Charity begins

5th December 2003 at 00:00
It's war at St Brian's, and an old soldier is leading the staff fightback

Our union rep, John Baller, is in the 13 Horseshoes, celebrating. The management's attempt to fit him up on a misconduct charge misfired spectacularly when Graham Love, offered a reprieve from summary dismissal in exchange for implicating John in his sordid affairs, refused to snitch.

John raises his glass. "To our very own Captain Oates. He sacrificed himself so that others may live."

"It was a close call, Charity," says John. "I thought I wasn't going to make it back there, but thanks to you and Love I'm still here. There are always casualties in war - good men go down." "Indeed we do," someone sniggers. It's Orlando Jones, head of drama and St Brian's lecher-in-chief until Graham's supernova cameo. His rival vanquished, Orlando is triumphant and, as so often, very pissed.

But John is looking at the wider picture. The SMT has been after him since he presented them with his alternative workload agreement. This ran to 50 points, including a clause entitling stressed-out staff to "duvet days", or "Horseshoes hours" as they became known. "How many schools have got deals that require teachers to get pissed at lunchtimes?" he is fond of proclaiming whenever a new arrival wavers about signing up to the union.

John was the first person I met at St Brian's, but he's still a bit of a mystery. I know he's from somewhere up north, and that he took a degree in PE and maths at Wrexham Poly in the late 70s before joining the army.

Classrooms were battlefields to John Baller long before such metaphors became fashionable. He loves to tell you how his military training has been more useful to him in his teaching career than his PGCE. I remember one particularly dull meeting in my early days at St Brian's when John whispered to me: "Fight no battle unprepared, fight no battle you are not sure of winning. Who said that, Charity? Piaget? Vygotsky? No, Chairman Mao, that's bloody who." The Inset sessions he runs for the LEA on restraint positions for rowdy pupils are always heavily oversubscribed.

Tonight the talk is of spines, scales and thresholds. John looks sad, shaking his head regretfully. "I've seen good people left behind, Charity.

I swore I'd never let it happen again." I imagine he is recalling some combat horror, but he's thinking of the battle to come. "Next time everyone goes through the performance barrier - we don't leave anyone behind. There are people out there who aren't even on UPS stage one! Our people!"

Teachers murmur in approval. "Tell it, John!" "Way to go, union man!"

"Yeah, people like me," slurs Orlando Jones, downing yet another Jack Daniel's. Then he turns to me. "You don't owe that deviant bastard Graham Love a thing, Chastity. He overstepped the line, the guy had to go.

Period." Quite where Orlando's line is drawn it is hard to ascertain.

I wonder why John bothers with the likes of Orlando. Maybe they bonded when they used to attend AA meetings together. They say it was John who encouraged Orlando to go along. Not that it helped either of them, although by all accounts the two Year 11 lads they took with them made a full recovery.

I muse that I am back where I started at the beginning of the term, in the pub with John and his gang. But it feels right. John lifts his glass yet again and we join him. "I'd like to propose a toast. To the senior management team - balls to the lot of them!"

Catch up with Charity Casement again next term

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