Charity begins

17th September 2004 at 01:00
Can a trip to the countryside take the beast out of 10C?

St Brian's is closing down for the week. By order of the management. The head has decided that the pupils need freshening up after a hard summer spent behind the counter at various local fast-food outlets. He believes some early-term bonding could be the answer to our behaviour problems. The unofficial explanation is that the kitchen has been shut down by the borough's environmental health team. Roy Striper, the caretaker, says it's MRSA and has taken to coming to school in white overalls and rubber boots.

Whatever the reason, the fact is that I'm off to the countryside with 10C and Nigel Horsmel, the deputy head. I'd rather take my chances with the superbug but it's not negotiable. We're to build the school community whether we like it or not.

It's 7.30am and the stillness is broken by loud cheers and wolf whistles as Horsmel appears at the gate wearing jodhpurs and riding boots. Apparently the "residential centre" we're heading for in Sussex is, in fact, a farm owned by one of his buddies from horticultural college. (Horsmel is a career bureaucrat. His only classroom experience was five months as a tutor in saddlery and animal care at a private college in Esher.) The boys shiver in their replica football shirts, clutching plastic carrier bags; the girls are all bare midriffs, flip-flops, scraped back hair and dangly earrings.

We are delayed by a few late-comers; the Gunner twins, Gareth and Gavin, arrive with their probation officer who sternly warns them against tampering with their electronic tags or exceeding their daily Red Bull quota.

Then Anna Hatch, head of English and the third adult member of the party, finally emerges from an enormous 4 x 4 cursing the inadequacies of her Slovenian au pair.

After two hours on the road (service stations are strictly off limits to St Brian's pupils) the coach pulls in to a cobbled courtyard and we are greeted by a man brandishing a shotgun. Horsmel is first out. "Johnny Mellish, you old bugger!" he exclaims as he and the farmer punch each other on the shoulder. "Good to see you Smelly!" replies the man in the waxed jacket. "Right, let's get this rabble to work!" The children exchange nervous glances.

PlayStations and phones are confiscated as Mr Mellish allocates tasks. I ask Horsmel what's going on. "Lessons in the discipline of rural life, Miss Casement. Respect for the countryside and respect for authority!"

By the evening the girls are a sobbing mess of broken nails and snagged piercings while the boys are digesting the news that the nearest Burger King is 25 miles away. "Miss, we're going to starve!" wails Barry Strange as he pushes a broccoli spear round his plate.

Only the Gunner twins are in high spirits; Mr Mellish has promised them a visit to the local abattoir tomorrow morning.

Suddenly, Horsmel bursts into the room brandishing a whip, his skin sweaty with the thrill of the hunt, blood smeared on his cheeks. "Look, it's the beast of the moor," hisses Anna Hatch, getting to her feet. "Come on everyone. Never mind back to nature. We're going back to St Brian's."

Next week: Is St Brian's ready for advanced skills? Charity Begins: Adventures of an NQT, Charity's diary of her first year at St Brian's, is available from TES Books, pound;2.99. Tel: 0870 444 8633 or visit the TESBookshop at

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