Goodbye without the eggs and flour

9th June 2006 at 01:00
Did they riot? Or just have a good time? How pupils depart for study leave reveals volumes about their school, writes Roger Pope

So how was it for you? Did your Year 11s go skipping off for exam leave with warm smiles on their faces and gratitude in their hearts? Or did you bid them good riddance amid shrieking fire alarms and a ticker-tape of flour and eggs?

For me, it was a reminder that school is always full of surprises. Ollie and Rupert celebrated their last day by driving the eight miles to school on a pair of Massey Fergusons. Yep - you can drive two tons of tractor along a public highway when you are 16 but not a Morris Minor. It's what makes Britain great.

"Um, what do we do about these?" asked my deputy pointing to the staff car park. My first reaction was to fulfil a boyhood dream, confiscate the keys and go for a quick joyride while they were all in final assembly. Mick's eyebrows were already telling me this was a bad idea, so we left them where they were.

That was why lunchtime was so peaceful. Half the kids spent it trying to enter the Guinness Book of Records for the largest number of Year 11s in a tractor cab, while the rest were busy signing each other's shirts.

One year we tried to ban this because by the end of lunchtime some of the shirts look more like the back of a public toilet door than an autograph book. Now we just tell them to bring a spare shirt for signing.

They're happy because they can still cock a snook at authority; we're happy because they're signing shirts not walls. And they're enjoying themselves.

It's a fine line. My heart went out to the staff of the school that hit the national headlines a couple of Saturdays ago for sending their Year 11s home two days early. The report talked of dozens of fire alarms being set off during the week, and quoted the headteacher in a letter to parents saying that the decision had been taken "in the light of continued defiance and lack of respect for the school".

I used to live near this school. It is a good school. My son would have been in that Year 11 had we not moved. I know that such trouble is caused by a minority, yet I would have been uneasy at such an end to 11 years of compulsory schooling.

We all do what we can to keep the focus in those final weeks. There is extended work experience and the "it might be better all round if you start study leave early" conversations. Some hold the leavers' dinner the night before the leaving day and then spring the old "you've been so good, you can have the day off tomorrow" routine. And some just abolish study leave and carry on with lessons throughout exams. No problems on leaving day because there isn't one.

"Stand not upon the order of your going, But go at once!" said Lady Macbeth as her husband's bonkers behaviour collapsed the banquet into chaos. But of course Scotland's slide into disorder had started long before the Thanes sat down to their haggis and neaps. The preparation for the last day of Year 11 starts on the first day of Year 7.

You can feed the SEF-monster with as many self-evaluation questionnaires as you like, but how they finally leave will tell you a lot more about whether the students have found the past five years enjoyable and challenging, whether they have felt cared for and respected and if they can recognise a bottom line when they hit it.

As I watched final assembly from the back of the hall, I saw another reason why we had enjoyed such a smooth last week. The head of year's affection for his kids (most of them) was palpable. Their presents for him - a builder's helmet and an England football shirt (number 11, of course) - demonstrated how well they knew and cared for him, too.

In these post-teaching and learning responsibility allowance days of learning leaders and behaviour managers, a head of year seems terribly 1990s. But a good one creates an ethos and bonding in the year group that is worth its weight in silent fire alarms.

Roger Pope is head of Kingsbridge community college in Devon

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