Merry missives in the making
An additional piece of paperwork will be dropping through the letterboxes of teachers, heads and local education officers in Cornwall this month. But if on opening it, they suppress a groan or laugh out loud, it's not because this is the latest government scheme or another request for information, but their annual Christmas greeting from Gordon Walker, headteacher of Tywardreath school near St Austell.
For 15 years Gordon has been maintaining his own Yuletide tradition, lampooning the latest educational initiatives and satirising the powers that be in a series of homemade Christmas cards. Gordon's come a long way since his first job in his hometown of Blackburn, an uninspiring six-year stint as a commercial artist for Crown Paints. "It was really boring - I was doing the colour charts and internal posters."
But after he left to train as a teacher and then started work in Shadsworth school in Blackburn, he soon found an outlet for his creativity. "It was in quite a rough area on the edge of a council estate, but it had a young and sociable staff. I drew a comic strip called the Shadsworth Street Kids, like the comic strip The Bash Street Kids in the Beano, which I gave out at the end of term. I put funny incidents in it that used to happen, like when the caretaker's dog cocked his leg on the Nativity. Everybody used to have a good laugh."
In 1979, he moved to Cornwall to teach at the school where he is now head. One of the reasons he chose the county was to spend more time painting watercolours, but job demands left him with little time to pursue his hobby. The 1988 Education Act and introduction of the national curriculum provided the spur to put pen to paper again. "The first card I did was all about attainment targets. We were expected to hit about 15 separate targets in science and about 10 or 12 in maths. It was a nightmare."
This first effort got a good response and things seemed to snowball from there. Lay inspectors, local management of schools, target setting and baseline assessment have all found themselves the subject of his seasonal send-ups. "It makes me chuckle to think of some of the initiatives that were brought in. They seemed so important at the timeI " But he reserves his scorn for some of the figures that have presided over their introduction. Just as 1980s left-wing political cartoonists loved to hate Mrs Thatcher, Gordon's favourite figure of fun was Chris Woodhead, who he first encountered when he was deputy director of education in Cornwall. Safe to say, he's not on Gordon's Christmas card list. "I met him once when we had a heads' conference, it was a residential thing and he was the after dinner speaker. I always thought they had to be witty and funny. But he was just nasty, saying teachers have an easy life, how they should work harder."
One showing children rolling a huge snowball as a man with a dog approaches is captioned "Right that's taken care of Woodhead, now quick, here comes Blunkett with his dog!" Another shows a headteacher being told of the former chief inspector's resignation thinking, "Now, where did I put the bunting?"
Most of Gordon's cards are adapted from pictures of life in Victorian schools, an era of strict discipline, harsh punishments and subservient children. Not a million miles from the world some education bureaucrats would like to recreate, he reckons. "It's all about the wrong things - results and targets. The Government can't even meet its own targets. We are accountable and there's nothing wrong with that, but it's gone too far. I believe that when historians of education look back on this period they are going to hold their hands up in horror."
Far from being the cynic these sentiments might suggest, Gordon has a love of teaching that has survived the worst that Whitehall has thrown at him. "I do it just to brighten people up at Christmas. The business of education has got too serious. One of the most wonderful things about teaching is when you read in the newspaper about so and so getting a degree, or when someone comes up to you in the street and says you were my headteacher and I really enjoyed being at your school. I had an email not long ago from a couple of lads who went to Shadsworth, who are about 36 now, and I had coached them in the football team as kids. They emailed me to say 'You were the best coach we ever had'."
Having moved from Tywardreath school in 1982 to take a deputy headship and then headship at other schools in Cornwall before returning eight years ago, he now finds that many of his original pupils are sending their own children to his school. Thirty years of teaching and all the educational comings and goings catalogued in Gordon's cards can't dim his enthusiasm for the job. "There are at least 20 parents here now who I taught when they were kids, and that's wonderful. There's such a fantastic feeling of trust. No amount of money can make up for that feeling."