Gazing back in the mirror;Opinion

24th December 1999 at 00:00
IN THE 1970's, writer Hunter Davies spent a year in a north London comprehensive. I always meant to buy the book of his experiences, The Creighton Report, and, last week, after much searching, I uncovered a second-hand copy.

I hadn't realised that he did his research in 1974-75, the year before I started teaching. It was like unearthing a time capsule, with Spangles, the Valiant and those exploding caps for toy pistols. The familiar characters were all there.

The lady head of commerce who made the girls wipe off any make-up and button up their cardigans, the severe fiftysomethings who entered teaching in the emergency intake immediately after the war, and the young baby boomers who wore jeans and political stickers, and told their classes to "Call me Dave". (OK, I admit to the jeans, but it was never "Call me Sean".)

The pupils too were different; and one of the book's major set-pieces is the sixth year's demand that they should attend staff meetings. (Even then, staffroom cynics were tempted to agree, on the grounds that exposure to long hours of boredom would serve them right.)

The word democracy seemed to echo around the halls, a reminder that this was close to the sixties, and Molly Hattersley, spouse of Roy, was heidie. Everyone had a point of view on comprehensivisation, the curriculum and the role of education. One familiar branch to cling to in the flood of conjecture was the worry that CSE mode 3 exams were dodgy as you couldn't trust teachers to assess internally and honestly.

You could patronise the earnest philosophising as naive or pointless, but it certainly provided a counterpoint to the situation in our schools today, where political spin doctors have laptops full of sound bytes as to why education is so important, but those at the chalkface, staff and students, are limited to an exhausted and sullen review of what we're doing, and how we're doing it, with little energy left to raise the eyes to the vision of why.

I suppose things have got better - though, as I write this, we are preparing for a visit to our fourth year by Paul Betts, father of Leah, and I'm reminded that maybe to-day's students have more pressing worries than sociology A levels and the Class War.

In the mirror, I look at a tired face, searching for signs of the eager 23-year-old of a quarter of a century ago. If I use my newly acquired reading glasses, I can still see the spark of idealism somewhere in the eyes, and I hope and trust its light will guide me into the next century.

Happy holidays.

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