Bread and circuses, fat and E numbers

26th May 2006 at 01:00

Sometimes I despair of the teaching profession. The staffroom conversation this morning was entirely about the relative merits and demerits of the current Big Brother contestants. I ask you!

Ten university graduates around a table, all of them with a post-graduate diploma to their name as well. Are they discussing educational behaviourism or the recent advances in A Curriculum for Excellence? Are they fiddle!

My English colleague Patricia Harrison spent several minutes proclaiming outrage at the quasi-sexual antics of one particularly precocious inmate, and Leslie Hasler (geography) opined that her favourite candidate looked as if he was going to "have it off on-screen before the week's out".

I refrained from joining in, largely because I have only ever caught four consecutive minutes of the appalling programme, but its entertainment value seems to veer alarmingly between that of watching paint dry and that of attending a Roman orgy.

I sighed and retreated to the confines of my lesson with 2C, only, alas, to be met with a barrage of enquiries from them about the next likely challenge for the contestants of the selfsame show.

"Sur! Sur!," urged Rory Drummond. "D'ye think they'll get them tae dae that thing wi' a pig again, sur? Like they did in the last series? Ah pure missed it, sur."

"So did I, Rory," I informed him drily. "And from what I've heard about it, I'm glad that I did.

"Now get out your textbooks, please, and ..." I cut myself short as I noticed Jodie McLatchie, a rather plump child, with her shoulders hunched, quietly sobbing as she consulted a mobile telephone clenched in her fist.

Sensitively enough, I carried on talking while moving to the other side of the classroom and drawing attention in that direction as Jodie recovered herself. But I resolved to get to the bottom of her distress just as soon as possible.


The SQA diet of examinations is entering its final spasm.

Unfortunately, several of our pupils have still seen fit to ignore the opportunities offered them after five years in our learning community, as witnessed by a conversation with Michael Dixon today.

"Michael?" I challenged him as he sauntered past my classroom. "Aren't you late for your Biology Higher?"

He shrugged. "No daen' it. Ah chucked it months ago."

"What on earth for? You were only doing that and two others, weren't you?"

"Wan other, sur. Ah chucked English Intermediate an' aw. It wis aw too difficult. The teachers made us work too hard ..."

"Well, that is the point of exams, Michael," I tried to explain, but he was having none of it.

"Ach, bullshit, sur. Ah stuck it out till last week tae keep gettin' ma EMA, an' ah'm bringin' ma books back today. Then ah'm startin' a joab wi'

ma uncle's company next week," he explained, before going on to name a weekly income that put my salary cheque in stark and disadvantaged relief.

"Congratulations, Michael," I gulped with some dismay. It's good to see our young people moving on in life, I reflected quietly to myself, even if I privately wish that some of them moved a little more slowly.


Jodie McLatchie's distress, I have learnt, is being caused by bullying, mainly of the textual variety.

"Did you say sexual variety?" queried Davie McManus, our senior biology teacher, for whom a double entendre missed is an opportunity lost.

"No," I frowned, as I explained the situation to those teachers with whom she has contact. "She's being texted with bullying messages, mainly about her weight. In particular, a lot of her classmates have taken to calling her 'Muffin'."

"I've heard worse," frowned modern languages teacher Pamela Blane. "What's wrong with 'Muffin'?"

"Haven't you seen those trousers she wears?" I reminded her. "Along with that bare midriff when her blouse rides up too high? And the way that midriff bulges out over the sides? Now think about a muffin, Pamela, and the way that the paper wrapping hugs tightly beneath an overhang of soft, spongy ..."

"Oh, I see ..."

Light dawned at last upon the countenance of David McManus as he understood the allusion. "And here was me thinking that 'Muffin' wis referrin' tae some sexually deviant practice."

Suddenly, when compared with our staffroom at Greenfield Academy, the Big Brother household seems a model of decorum and good taste.


Gail needed the car this morning so that she could go shopping with Fraser, our four-week-old son. I was happy enough to catch a bus to work, until I arrived at the bus stop, that is.

