Ruff deal for the top dog

5th January 2007 at 00:00
Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge community college in Devon

We've been having terrible trouble with Eric. He is fine in the mornings, but too much lunchtime play has been making him overexcited in the afternoons. Complaints have been escalating. He has taken to howling. This is Devon and we are used to peculiar behaviour when the moon is full and the tide is up. But there are limits. Teachers are putting pressure on me to act.

Eric has a sad background of neglect. His parents, to put it mildly, have both been around a bit. He touched the heart of Andy the biology teacher, who gave a home to this adolescent collie-labrador-wolf mongrel, and in turn started to bring him to school every day. The kids love him. He loves the kids. No problem until the nearby English department rightly get fed up with the class dissolving into giggles every time Eric's howls interrupt their sensitive readings of "La belle dame sans merci".

It now begins to sound like an in-tray exercise for the National Professional Qualification for Headship. The biology department, which favours experiential learning, has found that their guinea pigs are a big hit with students, and a dog is just another step towards their ambition of making the school a rival to Whipsnade zoo. The year heads note that it is the most vulnerable and socially awkward students who make their way each lunchtime to the science courtyard to play with the animals. The English department is happy to read poems about dormice and even scamper around the drama studio pretending to be lions, but draw the line at the real thing disrupting lessons. So who do I upset?

My instinct is with Eric, and not just because I have always wanted to be an old public-school head, pipe in my pocket and black labrador under the desk. It must have been so comforting to tickle the old dog under the ears after the emotional turmoil of giving Binns-Minor six of the best.

No, it's because a dog seems to offer a good answer to the Government's challenge to schools to personalise learning. I admit it's not what Professor David Hargreaves has in mind with his model for personalised learning, which consists of nine gateways (assessment for learning, student voice, workforce reform and so on) and four "deeps": deep experience, support, learning and experience. I think it's closer to the scene in the film Gregory's Girl in which a student runs a thriving home-made cake business from a toilet cubicle. If a child is to thrive in the hurly-burly of a big school, he needs a niche, a personal space where he belongs and feels safe.

Some find it in the library, some in the football team or the choir. We constantly chase the dispossessed and disaffected who find it in the smokers' crowd. Eric met the needs of just one or two by giving them a purpose during lunchtime: for once, they were the ones with a role and status; they had real responsibility as carers; they were doing the looking after, and getting a tangible and affectionate response from Eric in return.

You will have noticed, gentle reader, the past tense. For personalised learning has to recognise that the needs of the individual are set against those of the wider community. Eric interrupted one lesson too many, and has been sent on home leave. I am waiting for Andy to come back to me with a plan for a kennel well away from the English department.

In the meantime, perhaps Professor Hargreaves would accept a contribution to his research of a fifth area of personalised learning: deep barking.

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