How Miss Perfect lost her smile

9th April 2004 at 01:00
The Stepford Wives have got nothing on Briony, the task-force teacher. But she hadn't reckoned with the children ...

I've got problems with a lot of New Labour's ideas on public services.

Here's one: when there are difficulties in the NHS, send for the super-nurse; failing school - parachute in a superhead; challenging class - call for superteacher. As these supreme beings sort out the mess and save the world, we poor mortals stand back in awe and amazement.

Two years ago our local authority advertised for 20 "task-force teachers" so, as a founding member of the escape committee, I sent for the job spec.

Once I had got past the usual verbiage and jargon, it was easy to decipher the role: "you will go into failing schools, kick teachers up the backside and show them how it is done".

After four rounds of local and national advertising, the number of applicants was equivalent to the UK's point score in last year's Eurovision Song Contest. Our union secretary did ask the LEA if it could spend the money on something else, but no, it was ring-fenced.

This academic year, after some costly headhunting, three brave souls came forward. With our deputy head's position vacant, the LEA asked our head if we wanted a task-force teacher until we made an appointment. To say we were unenthusiastic would be an understatement, but we didn't want to appear churlish. After all, with our abysmal Sats scores who are we to argue? We know we're crap.

One Monday morning the power-dressed school improvement officer appeared with Briony in tow. We mustered for a morning briefing. "Briony's here to help, she's not here to spy, you don't have to worry..."

It wasn't an auspicious start.She spent days trawling through test results, school averages, LEA averages, national averages. One day she was in my classroom studying the DfES website pages on, yes you've guessed it, test results.

If that wasn't bad enough, she had a talent for getting on everyone's nerves. You name it, she'd done it, been there, got the T-shirt, seen the film, collected the memorabilia, been on the website, met the author.

So was our school about to turn into a scene from a DfES teaching video? You know, the ones with the perfect class, new uniforms, rosy-cheeked, from Upper Middle Class Primary, Stockbroker-on-Thames. No one fiddling with Velcro, pulling anyone's hair, nudging each other, losing pencils, twanging rulers. The Stepford Wives teaching the Midwich Cuckoos.

Would Briony be able to match this standard? Her debut was awaited with anticipation. The day she'd spent in my class, the children had been excellent. Yes, you get days like that: no one had fallen out, it wasn't windy or snowing outside. "They seem a nice class," she said at the end of the day. The following morning Briony took them for maths and English, while I went off to work on my co-ordinator plans. At lunch time I returned to the class. It was a mess, and a cursory glance at some of the books showed an appalling standard of work.

Briony was sitting at my desk, slumped forward, head in hands. I approached cautiously, she looked up. "I have had the most horrendous morning," she began. "I have never known such rude, cheeky children. I want to see four of them this afternoon and I will be demanding an apology."

I was biting the corner of my mouth in an attempt to stop laughing. "They can be a bit challenging," I replied and made my excuses. By the time I got to the staffroom my hands were red raw: QCA science scheme of work on friction - rubbing the hands together will produce heat.

Staff confirmed that her other lessons had been similarly disastrous. She just couldn't cope with our children. After another week she was given a free transfer back to the LEA and life returned to a semblance of normality.

Postscript: Briony has recently been appointed deputy head in an inner-city school. This could confirm the cynic's view that sometimes, in order to get promoted, you just need to be utterly useless.

The writer, who wants to remain anonymous, is a primary teacher in the north of England

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