The further adventures of morris simpson
After 35 years of teaching, David Pickup is due to retire from Greenfield Academy. He has been preparing a departure speech of some length - and bitterness - concerning Scottish education. Morris Simpson takes up the story Today marked the final chapter of Mr Pickup's teaching career. He had declined the offer of a large-scale departure party in favour of a traditional staffroom presentation during the morning interval.
"I've contributed enough money to these bloody things over the years without ever being on the receiving end, and I'd like to see what it's like to stand up there without the possibility of old Tod interrupting me," he explained when I queried his choice of venue. "And anyway - I've got some things I'd rather say in the staffroom than anywhere else."
And so it proved. Mr Tod gave his usual rectorial address for departing members of staff, personalising it slightly with a few references to Pickup's "highly individual style of teaching" (a backhanded compliment if ever I heard one), plus a few sympathetic remarks over Pickup's unfortunate bout of "alleged food poisoning" subsequent to his rather debauched performance during Wednesday's dinner for school leavers.
And then Pickup stood up. Accepting an envelope containing his somewhat diminutive cheque, he took a deep and pregnant breath, gazed slowly around the staffroom, then began to speak softly.
"Thank you, Mr Tod. Thank you, everyone, for your - er - generosity," he dropped the envelope dismissively on the coffee table.
"When I entered the teaching profession 35 years ago, ladies and gentlemen, I loved my job. I loved my subject, and I loved the kids I taught. As a profession, we were respected and valued. Our pupils, by and large, did what was asked of them; if they didn't, we had a set of reasonably effective sanctions.
"We had a curriculum, a pedagogical approach, and a national respect for education that were the envy of the world." He paused. "Not any more we don't. Not any more. So what's gone wrong?
"Some of you will remember my circumlocutory theory of educational reform. For those of you who don't, let me remind you of the advice I give to all probationary teachers I meet: when you leave teacher-training, you should choose the style and methodology of teaching you intend to follow for the rest of your career. In subsequent years, and on many occasions, you'll 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'll find yourself praised for being at the forefront of educational reform. The whole bloody thing just keeps going round in circles!" Mr Tod was looking distinctly uncomfortable by now, but Pickup was well into his stride.
"That's still the problem. We're so busy looking for new ways to do things that we forget to value the old. And it's not just teaching methodologies that keep going round in circles! Whether it's school timetabling, examination systems or approaches to reading, you can be sure of one thing: today's educational bandwagon will be tomorrow's discredited theory. And tomorrow's discredited theory will - at some point in the future, when everyone's forgotten its manifold disadvantages - become yet another bandwagon, a whole educational industry attracting vast amounts of research money and implementation support, possibly ruining the education of half a generation before it falls again into disrepair.
"Like I said earlier, I used to love my job. I loved my subject - geography - before the promotion channels got so constipated that I had to retrain in bloody RE to get a sniff of advancement. But I was never able to emulate the promotion-hoppers I've witnessed about here: the men - and the women" - and he glanced sharply at Ruth Lees, our ambitious depute - "who came in here knowing everything about education - and nothing about children. The people who are in new jobs more often than they're in new shoes, implementing educational initiative upon educational initiative - and then getting out to another job in another school before their plans are found wanting, leaving a trail of organisational and disciplinary chaos behind them. And leaving the rest of us behind to pick up the pieces!
"I've seen our salaries - promoted or unpromoted - eroded on a regular basis so that we're about to start yet another round of the quinquennial rammies that pass for salary reviews. Clegg, Houghton, Main - I've been through them all, and here we are going through it all again, needing an 18 per cent rise to get us back up to the levels we'd have enjoyed if we'd joined the police force instead.
"I've seen politicians use us as a convenient scapegoat for everything from a lack of manners, right through to teenage vandalism and drug-related murders. I've seen us blamed for classroom indiscipline, and for the complete breakdown of society.
"And I've seen the education authority that I joined all those years ago - small, reasonably caring, with 'give and take' as its watchword - transformed into a rampant behemoth that imposed rigid rules of engagement on each and every one of its employees. And then I've seen it transformed back into an even smaller authority than the first one - but with all of the faults, and none of the virtues, of either - yet with 29 directors of education across mainland Scotland, all on salaries equivalent to the single directors that preceded them.
"And I've seen those authority buildings staffed with teachers promoted to education officers - far beyond the boundaries of their own competence, incidentally - rubbing their little hands with glee every time they think of the hellish classrooms they've left behind.
"And I've seen government statistics about 'increased spend' on education - but I know that 15 years ago George Crumley had pound;2,000 worth of requisition in geography. And last year he had five hundred quid. Some commitment that's been to education in the past 15 years, eh?
"And what about our examination system? I've seen it disintegrate from a rigorous appraisal of what's been learned in the course of the year to a series of half-baked internal assessments of classwork that are so prone to cheating by pupils - and staff - that it's a wonder the fraud squad's not been called in already. It makes me weep, quite frankly. It makes me bloody weep."
The bell rang, and some members of staff got up to leave.
"Sit where you are!" bellowed Pickup. "I'm not finished yet! There are hardly any kids here to go to their classes anyway." Mr Tod squirmed an embarrassed acceptance of the fact and Pickup's voice cracked with emotion.
"As far as this school is concerned, it gives me great pleasure, like the blessed apostles, to shake the dust of Greenfield Academy from beneath my feet, and - like the apostles once more - I have no plans to return. It gives me even greater pleasure to bequeath my coffee mug, and my seat in the staffroom, to my best pal, Morris Simpson."
My jaw dropped in surprise at this unexpected honour. "I saw this boy," - Pickup smirked slightly - "this boy arrive as a young probationer 15 years ago, and I've seen him try to do what I used to try to do. Educate the kids. Sure, he's a bit of a tosser - but then, which of us isn't from time to time? Eh, Mr Tod?" he looked pointedly in Tod's direction.
Swiftly, Pickup hauled me to my feet, embraced my shoulders, then presented me with his chipped coffee mug (aptly inscribed with the legend "Old Teachers Never Die - They Just Wipe The Slate Clean").
His voice shook as he held me by the forearm. "I've survived, Morris. I've got through to the end. And so will you, in spite of it all. Nil Carborundum, as they say. Don't let the bastards grind you down, Morris. Don't let the bastards grind you down."
As a retirement speech, it was certainly unique. I could think of no appropriate response to the generous gift of his staffroom seat, so I sat down in it instead, then wiped the moisture from my glasses, as some desultory applause rippled around the staffroom and our colleagues returned to their thinly populated classrooms.
It seemed like the end of an era.