A write of passage for a year about to disperse

22nd May 2009 at 01:00

"My response to anyone bringing alcohol on to this site will make the Taleban regime look soft!" A pause to let the implications sink in. I think Year 11 have got the message. As always, we want their last routine day of teaching - that great rite of passage before the exams blast away the timetable - to be special, but also comfortable for everyone.

Our great tradition, a folklore ceremony you'd imagine goes back centuries, is The Signing of the Shirts. I spell out the rules of this game with military precision. First, like opening presents at Christmas, nothing must happen until the declared hour when lunch begins. Second, the entire year group are shepherded into the sports hall away from gatecrashers. It's a party, after all.

Felt tips are produced and away they go. It's simplicity itself. And the remarkable thing is how long it takes, and how totally absorbed everyone is. The happy hour is filled with scribbled good wishes that cover every inch of shirts and fill the year books. No one is bored or wants to leave. Staff drop in to add their much coveted signatures, and cameras click throughout. Even though it's a blazing hot sunny day and the doors are open to the seating area outside, few choose to go there. The sports hall is where the action is. If only learning could be so focused!

Guy Claxton could use this to write a lecture demonstrating his principles of "resilience and reciprocity" in action. David Hargreaves, architect of "Deep Learning" (seven whole days of that here this year ...) could feature "Deep Signing" in his next pamphlet.

"Uniform is a symbol of your pride in your school and aspiration to achieve," I've told Year 11 often. But by the end of the afternoon, they resemble mobile wall graffiti. A passing Martian might wonder what anarchy five years of secondary education has taught them. One of the bus drivers gives me a sorrowful look that suggests I've either lost control or gone mad. There's no telling what the public must think.

As they've been such a great group of youngsters, I try to analyse the process. Why does it matter so much to them? Attendance figures on this day are the highest in the year. One absentee - playing professional football already - sends in his shirt to be signed and I watch the care with which the autographs are collected.

More than three-quarters of Year 11 will stay on in our sixth form, so the reality is that most are not actually leaving. But the year group itself is about to fragment, decisive personal choices are being made for the first time in their lives, and the comfort zone of compulsory education with guided options is now over. Uniform symbolises the past. Tomorrow they transmogrify into sixth formers-in-waiting with personal freedoms about many things, including what to wear.

So the signature trophy hunting, far from an act of desecration, is a way of binding memories, remembering this moment in their lives. The hugs, tears and fears are all part of the process: sadness and joy in equal measure.

Well, that's my story - but I doubt if that bus driver would agree, or even know what I'm talking about. Oh, and the day was incident free, so I didn't have to invoke the Taleban option.

Ray Tarleton, Principal at South Dartmoor Community College, Ashburton, Devon.

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