Old ideas and modern chairs

28th March 2003 at 00:00

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend last Saturday's Higher English conference, owing to domestic commitments, but my principal teacher filled me in on the day's proceedings.

"It was enjoyable and frustrating all at once, Morris," Simon Young explained. "Enjoyable, because you realise you're not alone: there wasn't a single teacher there who didn't think that this year's arrangements are a disgrace to an examination of the full range of English skills at Higher. And frustrating, because we can't do a bloody thing about it!"

"But at least it might enforce change for next year," I tried to look on the positive side.

He shrugged. "Maybe. But what about this year's generation of candidates? Two interpretation passages, two literature essays and that's it, really.

That's what they'll be judged on after five years of study. And the depressing thing is that every single person there was admitting that, because of the exam structure, the average pass rate in English grades is certain to go down in 2003. And then there'll be a humongous bloody outcry in the August newspapers, so they'll have to change the exam again!"

By all accounts, it had been rather a depressing event, although Simon explained that it had been made more entertaining by the contribution of a recently qualified probationary teacher, who called the examination "a national disgrace" and demanded immediate change.

"She wanted to introduce three papers," he explained, "one of them a literature paper offering a choice of three genres of literature essay or the chance to demonstrate skills in practical criticism of unseen literature; the second paper would be a chance to demonstrate skills in close reading for meaning, plus textual analysis of language by looking at two non-fiction passages, including the chance to write a report based on one of the passages; and the third paper would give them the chance to demonstrate their creative skills by producing a composition from a wide range of possible options - and all to be externally graded."

"I see," I said. "You mean, she was suggesting a paper more or less exactly the same as the Higher that was offered 18 years ago when I started teaching?"

"Precisely!" laughed Simon. "And who knows? Stranger things have happened.

Give it a few years, that's what I say."

I shook my head in sorrowful disagreement. "I doubt it. That was an examination of yesteryear: it was an extremely thorough test of imaginative creativity, literary sensibility and detailed knowledge about language.

They'd never get an exam like that past the FE squad again."


A return visit from Bill Bennett, the uninspirational chief consultant for our publicly-privately renovated school. He spoke about the revised drawings with all the dynamism and vivacity of a Speak Your Weight machine and then proceeded to outline the authority's subsequent three-year plan in a manner that made it akin to a Soviet agricultural reform policy.

To nobody's surprise, he confirmed there would be no staffroom in the new school building, despite our protestations at the last meeting.

And he was, alas, "unable to confirm" what would happen to some recently purchased computers in Mr Walsh's computing studies department.

"So the rumours that these new machines will be trashed and replaced by slightly newer but very similar machines when we move into the new school are just that, Mr Bennett? Rumours?" asked Mr Walsh.

"It's difficult to say," Mr Bennett had the grace to concede. "Often, taking a broader view, it becomes necessary to sacrifice the apparently more attractive cost of conserving relatively new equipment when we have a highly cost-advantageous authority-wide contract for the installation of completely new and even more up-to-date equipment."

In other words, it'll be out with the new and in with the new.


Further misappropriation of educational funding came to light this afternoon, when I had a "please take" for Mrs Harry of business studies.

To explain: a large delivery of "operator chairs" had recently been made to Room B23, at no small cost, and it was something of a shock for me to discover that all of them had been castrated, so to speak, by having their height adjusting gas cartridges removed. I had always understood that one of the manifold advantages possessed by these chairs (as opposed to the polypropylene stacking affairs that most of us have to use) was their height-adjustable qualities, so essential to compliance with health and safety regulations concerning monitor height, eye-level comfort and the avoidance of repetitive strain injury occasioned by inappropriate mouse height. Well, that's what Mrs Harry had insisted upon in her budgetary bid for the items.

