Lost sheep get frosty greeting

24th March 2006 at 00:00
All right, so whose turn is it next to wind up the popular media? The latest "Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep" ruse at an Oxfordshire nursery went down a treat, of course, with my teaching colleague Sarah pocketing pound;25 in our impromptu staff "sheep-stake" after correctly guessing how soon after the rainbow we would hear the inevitable "it's political correctness gone mad".

It was a historic moment - experts believe that the nursery's crafty little effort may well have prompted the quickest "PC gone mad" response yet recorded -certainly in the "Black Sheep" divisional category. It knocked a full 12 minutes off the previous world record, set in 1999 by Birmingham city council when a few mischievous members caused similar uproar after proposing a blanket ban in schools on any mention of the said ewe.

The tease about abolishing black sheep has been recurring periodically ever since the verse was first penned, possibly in response to an unpopular wool export tax of 1275. Perhaps one of the first public figures to feign offence was that well-known practitioner in self-ridicule, Edward the Black Prince. Taking a light-hearted break from the dull routine of slaughtering Frenchmen, Edward let it be known that anyone caught singing "so wretched and insulting a lyrick" would be first in the front line for the forthcoming bloodbath at Crecy, "dressed up as the very sheepe". Then, of course, there was the 14th-century furore over the possible renaming of the Black Death.

Needless to say, all fears over the survival of black sheep in schools are completely unfounded. In fact our education system is busily creating a whole new breed of them, seemingly blacker than any previous. You find them in most classrooms in the country nowadays and many teachers can scarcely spit their names without going into a spasm of abandoned fury.

We are talking, of course, of that new and almost unspeakably wicked species, the term-time holidaymaker. Members of this new breed are easy to spot. They are the ones in the classroom keeping their heads low, looking appropriately sheepish and sun-blackened. They may have been grazing in warmer pastures last week but these roving bovines soon feel the iciest of breezes upon return. Teachers never used to be quite so mean to them.

Before the days of judgement by test and league table most of us scarcely raised more than an eyebrow at the occasional straying from the flock.

The trip seemed a little unwise if there was a test on the horizon but no great matter. All being well, the gambolling lamb with the wanderlust parents might soon catch up with the herd anyway. Besides, it was their parents' look-out.

We shepherds used to acknowledge that the benefit of everyone staying inside the pen all the time was possibly quite small compared with the broader educational advances they might make from leaving the flock for a while. We appreciated the greater lessons a youngster could learn through simply being in foreign parts, together with the sheer joy they would doubtless experience from spending unique and memorable days away with their family.

As Sir Francis Bacon put it (though obviously more of a pig-man than a herdsman): "Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education". If some parents wanted such trips to be a slightly more regular and affordable part of their child's development then was that really a net educational loss? Besides, what science had determined the perfect number of days in school anyway?

But times have now changed for all of us out there in the field. Shepherds can no longer afford to gaze at the stars and see the bigger picture.

Education is now more a matter of looking at the stats, not the stars, in a field that now values pass-rates, not passports.

The combined and rather miserable might of the law and the Department for Education and Skills has been particularly exercised this month in trying to keep all potential wanderers penned in. The High Court has ruled that schools, not parents, can now decide whether or not a family can take a term-time holiday. Similarly the DfES has been launching a new initiative going by the rather fanciful name of "Every Lesson Counts". If only. Given that an increasing number are trying to escape from the new exam-driven curriculum, maybe the DfES might also ask why.

But for now I shall be locking those field gates as diligently as anyone.

My own pass-rate and pay come way ahead of young Jake's travel ambition.

Forget all that woolly nonsense about the broader meaning of education. I am the little boy who lives down the lane, he is the little brat who keeps wanting to fly off to Greece. Well he's not going. I need my bagful.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's school in Oxfordshire

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