All aboard the floating fantasy

21st February 2003 at 00:00
A MAD old daydream sprang back to life the other day, spurred by a headline in The Times. I hadn't indulged this fantasy for years, and had a pleasant five minutes remembering all the details.

A gang of us used to elaborate them back in the 1980s, while we drank coffee out of paper cups at the leisure centre and watched our nine-year-olds' swimming lesson. (To tell the truth, we kept the poor sprats at it for years, doing swimming lessons they no longer really needed because we mothers so enjoyed our Friday teatime conversaziones.) The fantasy was this: when our children outgrew primary school, we would raise two fingers to both the troubled, overcrowded, league-tabled, government-bullied state system and the prissy, snobbish, tie-wearing local independents. We would start our own school.

The headline which brought this daydream back said that "businesses, charities and parents' groups" will be invited to run all new state secondary schools. Education Secretary Charles Clarke said that he wants "the widest possible range" of school types, each with their own ethos.

"Let a thousand flowers bloom!", he seemed to be chirping, a bearded harbinger of spring. The effect was slightly spoiled a couple of days later by the news that parents would no longer even theoretically be able to flit, like choosy bees, to the flower they like best; but never mind. There is nothing quite like the fantasy of inventing a school.

It was going to be housed in an old but cunningly converted trawler, moored bang in the middle of the River Alde and Ore in Suffolk. The school roll might go as high as 50, and the uniform consist of blue jeans or canvas trousers, sweaters and oilskin jackets.

Every morning, pupils would be met on the jetty and taken upriver in a fast rigid inflatable, to clamber up the ladder on to the deck. This would give them some fresh air and excitement to start the day; each group would then hang up their lifejackets and scatter to their various tasks, which would include meteorological observations and checking the dials on the ship's various systems - refrigeration, heating, power, smoke alarms, etc.

When they had reported to the bo'sun (an employee somewhere between caretaker and CDT teacher) and thus taken responsibility for their own physical surroundings, they would be sufficiently calm and focused for assembly. This would involve a lot of lusty singing, possibly with an accordion.

We had worked out that among us all (a collection of freelances and assorted homemakers with reasonable control of their own time) we could supply a rota of non-teaching supervisors for free, and also enough solid expertise to teach English to GCSE, cookery, carpentry and (via navigation projects) the first couple of years of geography. We had a cook, but each Friday one group of children would be taken out of lessons to make lunch for all. Other teaching expertise, we reckoned, could be bought in on a freelance basis.

Frankly, rural areas are full of career-break teachers with young children, who could benefit from our mini-cr che up on the bridge; and, more important, there is generally a good stock of burnt-out, fed-up former teachers who are getting a bit bored with their early retirement.

These, we reckoned, could be re-enthused by a smaller and more eccentric academy such as ours. We asked some of them, just for fun, what they'd charge, and when we added it up, it still came to a lot less than private schools.

After lunch, there would be one brief lesson - or performance, because we would be getting a lot of drama and music into the curriculum - and then games, which would involve up to two hours of heavily supervised and reasonably strenuous dinghy sailing, rowing, canoeing, summer swimming, mud-wrestling, and walks along the reedy bank. Children would then return aboard for an hour or so of prep round a roaring coal fire with cocoa and biscuits, thus saving parents the nightly hell of supervision. At six or seven they would be delivered back to the shore, exhausted and glowing.

Our curriculum was a matter of debate. I favoured whole-morning, total-immersion projects rather than bite-size periods. We all agreed that a lot of education - from physics to poetry to natural history - would be assisted by using the ship, and the river, and perhaps (if we could afford a working engine) the occasional trip along the coast. Discipline would not, we felt, be a great problem given the number of adults around and the knockout effect of fresh air. What, in any case, could make a more suitable sin-bin than a steel fo'c'sle, or a more suitable detention than scraping rust and painting bulkheads?

Oh, all right. Mr Clarke would turn us down, and prodnose authorities would try to close us . But it was a nice dream. Almost the best bit of it was that when inspection time came round, we wouldn't necessarily bother to send the rubber launch to get them from the jetty. If they weren't nice to us, they'd have to bloody swim.

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