Give them a badge and they'll do anything

18th August 2006 at 01:00
I wasn't in a very good mood for the first term of sixth form. I soon discovered that I wasn't actually that much cooler than I had been in Year 11, which was a disappointment. And I certainly had not expected the amount of work sixth form entailed. So, when the call went out for applicants to become prefects, I asked, as President Kennedy probably wouldn't have said, "not what I could do for my school, but what my school could do for me".

The answer was that prefect-dom was a lot of work but not that much fun. I decided not to volunteer.

Every school has its own idiosyncrasies, but my school's system worked - and on the whole it did work - something like this. As many prefects were appointed as there were applicants. Proudly bearing (for the first week, at least) a shiny red badge, it was their job to tidy chairs, pick up rubbish and watch lunch queues. Strange thing, authority. If you asked your class to stay behind every Thursday at 3.30pm to unmash crisps from the carpet, you'd never see them again. But with a badge? Oh, yes Sir! We had about 70 badge-holders. Then again, I suppose the army probably works in the same way. Sure, in any normal circumstance you wouldn't want to be shot at and called nasty names by the Sergeant Major. But a badge, you say?

Now, I believe that if you're going to do a job,you might as well do it properly. But it's possible to take things too far. I came across a group called Aurora Training (www.aurora-tds.co.uk) which charges up to pound;1,699 plus VAT - plus pound;60 extra per kid - to train students to be prefects. You may scoff, but when that lunch queue gets all straggly, you'll be sorry.

Our prefects pinned on their badges with no formal training, but still, somebody has to decide who should unmash which crisps, and so we had a middle layer of 20 senior prefects (yellow badge this time). At the top of the tree were the white-badged head boy and head girl - and their six deputies. They were picked from the senior prefects by a mixture of staff interview and election.

The campaign, if you could call it that, was strange in that no one really knew how a candidate should behave; it suddenly became rather bad form to push oneself too openly, with one of the frontrunners crashing out for canvassing too soon and too aggressively. Better, it was felt, to act like you're angling for a party invitation, and let your friends make your posters for you.

Tempting as the gleam of that proud white badge was, it was a good thing I wasn't eligible to enter the race for it. That head boy lark seemed harder work than I'd ever imagined. While some schools offer a lot of prestige for not all that much effort, our leaders took on everything, from organising balls, open days, leavers' assemblies, the yearbook and rounding up outlaws and troublemakers in the lower years, to making Speech Day presentations and generally being Skivvies-in-Chief. It's not the sort of the thing you could do half-heartedly.

Our previous head boy and girl were aware of the need to represent all the sixth form. It's a difficult double life: one minute you're playing football with the rest, the next you're speaking from the lectern on the joys of teamwork and unity. As well as getting to know everyone fairly well whether you like them or not, it means not falling out with anyone and not bitching or gossiping. I think that's a pretty big ask. Sure, you shouldn't bitch, but it's an essential and immovable part of school life. Most staff have probably slurried at least four colleagues by morning break. And I don't know about you, but I'm far too grumpy to be delighted to see everyone, every morning. Alas, when you're wearing the white badge you don't have a choice. It's tough at the top.

Matthew Holehouse has just left Harrogate grammar school. His column continues through the summer. Email: mattholehouse @hotmail.com

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