Silence? In school? You must be joking

10th January 2003 at 00:00
We had a film crew in school the other week, doing something about a visit the Queen made a couple of years ago. We were happy to help, but outsiders have no idea how schools operate - releasing staff for interviews isn't that easy.

But the real problem was that the crew required silence, not easy to achieve at the best of times. Their visit coincided with that of a dog belonging to one of the local drug barons. When its owners are bored, they like to get it stoned. So the poor thing gets hungry and comes to school to scavenge.

On this day, it bit Jodie when she fed it part of her burger. I understand the dog's problem. Looking at Jodie it can be difficult to determine where the flesh ends and the bread begins. The disruption was huge, and in the middle of it all the film crew wanted everyone quiet. "Lively school, isn't it?" one of them said as Year 7 fled before the slavering, drugged doberman. I smiled weakly, wondering why it had to happen today.

But even on the best of days, how can you guarantee silence in a school? You can't. A school should have a happy, purposeful buzz. It should be a place of conversation and laughter. But schools deal with people, and people are never predictable, neither pupils nor staff. We've all done it, tipping over into the abyss of screaming unreason. But such vocal excitement should always carry a health warning.

A headteacher I once worked for shouted so loudly that his false teeth flew out, stunning a particularly difficult Year 10 class into silence. A real trooper, he picked them up, put them back in and carried on with his rant. What a hero. Mind you, it was a trick the rest of us could not hope to emulate. From then on, our attempts to shut pupils up paled into insignificance.

Schools are dominated by noises. You hear something, you respond. Talking in assembly. An inappropriate word. Ours is a life controlled by bells, divided up, sectioned. That is the odd thing about being on holiday, the freedom from such a succession of endings and restarts from a life so rigidly and inflexibly controlled. In any school, you can guarantee the clatter of dishes, a whistle, faint voices, doors slamming, chairs scraping, a distant music practice. All this is normal; noise is what happens when you put humans together. Searching for silence can be a perverse quest when there is so much to see, so much to do.

And who creates the most noise? Teachers or children? It is a close-run thing. We teachers use a certain voice and intonation which we think is a normal way of speaking until we are pulled up by an irritated spouse.

Often it's teacher noise that travels through the school like a wave. The sounds of shouting, coughing, ranting. These are the things you remember, along with the verbal tics children pick up so quickly - the verbal signatures, the noises that start and end a lesson. Schools are nothing if they are not full of inquisitive social creatures, watching and learning.

It is silence that is wrong and unnatural. And the silence itself has many qualities. There is the silence of expectation. The silence of boredom. There is that moment of intense engagement that happens in good lessons, when the class and the teacher have lost themselves together in the shared experience. Then there is the silence of fear or guilt when a class knows it has overstepped the mark and the heads go down. There is the silence of the exam room.

And what of the Queen's visit? It was a day marked by cheering and flag-waving. As I said to the film crew, her visit sounded just like a school sports day, but with police outriders. Perhaps that's why they decided not to use the interview.

Geoff Brookes is deputy head of Cefn Hengoed community school in Swansea

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