The Head's View - Small emergency, but don't get fired up

3rd October 2008 at 01:00
Ray Tarleton, Head of South Dartmoor Community College in Ashburton, Devon

I'm trying hard to keep my eyes open during a tedious heads' meeting. I blame the coffee; it's too weak. The discussion about membership of Slig (or is it Slag?) doesn't engage me.

Now I can see why pupils become disruptive in class. And I understand why some say they don't care when I challenge them. They are telling the truth. In half an hour, I've lost the will to live. They have to cope with five hours a day.

What's the sanction these days for falling asleep in class?

The unexpected call from my PA is serious. She never rings unless there is an emergency. I gather my papers.

"Got to go back," I call to the group as I exit.

"What's the hurry? You look as if the school is on fire," jokes the chair.

"It is!" I exclaim and run to the car.

We know there is no smoke without fire, but the scene on my return is all smoke and no fire, thanks to the fire service's swift action. However, there are 22 classrooms out of use and more than 600 students sitting in the sports hall while precious learning time ticks away.

Everything is impressively orderly; no mere fire drill. This is for real and everyone has risen to the occasion, motivated by the drama of the event. Senior staff are in control and teachers are taking their roles seriously. Is this what they mean by distributed leadership? My deputy is making plans for rerooming but it will involve classes of more than 400.

The fire officer reports the damage is confined to one girls' toilet, now blackened with soot and smoke given off by melting plastic fittings. It was deliberate. But the good news is that we can return immediately to the evacuated classrooms.

By the time my mobile phone rings an hour later, we are almost back to normal and I am able to tell the first of three newspapers who want the story how well the fire service and the staff and pupils have responded. The damage is confined and closed-circuit television footage has already identified our suspect. Of course we will take appropriate action, and, yes, arson is a particularly culpable crime. I can sense the disappointment in the reporter's voice. Bad news sells more papers and maybe we actually have a good story to tell.

When the third paper contacts me at the end of the day, I risk taunting her with the information that the other papers are four hours ahead with their stories. Her false laughter is followed by a request to send a photographer. Not possible I reply, desperately wondering what reason to give. Then I remember that the toilet has been sealed off for the police.

The next day, with insurance claims lodged and renewal work contracted, we are in the aftermath period when the stories are told and the dramas relived. No, I tell worried Year 7s, no children were trapped in the toilet. Everyone was safe.

As I catch up by phone on the meeting I left, I hear myself endorsing the chair's decision about membership of the student learning assessment group (so it was Slag). "Great idea," I enthuse vaguely, while pondering the colour of the new toilet fittings.

As I survey the wreckage and think of all the work that will go into the repair, I decide that there is only one word to describe the daily grind and surprises of life in school. Forget Slag, or Slig. It's got to be slog.

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