Cultivate the good and slug it out with pests

26th June 2009 at 01:00

Look at this lot. What a mess - and they are all out for themselves. They would push each other's faces into the mud to get what they want. Still, all I need to do now is chop off their heads. And water them.

Gardening is easier than teaching. Roses don't shout when you transplant them. You don't have to deal with the parents of dandelions whose kids you've mown down. Teaching skills can be useful in the garden, too. Taking a register of my plants, I rescued a violet from being smothered by foxgloves. And what is a classroom seating plan but companion planting?

Gardening calms me. Pulling up weeds helps me deal with my rage about the latest crackdown on schools. Yes, there's redirected aggression alongside the gentle nurturing.

Teaching and gardening work best when you decide what to control and allow. Fixed ideas about the desired outcome do not work. You have to show you're boss, and you need to spot signs of trouble. Bluebells take over if you let them. They need to know they're being watched.

Flexibility is vital, however. It is better for your garden and your pupils if you can let them surprise you. I don't know why the sage bush is so huge this year, but I love it, and so do the bees. The Government doesn't understand this. It is like an obsessively tidy gardener who wants all the borders straight. Pansies with nine flowers are unsatisfactory. Floppy lobelias get put in special measures. This government wants to control what each new crop of youth brings to the world, which is missing the point.

Pests are unavoidable, whether slugs or inspectors. My gardening manual says this about slugs: "Slime trails reveal their active presence." So how do you get rid of them? "Encourage predators." That's the problem. Nothing eats inspectors. They are more like deep-rooted weeds. "Spray weeds in calm conditions to avoid harming cultivated plants." Quite right: protect the teachers. "Children and pets must be removed from the area to be treated." Another wise move.

I did a lot of weeding after watching Christine Gilbert, the Ofsted boss, who was saying that schools will be subjected to tougher inspections. Raw results will be given greater weight, with fewer allowances made for schools in deprived areas. If you have managed to grow roses in poor soil, you won't get any credit. I wanted to pull Gilbert up and stamp on her. But she's like bindweed - she'd grow back.

Christine Gilbert and bindweed are part of nature too, though. They don't think they're doing wrong. We can't kill them, so how can we live with them? Plants have the answer. They just find ways to grow around things.

The seeds we sow in our pupils' lives will grow and bear fruit that none of us can imagine. Examination results and inspections are the harshly judged flower shows of our profession. Yet the lives of our young plants do not end there. When teachers are watering curiosity and fertilising confidence, that will flourish far beyond the borders of the curriculum. Teachers work around stupid rules, as ivy grows under my fence. They keep getting cut back, but their influence is as ungovernable as seeds on the wind. That's a law of nature.

Catherine Paver, Writer and part-time English teacher.

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