Don't worry, it's just a bit of ketchup

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
We interview for a new teacher today. I watch the candidates' expressions as we discuss the day's programme with them: "10.30: tour of school," we read. "11.00: meet the governors, 12.00: lunch with the children, 1.30: the interviews will..." Wait, what's that? Lunch with the children? I know what they are thinking. Lunch can be a messy business. Do I really want to go into my interview with custard on my lapels and Dream Topping in my hair? Actually, we like teachers with custard on their lapels but I can see why they are anxious: they are all in their smartest clothes.

"Maria will arrange where you will all sit at lunchtime," says my headteacher. "But before then, enjoy your tour of the school." The candidates are all exceptionally nice to me during our rounds; complimenting me on my jacket (Primark, machine washable), empathising with my job ("being deputy must be much harder than being head") and generally ingratiating themselves. I don't realise why at first and then it clicks.

Of course, I'm choosing which group of children they're to sit with. I have the power over how much specially thickened gravy they may have on their suits this afternoon. They needn't worry; there isn't a table in the hall I wouldn't like to sit at.

I sit Lisa with the little ones. It's fun as some are fed by an adult and you can do that thing where you open your mouth as you move the spoon towards theirs and make little yum, yum noises. Lisa gets a little crushed Wotsit on her skirt from Jason, an autistic boy who eats nothing else, but she seems quite happy.

I put Ian with the older pupils. Today they've made their own lunch, food they may well be able to cook for themselves one day. And although Gillian McKeith of You Are What You Eat may not approve of potato smiles, fish fingers and tinned tomatoes, at least it's easy to prepare. Ian gets a little tomato sauce on his shoe, courtesy of Abby, who is practising opening jars by herself, but he seems quite happy.

I put Rachel with the children who need a lot of help eating: some are tube-fed and some need support from the speech and language therapist. They are eating pureed dinner, reformed by our wonderful kitchen into cutlet, pile-of-peas and carrot shapes. Rachel gets some pea puree on her scarf when Sunny splutters, but she seems quite happy.

During the interviews the head asks each candidate how they got on at lunch. They each glow, no longer worried about the state of their clothes, and tell us enthusiastically about the importance of independence, how eating and drinking are crucial elements of the curriculum for special children; how much it is a part of their learning. They all enjoyed being with the children and helping them in different ways. Who got the job? I can't tell you, but they each could have worked successfully at our school and they each took away a little something as they went home.

Maria Corby is deputy head of a special school for pupils with severe and multiple learning difficulties. She writes under a pseudonym

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