In fact, she would have been just as well - or better - off to have bought standard plastic issue like the rest of us because, 10 minutes into the lesson, I realised that half of the class seemed to be sitting much lower than seemed comfortable. Katie Ross, for example, had her eyes only just above desk level, while her arm was at a 35 degree upward tilt whenever she had to action her mouse commands. And Simon Sheridan could hardly see above the desk, let alone be on eye-level with his computer screen.

I suggested they raise their chair levels to make their lives easier, but was met with howls of derision.

"Haw! We canny, sur!" cried Sheridan. "Mrs Harry took the gas cylinders oot, sur. Said she goat fed up of us bouncin' up and doon like kangaroos.

An' efter Philip 'n' Peter had a chair race acroass the room last week, she says she'll take the castors oaff as well if we move ootside a six inch radius."

It's one way of exerting your authority, I suppose, but I'm not sure where Mrs Harry stands on health and safety issues. The next thing she knows, Sheridan will be on to the European Court of Human Rights.


Tonight was the second year parents' evening - or, rather, parent's evening, if Richard Broadbent's letter of invitation to them all was to be believed. It's well seen that our depute head comes from a background of physical, rather than classical, education.

In retrospect, perhaps it would have been better to invite a select number of parents anyway. We should certainly have kept Mr and Mrs Bloody Melvin away.

This tiresome pair seemed exclusively concerned with their odious offspring's chances of "getting a good set of Highers" and entirely unconcerned with my complaints about Michael's appalling classroom behaviour.

"To be frank, Mr Melvin," I explained (frankly), "Michael has very little chance of academic attainment if he continues to behave the way he does.

He's constantly talking, interrupting, having a laugh with his friends during lessons I" "Ach, dinny worry about that," he reassured me, completely oblivious to my concern that his son's behaviour had an impact on the rest of the class.

"Ah wis jist like that when ah wis at school, pal."

Maybe it was the inappropriate and over-personal salutation that annoyed me. Or maybe it was just his manner, as he stretched back in the chair and crossed his legs broadly. Whatever it was, I should have learned by now not to bring up the subject of unauthorised absences.

"And taking him off on holidays during the middle of term doesn't help," I pursed my lips firmly. "Aside from the fact that Michael misses some extremely valuable schooling, there's now the possibility of such removals from class-time being regarded as a criminal offence."

At which point he became extremely irritated and held a threatening finger aloft.

"If yous're havin' a go at me furr takin' ma son oan hoaliday when ah want tae, yous kin shove yer report card where the sun don't shine!

"Ah'll take ma family hoalidays when ah want, an' if it means getting a deal at hauf the price that youse teachers kin get, even wi' yer 14 weeks ae paid hoaliday - plus bank hoalidays tae boot - then ah'm gaunny dae it.

OK, pal?"

Infuriated beyond belief, temper ablaze, I rose from my chair to challenge him. Then I thought better of it and sat down again.

"Take your holidays whenever you wish, Mr Melvin," I assured him calmly.

"It's really no concern of mine."

And it's not. By the time the boy reaches Higher stage in three years, I won't be his guidance teacher.

In fact, nobody will.


For the final time of asking, I have completed one of my springtime guidance duties: ensuring that all of the pupils under my charge know which examinations they are sitting and when they are sitting them. It doesn't sound much, but for the average Greenfield Academy pupil the SQA examination timetable is - like the Latin Mass - an impenetrable mystery.

Next year, it looks as if my assistant principal teacher of guidance post becomes redundant and my responsibilities will be spread far and wide across the whole school staff. I just can't help wondering what will happen to the pupils under my pastoral care when the glad confident morning of the McCrone arrangements dawns in August.

Who will co-ordinate their records of needs, I wonder? Who will be the school's first point of contact for worried parents? Who will give careers advice, or examination guidance? Who will actually know the pupils as real, living personalities?

The answer, according to the authorities, is every teacher.

My concern - for understandable reasons - is that the answer will be nobody. Especially as I'll still be receiving an enhanced salary for not doing the job.

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