Feng Shui ain't what it used to be

18th December 1998 at 00:00
Further adventures of Morris Simpson


Mr Pickup continues to project an air of calm as our Christmas festivities get under way in this penultimate week of term. His tranquillity is partly due to his imminent retirement, and partly to his new-found interest in Feng Shui.

Although he failed in a recent attempt to rid his classroom of desks and chairs (an effort to restore "inner harmony" to a place of learning that has seen more than its fair share of educational blood on the walls), he has certainly transformed the decor. The hanging murals, pastel window drapes, assorted coffee tables and surrounding easy chairs put one more in mind of a latter-day Tory party conference than a place designed for educational enlightenment.

Not, of course, that those two terms are in any way contradictory . . .


Pickup's inner harmony was sorely disturbed this morning. The origin of his disquiet was another internal communication from the council which revealed that our education authority has taken on yet another self-evaluation exercise - "its fourth in as many months!" - and has once again emerged smelling sweeter than roses.

"Surprise, sur-bloody-prise!" scoffed my elderly mentor as he scanned a document that purported to reveal that our authority has "managed to achieve or exceed all of its targets in providing a quality service to its valued customers - the pupils who are educated in our establishments."

"Pah!" he spat in derisory contempt. "And who set the targets? Who evaluated whether we'd achieved them? I'll tell you who," he launched into passionate recrimination. "A bunch of bloody pen-pushers who haven't been near a classroom in 20 years and wouldn't know a set of grade-related criteria if they walked up and punched them on the nose, but are entirely motivated by whatever good news they can get the local newspapers to print. That's who!" "But surely," I interrupted.

"But surely nothing, Morris! These targets are like the emperor's new clothes. Look at the targets for exam results improvements. What about St Ainsley's?" "What about them?" "They're statistically bankrupt! For a start, they ended up getting more pupils sitting Standard grade because of late entries than they'd submitted in the official figures back in spring. Plus, they've got such a small roll that they get fifth year transfer pupils in for Higher classes to keep the staff in jobs. So they get more pupils sitting Highers than they get sitting Standard grades.

"Ergo, they get a 104 per cent conversion rate. So their 'target' for next year is actually minus 4 per cent! They're being asked to achieve a negative target, while we've got a target of three zillion per cent because of the dross that ends up pouring through our gates like a coalman's cast-offs!" "But that's an exception, surely? I mean, if the council says we're exceeding our targets across the board, then . . ."

"Morris," Pickup smote a hand across his brow. "It's the whole bloody principle that stinks. If I could set my own targets, then - hang on!" he suddenly pulled himself up, a Damascus-like gleam in his eye. "If I could set my own targets, and then judge my own success rate against the targets I'd set - well, everything could be so very different, couldn't it . . . ?" I shook my head, excused myself, and told Pickup I had a class to teach. But I don't think he was listening by then.


A "please-take" for Mr Dunbar of maths meant that my preparation time for 1W was severely disrupted. That caused problems of its own, later in the day, that I won't go into just now.

More distressing was the level of educational attainment that Mr Dunbar's third year maths class seems to have reached. I must say that if the council's newsletter were to broadcast the fact that 28 out of 30 potential Standard grade candidates were still having difficulty in solving simultaneous equations, I don't think they'd be quite so gung-ho about the educational nirvana they claim to have achieved.

Worse still was the disruption caused by Damien Steele's mobile telephone. At first I thought it was one of those wretched digital watches that was playing the Hallelujah Chorus; instead in transpired that Damien was in receipt of an apparently urgent call.

"Zit OK if ah take that call, sur?" he queried as I traversed the room for the source of the disturbance.

In retrospect, perhaps I should have been glad that he asked my permission. But at the time I was enraged.

"No, you certainly can not!" I retorted. "Mobile phones in the classroom indeed! Switch it off at once!" He shrugged once more, pursed his lips in what I retrospectively recognised as an extremely nervous acceptance of my determined judgment, and switched the machine off.

It was some 15 minutes later that there was a knock at the door, followed by a serious looking crew-cut peering through the glass lattice in search of persons unknown.

"Yes?" I inquired of the burly set of tattoos standing in the corridor.

"Is Damien Steele in class today?" If I'd thought that this was a random check by an attendance officer, the baseball bat that he was taking pains to hide behind his back would have given the lie. I took a long and serious look at the stitches that ran from his left ear to his left lower jaw and decided I'd better see if Damien could assist in the matter of identification. Was it his father, I wondered?

"Just let me deal with it, Sur!" muttered Damien contemptuously as he brushed me aside and asked me to return to the classroom. It was a bewildering reversal of roles, but I willingly acceded when Tommy Tattoo glared a fierce grimace of encouragement.

The whole incident - including Damien's temporary absence from the room - couldn't have taken up more than a few minutes. But they were the longest few minutes of my professional life, I don't mind telling you, as I wondered what on earth this gruesome looking ruffian with an offensive weapon was doing outside my classroom door.

It was Lisa Charles, of all people, who enlightened me as the class was dismissed at 10.40 and made its way to religious education.

"That wis Damien's drug-runner," she responded with sullen grace to my inquiry. "Damien owed him fur some snash he goat last week, an' he wis just collectin some dues . . ."

My jaw dropped. Damien Steele? Third year? Drug running? I couldn't quite believe it, and I didn't really want to. But it certainly helped me to put the council's educational targets into some kind of a context.


As a welcome piece of light relief from yesterday's Mafia-like activities, today saw the launch of 99 red balloons from the school playground: Mr Tod's fund-raising initiative is a relatively harmless affair (with a prize for the farthest-flung balloon returned). Amazingly enough, all 99 balloons were sold at a price of Pounds 5 per inflatable, and our esteemed headteacher had a triumphant grin on his face as the Parkland Gazette asked him to pose "just once more" before the enormous net was released.

"That makes a hundred balloons in all," mumbled Pickup ungenerously as the photographers' lenses snapped.

Alas, the number was reduced to 98 (or 99, depending on your point of view) as my own entry caught firmly on the school's television ariel on its way skywards. Such is life.


As Christmas approaches, Pickup insisted that we repair to the Rockston Arms for a pre-festivity libation. Alas, such occasions of reflective relaxation seem doomed to cessation once Pickup retires.

And he was keen to emphasise that very point as I ridiculed his scheme for enhancing his post-retirement professional credentials by setting up a self-evaluation scheme before he leaves (he's hoping to set up as an educational consultant, in God's name!).

"What d'you mean they won't believe the accreditations?" he quizzed me with awesome belligerence. "They believe the council's, don't they?" I sighed, and suggested we toast the festive season instead. He readily agreed, but then spoiled the occasion by crowing about the position of enforced indolence in which he would find himself some seven short months from now - and continuing his attempts to groom me as his successor in the role of staffroom cynic.

This began with his serious undertaking that I submit a last-minute request for leave-of-absence for Christmas shopping - "half the primary schools in the council do it, Morris, so I don't see why we shouldn't" - and culminated in his suggestion for a new school motto for Greenfield Academy. In short, and after much discussion between us, it read: "Take No Shit. And Take No Prisoners . . ."

Privately, I wondered if it would sound any better in Latin.

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