Right! Let's start as we won't go on

4th September 1998 at 01:00
"Right! Sit up properly. Now, this year I expect everyone in this class ... You! Yes, you. Stand up! What's your name? Darren Rowbottom. Right, Dar-ren Row-bot-tom. Let's get one thing straight before we go any further.I do the talking in this class and you do the listening. Alright? Is that clear? Now, as I was saying, this year I shall expect you to ..."

Sorry about that. I could not resist it. Every September the same two things invade my mind: (1) why am I not collecting conkers, and (2) memories of a couple of research projects I once did analysing hundreds of first encounters between teachers and their classes in primary and secondary schools at the beginning of the new school year.

Each year at this time I see the same start-up rituals in schools: the use of the word "Right!" as the most common attention getter; the emphasis on a fresh start and high standards, a resolve which in some cases has collapsed by Friday, when a single spidery sentence is greeted with ecstasy; the public naming and shaming of the first little chancer who steps out of line, pronouncing his name as if it is Dar-ren Dog-dirt.

Pupils are praised for looking smart, as most do on the first day, except for those who have grown three inches during the summer and now look ridiculous in their stretched clothes.

Rules are quickly established. "Don't eat pencils"; "Stand up if you're a packed lunch"; "Put him down NOW". Nowhere other than a classroom would those commands be given, or understood.

Year after year the same opening rituals are played out across cultures and international boundaries. One American teacher used an "Autumn leaves" theme to give every child a leaf with his or her name on it. The first time you misbehaved your leaf was removed from the large cardboard tree that adorned the classroom. Being a dead leaf at an early age must have been traumatic.

Then there is the first assembly. Entry is orderly, as the new pupils, relieved that their heads have not been flushed down the toilet, wonder what is happening, while older ones are not quite sure what might have changed.

In one school the headteacher started by saying, "Now when you come into assembly, imagine a zip across your mouth. It is your responsibility to keep it closed". No wonder they all sat there looking like toothless pensioners.

Next comes the big harangue about litter, high standards of behaviour, litter, improved academic achievement, litter, the importance of being thoughtful to others, litter, older pupils setting a good example for the younger ones, and, er, litter.

Just time for the deputy head to tell the story of Robert the Bruce and how important it is to keep on trying, followed by a prayer for those less fortunate than ourselves (i.e. schools with an Ofsted inspection coming up), and a hymn ("For those in peril" is the favourite in schools where there is an ironic sense of humour). Then file quietly out, one row at a time, no pushing. I love it.

Can you imagine any other first encounters being staged along similar lines? When you went into a shop, suppose the sales assistant told you to put your hand up if you wanted to buy anything and not to talk while she was talking.

Imagine inviting people to dinner and telling them that, if any food falls on the floor, they must ask for a cloth, not stamp it into the carpet, or insisting that no one can go home until everybody is absolutely silent and you can hear a pin drop.

Try sitting opposite someone in a railway carriage and saying, "Right! What's your name? Well, Dar-ren Row-bot-tom, take that pen out of your mouth, sit up straight and look at me when I'm talking to you. Now what are you doing wearing an ear ring and where have you been in those shoes?".

But then it takes two to dance the unique tango that marks the first encounters of the new school year. Can you imagine playing the pupil role in external settings either? Like sitting in church and giggling at intervals during the new vicar's sermon, just to wind him up. Or trying to get out of mowing the lawn, or getting tea ready, by saying, "I've forgotten me kit".

If some external assessor ever accuses you of incompetence, you just have to point to the head and utter the time-honoured phrase, "It weren't me, sir, it were him". Even if there is a suggestion that the assessor will return the following day to make a fresh judgment, all is not lost. Get your mum to write you a sick note.

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