Dollops of fun

6th April 2007 at 01:00
Amateur cook Donald Macaulay believes teachers should be given the chance to get exciting results, just as he does in the kitchen - by adding a generous measure of spontaneity. Illustration by Hashim Akib

LAST WEEK I cooked a simple Louisiana chicken dish. Nutritious, simple to prepare and, most important, I used only one pot!

After a tiring week - aren't they all, when your responsibility is children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties? - cooking can be my way to chill out, relax and wind down while doing something practical. Of course if, like me, you follow the Floydian school of cookery with a slurp of wine after every action, then the cooking becomes more incidental, casual and haphazard as the evening progresses.

But back to Friday's dish. I don't like green peppers, but love yellow, so I doubled up on those. And I had run out of cayenne pepper, so I dusted the chicken pieces with paprika instead. The recipe said one green chilli, but I added a red. Well, it was close to its use-by date and, more important, Son Number One likes it hot. And I used my own chicken stock instead of the prescribed vegetable stock, and as I was drinking Pinot Grigio... a splash of that went in as well.

Later I took samples. Was the rice ready? Was the wine overpowering? Did we miss the cayenne and green pepper? Was I wise to throw in some of my home-grown basil because... well, just because it was home grown? Did that extra red chilli make it more Anardana than Louisiana, more New Delhi than New Orleans, more curry than cajun?

No worries, Son Number One gave it a thumbs up, and me a high five. Second helpings for us both, and next morning he served the leftovers to his girlfriend for brunch, courtesy of "Dad's Diner."

I find cooking immensely satisfying. It is a pragmatic and creative activity. It meets physical and emotional needs. It is utilitarian and therapeutic, it is of life, for life and life-enhancing and it does not always follow a prescribed recipe. In other words, it is very much what education should be.

Keen readers of The TESS might guess what's coming next. I remember an article ("La Dolce Vita? Not Here", October 14, 2005) that highlighted the example of a teacher from Pesaro in Italy who taught four days a week (till 2pm). That allowed him to "do what I really want to do with the rest of my time" - which, incidentally, was to run an architects' business. And if that is not enough to make Scottish teachers groan with envy, his status is high in Italian society, his pension more than adequate and he would be shocked if his pupils challenged his authority, as is common in Britain.

However, what caught my eye was that his workload was a lot lighter. Why? Because he has freedom to determine how and what he teaches, as long as he covers the key "ingredients" of the syllabus.

Now that sounds like me in my kitchen. I don't mean that I want to serve pasta in Paisley or fish and chips in Florence. What I mean is that the freedom I have to try to create something personal to serve and benefit others is not always easy to achieve in Scottish classrooms. If I think that marjoram would be better than thyme, then that's what I'll choose. I can allow myself to be spontaneous and creative. Scotland's education system does not always appear to trust heads and teachers enough to give them this freedom.

"I won't run the school for the HMI, but I will have to put some accountability measures in place," a newly appointed head told me. The school clearly ran on the "I can't see where I'm going as I'm too busy looking over my shoulder" principle. On the Adriatic, things seem to be different. Piero Calvi is trusted and valued and he appears fulfilled in life.

A teacher from across the Atlantic told me that her biggest difficulty working in Scotland was not the pupils ("the kids are wonderful"), not the staff ("friendly and helpful"), not even the weather ("different"), but the difficulties of doing something spontaneous and creative according to the mood and capabilities of the class.

I had some understanding of her view, having had some teaching experience in international education, and so over the year we returned to the topic of the curriculum's rigidity and who was served best by it. Not the pupils, and certainly not the teachers, was our conclusion.

I'm signing off now as Son Number Two, who has moved into his own flat, wants me to take him through a fish dish. It is quick, requires little preparation and is packed with protein: baked halibut with double cream. I found it on the internet and it is now a favourite. Don't tell Delia but I use cod instead of halibut, creme fraiche instead of double cream and I've added tomatoes and cheese.

Donald Macaulay was headteacher of a local authority special school and now works as an inclusion co-ordinator in Moray

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