Behaviour management is top of the agenda again at St Brian's. The pupils' behaviour, that is, as most of the staff are beyond help. Apparently the existing policy - the cornerstone of which is the "Burgers for good behaviour" (BfGB) scheme - isn't working.
BfGB was the brainchild of the head, Dr Alastair Scarlett. (Or Dr Alastair Scarlett MBE as we must now refer to him. His gong has not gone down well with the bursar, who's had to pulp a year's supply of headed notepaper and commission a new brass nameplate.) Last summer, Dr Scarlett negotiated a deal with Mr Burger, a fast-food outlet frequented largely by Year 10 boys and health inspectors, under which well-behaved pupils received a free takeaway. In return, Mr Burger got product placement rights in all school productions and a "logo presence" at parents' evenings.
Unfortunately, the scheme came to the attention of the local education authority which, while commending our "innovative approach to incentivisation", suggested we might raise our awareness of nutritional issues. (And in any case, the prospect of a Mr Meal isn't always enough to deter a 6ft Year 11 lad who's decided to let rip in his resistant materials class.) So this term the focus of our disciplinary process is on The Unit, or Cell Block H as it's commonly known.
As part of my induction, I've got a tour of the referral centre with Wendy, a squat, taciturn woman who's worked there since the late 70s. We walk down some stairs, then more stairs, and I realise we're underground. Wendy, who's jangling with keys, unlocks a five-lever mortise and we enter a small, bare room where a bearded young man sits alone. One of the support staff? "Hello Dwayne, you've got a visitor," Wendy begins. "What do you say when you have company?"
"Please, Miss, let me out. I've done my three months and it wasn't me anyway, it was Brendan Matthews." Wendy raises an eyebrow and ushers me out. I wonder what atrocity Dwayne must have committed.
"Don't be fooled by that little performance, Miss Casement. He's a deviant.
Farted in one of Les Twigg's science lessons." Wendy shakes her head as she puts the finishing touches to a roll-up. "Perhaps you'd like to see one of your own referrals." She opens another door. "Hello, Spam." A wave of guilt washes over me. Spam may have stripped to his boxers and sworn at the classroom observer in my history lesson, but I wouldn't have wished this on him.
Wendy senses my unease. "We try to reintegrate the more responsive ones through our mentoring scheme. This is Alex, one of our success stories.
She's been buddied with Roy Striper, the caretaker." A young face looks up at us. "I've cleaned out the boiler room and swept up the leaves. Are there any other jobs, Miss?"
It's all too much. "Does anyone actually get out?" I ask in desperation.
Wendy looks away shiftily. "Well, we do run a kind of outreach programme.
You know, work-based learning."
We enter another room. Four sewing machines are whirring loudly, operated by sweating teenagers. In the middle of the room lies a pile of white bowling shirts. I pick one up and read the slogan on the back: "Mr Burger.
Happiness on a plate."
Next week: Maternity leave madness