The dark side of the whiteboard - Chill winds - and a batch of P45s

8th April 2011 at 01:00

We have just heard through the grapevine that one of the region's schools is handing out redundancies. There is a rumour going round that they are halving staff in some departments and super-sizing classes to make ends meet. The worst-case scenario hints at possible pupil-teacher ratios of 45:1. That is not teaching, it is crowd control. The only thing you learn as a pupil in a class of that size is that you don't really matter. And while these disadvantaged kids struggle against the odds, the youngsters who make it to the new free schools have the dice loaded in their favour. Not because of better parents, or better teaching, but because of smaller class sizes. We seem to be embracing a skewed Robin Hood system that stints on the poor and gives to the rich.

I'm particularly upset about this because I have a soft spot for the town in question. My youngest was born there. It was like giving birth in a Ken Loach movie. I had given birth to my first two kids while exiled in the South, so I was expecting a Feng Shui-ed delivery room, postpartum canapes and a midwife conversant in whalesong. I had suspected there might be a drop in standards but hoped it would be limited to 200 thread-count sheets. Nothing prepared me for the stark reality ahead. The maternity ward's customer care charter - "stack 'em, pack 'em and rack 'em" - had been lifted straight out of Die Hard 2. Within a few hours of labour, I was teetering unsteadily in a breakfast queue, toast in one hand, placenta in the other. I was then ushered onto a busy ward bustling with mums who looked too young for Topshop and too old for Tammy.

It is not a fortunate town. Like many of these former mining communities, it ranks high in the national indices of deprivation. You know the sort: it has a colliery band, a drugs problem and no imminent plans for a Waitrose. In areas like these, education should be the solution, not part of the problem. Over the past two years, the region's main FE college has been in and out of the news. It has faced one cash-fuelled crisis after another: funding deficits, redundancy threats, strikes and the resignation of its principal. Now a merger has been planned to safeguard its future.

I am anxious about how all this will end. On the one hand we have middle-class parents milking the education system to fatten up their own, and on the other we are starving the kids who need help the most. Of the 10 prospective free schools awaiting the final approval to open, five are in London, with the remainder spread across Suffolk, West Sussex, Norwich, Warwickshire and Leicester. There don't seem to be too many parents clattering at the free schools' door in areas suffering from multiple deprivation.

So while Michael Gove eagerly awaits the launch of Toby Young's flagship free school in September, he might be advised to keep a weather eye on what is going on 300 miles north. Let's hope we can avoid the sort of "Convergence of the Twain" that Hardy describes in his lines on the loss of the Titanic. "And as the smart ship grewIn stature, grace, and hueIn shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too." Because remember Mr Gove, it's not just grim up north, it's also very cold.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England.

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