Absent without leave

29th May 2015 at 01:00

Picture the scene: you're beetling between lessons because at your school everyone moves from room to room like an enormous Rubik's cube. Imagine you've got about 30 seconds before you'll be late to your own gig. Finally, add two armfuls of books, which, because this is a thought experiment, we'll generously say are marked.

You bump into a 15-year-old student called Connor, because they all are. "Why are you out of lessons?" you ask.

Connor the Cooler King makes a face no judge would convict. "Mr Samways sent me to get some A4 paper, Sir," he says. "I've got a note." If he's bluffing, he's playing a full house while holding a busted flush.

"Right you are, Connor No 227," you reply. And off you merrily go. Later that day, you're laughing with colleagues in the staffroom and dunking chocolate biscuits in a brew because Nicky Morgan's workload review has led to a two-day week, a ceiling on contact time and double pay for Fridays. (This is imaginary, after all.) "Mr Samways," you ask, "did you send Connor out in period 4 to get some paper?"

"That's strange," he replies. "When I met him he said you had." And the scales fall from your eyes.

That scene must be played out a million times every day in schools across the world. Students, few of whom are criminal masterminds, have a culture that is often alien and invisible to adults. Their collective wisdom, rules and language transcend anything we try to teach them. It's pointless trying to ape it. You just end up as the teacher with the baseball cap saying "Nang".

Part of student culture is a set of strategies for dodging school rules. Every student knows where kids go to smoke, for example, but few teachers do. And every student knows that if you want to bunk a lesson, you don't stay in one place - what is this, amateur hour? - you keep moving and bounce teachers off one another, because most of them are too busy to actually check what you say. Just give them a version of the truth that they can pretend to believe with a clear conscience.

It helps if you use the name of someone senior, because they might well issue a summons. It helps if you add an unusual flourish - you've been sent to take a phone call from a family member, for instance. And it really helps if you say you're helping someone. The more teachers you dodge, the more kudos you gather in the post-match autopsy - like skimming stones. "I bounced 10 teachers," they tell each other. I've known five or six teachers to realise that they've been simultaneously hoodwinked, like a gullible daisy chain.

Of course, you could just require all students out of lessons to have a note. But where's the fun in that? And teachers bunk, too, hiding away from the emergency cover lesson. I once knew a grand master of this art who would sit in a room with the sixth-formers every week so he could plead a revision session if the reception team were looking for warm bodies to inspirebabysit a class. Until we all work in glass-walled panopticons, the status quo is here to stay.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London and director of the ResearchED conference

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