"This isn't about telling kids what to do," she explained. "It's about getting them active, helping them learn about their bodies, feelings and senses. The biggest part of being healthy is knowing yourself.

"Next year or next week, Timmy might be a big bear crashing through the woods. Today he's a tortoise hiding in the grass. That's fine."

Bailey left as the kids finished their five-minute warm-up. All around the school, pupils would be settling down to lessons that bit livelier, more alert, more co-operative.

As he walked along the corridor and down the wheelchair ramp, Bailey couldn't quite put his finger on a connection triggered by Dawn's words.

Then it came to him: good health was like a good inspection - self-awareness was the key. But where heads had the edge over pupils, who couldn't buy human-being instruction manuals, was that they had the Health Promoting School.

A notebook and a few pages of quality indicators from this HMI document were all Bailey carried with him today. He consulted the former to see what the next item on the agenda would be. "Great," he thought: "Sex, drugs and violence."

When Bailey was at school it was older kids who told you about sex, and sometimes science teachers, who were good at what goes where. Now pupils got sex education, with continuity and progression, from middle primary to upper secondary, taught by well-trained teachers and nurses.

Drumbrochan's education authority had been one of the first to provide continuing professional development in sex and relationship education, and Bailey had attended the course with his first group of teachers.

Knocking on the fourth-year classroom door, he went in to find boys and girls discussing sex before marriage. Ten minutes later, redder around the ears but unconcerned, Bailey thanked the class and left.

The first session of the course had reassured him about this reaction: "If nothing you hear in SRE makes you uncomfortable, you're too thick-skinned to teach it to kids."

Bailey turned the corner to meet two police officers striding towards him.

Instantly he was back in the dream. Adrenalin surged into his blood and his heart-rate soared. "Morning, Mr Bailey," the woman greeted him. "You coming to our drugs lesson?"

Bailey took a deep breath. This was how his teachers felt a dozen times a day -hormones sloshing around with nowhere to go, damaging their bodies, shortening their lives.

It was why he offered them meditation, stress relief and chair massage. It was why he had had his entire staff trained in "assertive discipline", the system built on the philosophy that kids should be taught good behaviour, just as they are taught maths or English.

When applied across the school, the system's practical techniques had dissolved much of the low-level indiscipline that made teachers' lives stressful, and were the springboard for serious incidents.

The class fell silent when they caught sight of the officers' uniforms.

This was a tough bunch, Bailey knew. Many would be no strangers to the police. Most would have experimented with drugs.

To get through to them, the message had to be right, and so had the messenger. Miss Pringle from Leafydale, who was scared of needles and never smoked, had no chance. Cops were different. They knew what they were talking about.

But the beginning of the lesson had Bailey wondering when the drugs awareness officer opened his metal case to reveal samples of almost every drug imaginable -cannabis, cocaine, heroin, acid, speed, ecstasy.

At the end of a lesson that Bailey had to admit had gone well, he tackled the officers about their methods: "In Scotland we tried 'Just say No'," they explained.

"It didn't work. The approach we take now, recommended by Scotland Against Drugs, is 'harm reduction'. This helps youngsters make informed choices."

There was a parallel with sex education, Bailey could see, where practice had shown that "abstinence only" did not work. So "abstinence plus", which aimed to delay sexual activity while providing information about sexual health services and contraception, was the favoured approach.

Sex and drugs had given him an appetite, Bailey realised, as he headed for the dining-room, once a bare, echoing barn where kids shovelled stodgy stuff with gravy into glum faces. It was now a delightful space, with green plants, murals brightening the walls, and big windows opening on to outdoor seating. Cosy corners allowed kids and adults to sit and socialise.

Gone were the chocolate and fizzy drinks machines, replaced by baskets of fruit and crunchy vegetables. Guest chefs and home economics teachers worked with kitchen staff so kids and teachers could enjoy low-fat, nutritious meals every day. Not all did.

"Hey, sir!" It was Andy Boggs, 13 years old, small frame, big attitude.

"See this rabbit food. Ah hate it. It's mince. Can we no have chips back?"

After lunch Bailey took the lift to the second floor, where a conflict resolution class was in progress. Using techniques tested in war zones, the Family Mediation Service and UNICEF had trained children and teachers to bring peace rather than escalation to fraught situations. These techniques were now taught within the curriculum.

The entire burden of promoting health could not be carried by PSHE, so Bailey had formed a working group to find ways of doing so in every subject. Science now taught nutrition and the benefits of activity, home economics taught healthy eating, modern studies taught conflict resolution.

Fights and bullying created anxiety in lots of schoolkids, Bailey knew, but a more widespread concern was exams. He'd been amazed to learn from Childline that more 15-and 16-year-olds get stressed about exams than anything else in their lives.

So study skills were now taught in every subject, stress-reduction sessions were offered to pupils at exam times, and teachers and nurses were trained to spot the symptoms.

Bailey just had time, he decided, for a quick look at the language classes for asylum-seeker pupils, whose progress always amazed him and delighted his teachers, who usually waited far longer for a return on their efforts.

Unsure whether he should organise separate classes for these kids, after their language inductions, Bailey had consulted them. They had replied - in fluent Scots - that they wanted to join the mainstream.

So too did most youngsters with additional needs, but there you had to look more closely at the individual. All day in the mainstream was too much for some.

One side-effect of the "presumption of mainstreaming" was that special schools now had empty classrooms and under-used, highly skilled teachers.

So Drumbrochan worked closely with all the special schools in the area, sharing children and teachers.

This brought benefits to both, although as one bright lad with physical difficulties told Bailey: "It's hard enough being at one school, never mind two."

Back in his office, as the day drew to a close and the school buses arrived, Bailey caught sight of the lollipop lady walking to her post.

Agnes shared some of the kids' contempt for healthy eating, but was passionate about road safety: "There's nae point being healthy if you're deid," she said to Bailey at their last meeting, and he couldn't argue.

The biggest single cause of children's deaths, he knew, was not drugs, sex or violence, but accidents - fully half of which were road accidents. So in consultation with parents he had lobbied the council for speed bumps, double yellow lines and a 20mph limit outside the school.

Parents who had once been committed to the school run had been won over by a series of meetings at the school - an instance of the good communications Bailey had fostered. The PTA, the newsletter, the website were all part of it, but informal channels were vital too.

Parents were encouraged to come to meetings, classes and workshops at the school. At the end of each day, he or one of his deputes would put in an appearance at the school gates, when parents with concerns could raise them readily, allowing small problems to be tackled before they could grow.

As Bailey watched the last of the buses depart, a little girl on a red bike stopped and spoke to him: "I heard the inspectors were coming, Mr Bailey.

Who are they?

"You know how your big sister sits exams, Katy? Well this is like an exam for me and my teachers."

"Do you think you'll pass?"

Bailey looked back on his day. "I think so."

"That's good. If the inspectors come and ask me, I'll tell them this is not a bad school."

She pedalled away, and Bailey headed home with a smile.

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