Life on Mars in the open-plan Seventies

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Monday evenings won't be the same without Life on Mars. The story of how a bump on the head sends detective Sam Tyler back in time to a 1973 detective squad led by DCI Gene Hunt has been a lot of fun. Much of the entertainment arises from the clash between Sam's 21st-century methods of policing and DCI Hunt's more direct methods - fit up the person who looks most guilty and a bit of physical violence never hurt anyone. Add in screeching brown Mark III Cortinas, Sam's conversations with the girl in the television test card and a selection of Mexican moustaches, and we're away.

For some of us, 1973 is just yesterday. It was not a primitive time. The Apollo moon landings had just taken place and, in teaching, we were trying to implement the eight-year-old Primary Memorandum. Ideas such as curriculum integration, learning contexts, following the child's interests, differentiation, active learning, flexible organisation and the central role of expressive arts were very familiar. Admittedly, corporal punishment still loomed large - the equivalent of a Gene Hunt punch in the face.

On a personal level, 1973 was the year I made my first change of school. My authority, which had hired me some years before on the basis of a two-minute conversation, circulated a list of new schools requiring staff.

The idea of being in at the start of a new open-plan era appealed, so I sent in a letter of the "Please choose me" variety and, some days later, they wrote back and said: "OK - turn up in August."

So I did. There was a bit of a rush going on. Builders were laying a strip of Tarmac for the children who were due the next day. No one seemed bothered that half the building was missing. Ditto the furniture. And the books. And the telephone. But we weren't alone. Other new schools were in the same boat.

Many Primary 7 pupils exercised their right to stay put rather than transfer to our new school, so I began with a class of only 20 - heaven compared to the 35s that were normal for me. Fortunate also, since we had to kneel on the floor and use our chairs as writing surfaces. The council said we did not need blackboards ("group work, you know"), then relented, saying we could have them if we could find them.

So the headteacher and I drove a hired van around the county for a day begging for surplus roller boards on wheels. I hadn't experienced full-blown headteacher stinginess until then. You'd have thought we were trying to steal their pensions. Eventually, and due to the kindness of a few rare souls, we returned to our colleagues without loss of face.

The telephone appeared two months later after a child had a heart attack in the playground. He died while the janitor ran up the street, knocking on doors of nearby houses until he could find a phone.

The waiting time for the books was seven months, a normal delay in the days before devolved school management when we were dependent on the pleasure of the Grant Educational Company of Glasgow. But I suppose I should be grateful. During the bookless months, I was thrown back on my own resources, so my teaching had to develop at super-fast speed. I'd recommend it to anyone.

There was an informality and a sense of adventure about schools in 1973 that was stimulating and encouraging. It was in contrast to the present era when education authorities and government exert such tight control - like grasping someone warmly by the throat - that schools are less confident and adventurous than they once were.

I'd welcome another go at 1973, bumped head or not. The exhilaration of school life then was a superior context for teaching when compared to the humourless attitudes we work under today.

Brian Toner is former headteacher of St John's primary, Perth.

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