It was the worst of times

10th February 2012 at 00:00

There was an empty seat on the coach that chugged away from a grey school building in a grim northern town. It was where, on a cruel winter's day, Little Mite would have sat had she not been sent to school so poorly attired. Her thin dress flapped forlornly like the remnants of a summer shredded by north-easterlies; her winter coat looked as weatherproof as a tea bag; her bare feet, blue with cold, peeped out of her cheap plastic sandals.

Miss Cheeryheart wept. "If only it were summer and we were going to spend a day in Scarborough, paddling in the sea. Why then my poor Little Mite could come with us." But it wasn't and they weren't. And poor Little Mite had to stay behind and miss out on a valuable learning experience.

Miss Cheeryheart sighed at the injustice of it all before settling her charges into their seat belts. The children were about to enjoy the historical benefits of a ruined monastery on the coldest day since Dickens decided to give Victorian social injustice a satirical kicking.

Meanwhile, in far-off London Town, Messrs Cameron and Clegg dabbed their eyes with sodden kerchiefs in recognition of bleak times. Their determination that all should share in the costs (if not in the means) of repaying the largest budget deficit in history led them to speak most earnestly to the nation. "These may be the worst of times," they said, "but they may yet prove to be the best of times; for public philanthropy and the private sector will flourish like snowdrops once the tangled branches of an over-bureaucratic public sector have been allowed to wither and die.

"And there will be no going back on our commitments," declared those guardians of public policy. "For poverty must never be used as an excuse for failure ... except of course where poverty of the national purse prohibits the implementing of manifesto pledges."

History, who is the clerk of all things and sole keeper of the great ledger of mankind, will, in the fullness of time, record in red or in black the balance of this venture.

In the meantime, Miss Cheeryheart and her poor Little Mite had more immediate concerns, which were to avoid being crushed beneath history's juggernaut. For those appointed guardians of learning, even in these bleakest of times, had great expectations; in particular the expectation that sacred attainment targets must not be compromised.

To this end, they showed a Squeers-like resolve to extract the highest yield from the lowest investment by a determination to resort to using the biggest stick.

As the coach chugged northwards, and as the empty seat beside her became more noticeable, Miss Cheeryheart began to weep. The truth slowly dawned on her. How will Little Mite's achievements look when she stands before the counters of beans referring to a ledger whose unforgiving pages have no mitigating columns against which one might offset a life lived in overcrowded and chaotic circumstances? Where alcohol and cigarettes take precedence over good food and warm clothes. Where 54-inch flat screens and knocked-off DVDs take the place of books and conversation. Where the only ghosts that haunt the night are those threatening violence. Where will Little Mite stand before a ledger unblemished by the evidence of a single seat on the great coach of learning left unfilled because of one pair of cheap plastic sandals?

Steve Eddison teaches at a primary school in Sheffield.

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