Impertinent? That's bare-faced cheek

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
SOME WORDS have a resonance to them. They make significant points, clear aside opposition, have a magisterial touch. They come trailing clouds of authority and prestige, confident in their ability to see off the lesser breeds to whom they are almost always directed. One such is "impertinence".

It is not a word in common use these days, even in schools where once it had a currency. I can just recall well over 30 years ago in the junior secondary school I then taught in hearing the deputy head (guidance did not exist then, we all guided) blaring it into a recalcitrant third-year boy's ear. I was close by, so caught some of the blare.

It came as a surprise to renew its acquaintance recently, still brayed out by a teacher, and still directed to the lesser breeds. Nothing changes much.

"Impertinence". My dictionaries like the feel of it, for they give a wide range of interpretation. Collins suggests disrespectful language, rudeness, insolence, and with a rare usage, inappropriateness. Cassell offers trifling, frivolous and impudent. Chambers adds to these over-forwardness, while the Shorter Oxford chips in with triviality, trifling, folly and absurdity.

The last, as you might expect, adds some flesh to the bare bones of words, suggesting "interference with what lies beyond one's province," and most tellingly, "presumptuous or forward behaviour or speech, especially to a superior".

"Impertinence" - the word used to describe the claim by the primary members of the Association of Head Teachers of Scotland for parity of pay with their secondary colleagues.

Used by whom? As reported in the national press, by a spokesman for the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association. I remain a little confused about which definition of "impertinence" Anon (SSTA) was using with reference to his professional colleagues' requests to be treated on an equal footing. Did he think they are disrespectful? Rude? Inappropriate? Impudent? Seemingly over-forward, though.

And getting closer to the bone, and not fraught with any kind of ambiguity, "impertinence", at least to Anon, means that female primary headteachers seeking pay parity with male colleagues are behaving in a presumptuous way to their superiors. I just heard my junior secondary deputy blaring out again. . .

I have no intention of entering into the details of the AHTS claim or of its implications for local authorities and the Scottish Office. I can only presume that the activities of secondary heads that were tossed like a bone to the press were not really thought out, but were thought up in the expectation that their mere statement was enough to run the primary heads' case out of court.

Anon could be wrong there. Hushed and reverent mention was made of discipline responsibilities, financial pressures, exam responsibilities, target-setting, career guidance, and so on. The general idea behind Anon's "impertinence" is that the Nietzschean figures up there, the managers of small worlds, have both the gravitas and the gravy. That's the natural way and that's the way it should stay.

A more than significant majority of primary heads have no promoted staff or subject specialists to delegate to, and must deal single-handedly with all that goes on within their schools - from health and safety to discipline, from the children's panel to targeting. There's the sound of an auld sang about this - what it needs is the political will to change it and the money to firm it up.

I am convinced that secondary heads do not see themselves in the Olympian framework that Anon would corral them into. Now as the spotlight swings to S1 and S2 and outlines achievement (or lack of it therein), perhaps they may start to realise just how much we are all in the same boat and business.

Anon probably thinks that's impertinent. Downstairs should know its place.

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