Case study: the school governor

14th March 2003 at 00:00
I'd been a governor at Comber Grove, a primary school in south London, for almost two years when I began to feel that our meetings had a lot do with procedure and little to do with children. The former is important, but not my forte. "Why don't you come into school?" suggested headteacher Mike Kent. "Do something with some of my Year 5s and 6s."

I am not a teacher. What would I do? What use would I be? "Do something with writing," said Mike. "Whatever you like."

And so began Jill's Writers. I didn't choose the name; it appeared on a set of eight exercise books and the group said they liked it. But how would I start? What about structure? Mike was relaxed. We set a few rules: I didn't want to be called Miss. Jill would do fine. They could write whatever they liked about the subject I chose - it could be a poem, a long story - but it had to be ready on time or they couldn't come again. And Mike said I had to be there at least once every three weeks.

I've commissioned and edited pieces by and about teachers and schools for more than 10 years. But this was different. "Don't worry," said Mike. "I'll be there to start you off."

And so he was - sort of. Day one, and we head for the special needs room, settle down, when Mike remembers choir practice. Not a lot makes me nervous, but sat alone in front of eight children who know I'm not a teacher, I'm starting to sweat. My mouth is dry and my tongue won't work.

This is not normal for me. How will I fill the next five minutes, never mind the next hour?

We introduce ourselves and I set their first task - to write about "a big surprise". I'd had other, cleverer ideas, but this is the best a panicking adult can do. By the end of the class - time has never crawled so slowly - I am exhausted.

Things go awry in lesson two. This is the time to test out not-a-real-teacher Jill. But I use a strategy I know I can only use once: I tell them that because I'm not a teacher I don't have to have them back.

Lesson three brings a trump card: my labrador. They have to pretend they're newspaper reporters and interview him through me. His exploits make for some fun stories.

In July, they pick their best pieces, which I put together as a newspaper with the help of colleagues. We talk about their choices. Why this one? What makes it stand out? I would have chosen one from Esther, a remarkable Year 5 girl. Her way with words unnerved and frequently moved me. She wrote a poem after I'd told them about my trip to New Zealand and a deserted beach where I'd stayed. Here's a snippet: The wind sweeps softly all round you, The gentle sand touches you like a tender person...

The waves are blue and green like the colour of wet grass The ice cream man's voice fades when he realises you want silence

You lie very still on your towel like a banana that has fallen off a tree.

The seaweed feels like a slithering snake's skin...

The wind stands in front of you asking for rubbish to blow away

The sand blinds the wind so it gently melts to the ground...

What will I remember? Our talks about words; their sounds, the pictures they paint, how a character's name can change the tone. Sometimes they thought they were stuck, but they never were. Just lacking the confidence to start. It became easier for me, too, after lesson two, and after I realised it was OK to admit you don't have all the answers. Sometimes it seems a middle-class sop: bright children, no set curriculum. Maybe. But I know I couldn't do any more than I do. I don't have the skills and I couldn't cope with the responsibility.

I have a new, 11-strong group now. The sweat sometimes still springs, and I suspect the stage fright will never disappear. And if I get stuck with next week's session, I can always ask Ted Wragg for advice. Privileged or what?

Jill Craven is deputy editor of Friday magazine

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