I counted three buses heading in the direction of Greenfield Academy, but each one sailed past, filled to capacity with pensioners taking advantage of the Scottish Executive's most recent burst of generosity to our elder citizens, to wit free bus travel the length and breadth of the country.

It is difficult to begrudge the gift, but I can't help pondering the cost to taxpayers like myself, not to mention that the policy is stopping the workforce from getting to their places of employment!

Luckily, Kevin Muir, one of our depute heads, was driving past and stopped to offer me a lift, which I gladly accepted. Nothing comes without cost.

The price I paid was being informed of the senior management team's plan to outlaw the chip and burger van from outside the school gates this lunchtime and being invited to join the task force charged with the plan's implementation.

"Blimey, Kevin," I bit my bottom lip. "Joe Fitzgerald has been running that van outside the school since they invented tomato sauce, as far as I'm aware. He's not going to take kindly to this."

"No, I know, he admitted. "But Pat Gibbon wants him off the patch so we can advance our healthy eating strategy more effectively."

"So now is the time for all good men, as they say."

He cocked his head towards me as we drove into the school gates. "See you at lunchtime."

Well, as I had predicted, Mr Fitzgerald wasn't impressed by our deputation, which comprised Mrs Gibbon leading an arrow formation of the senior management, plus me, and presenting him with a letter on school notepaper giving immediate notice that he desist from parking outside the school and selling "foodstuffs that contravene the Greenfield Academy healthy eating policy".

Mr Fitzgerald read the letter slowly and with what seemed like mounting incredulity. Then, in a moment of considered action, he scrunched the letter between his fists, raised it to his face and blew his nose copiously into the document. Turning to a queue of eager children, he called out "Next, please!", then turned to wash his hands before preparing an order for sausage and onion.

I think our headteacher has bitten off more than she can chew. So to speak.


Mr Fitzgerald has clearly decided that attack is the best form of defence.

In an impressive display of tradesmen's unity, he enjoined at least eight other mobile stores - ice cream vans, burger vans and even a pancake vendor - to join him at his usual pitch today.

Such an expansion of customer choice had the obvious effect.

Swarms of children, resembling wildebeest crossing the Serengeti, dashed across the playground, leaving Mrs Saunders' dinner hall a lonely and desolate place, populated only by a few members of the teaching staff and Mr Dallas, the janitor, tucking into his three-nut salad.

Mrs Gibbon peered angrily from her office window but decided against any immediate action, although I suspect that she will not let the matter rest: she is not a woman to be crossed.

Of course, my afternoon pupils were filled to the brim with inappropriate and behaviour affective foodstuffs, fizzy drinks and sweets, which made the classes even more enervating than usual.

So it was with a gladsome mind that I eventually settled down in my armchair after tea, a small tot of whisky in one hand and Fraser cuddled up in the other, while Gail took Margaret to see her mother.

Inexplicably, I found myself tuned into Channel 4 and that programme. In 10 minutes, I knew more than I ever wanted to about every contestant's personal habits and had learnt several more swear words than it's been my displeasure to hear in over 20 years of teaching.

And yet, against all my better judgments, I found the programme strangely addictive. Could they really all hate that girl - if girl she was? - as much as they claimed? Could anyone really bare their soul in the Diary Room in quite as much detail as that man did? And was it legal to broadcast some of the witnessed shenanigans before midnight?

Thus it was that I found myself registering my first ever telephoned vote to a TV reality show as the eviction clamour grew louder and louder.

Unfortunately, Gail arrived home just as the show was building to a climax, so I quickly switched to Newsnight.

"Oh, not Kirsty Wark!" she muttered as she and Margaret came through the door. "We were watching Big Brother at Mum's. Turn it over for the result, will you?" I did as bidden.

Although secretly pleased to do so, I couldn't help but feel that - in the Simpson household, as in so many others across the land - a small edifice of civilisation had crumbled.

Talk about bread and circuses.

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