That's 47 stars and a Joseph

18th December 1998 at 00:00
Peace, goodwill and I performance indicators in this tale of Christmases past, present and future by Tom Deveson

With a hard season of haunting ahead, the three Spirits of Christmas meet to gather strength over an egg-nog and a mince pie. Christmas Past is wallowing in sentiment, as usual.

"Of course, the children used to work right up until the end of term. Time was money, and they didn't waste it. Every boy and girl could tell you the meaning of 'Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail th' Incarnate Deity'. They could parse it and explain its theology. Everyone could spell "myrrh". That came in useful for crosswords in later life.

"And we did collective noun drills - a busyness of inspectors, a somnolence of teachers, a murmuration of children. If they didn't sing 'Comfort and Joy' properly, they stayed in at playtime until they learned to do it right. But they loved it. It all made sense. And we didn't have all this miscellaneous multicultural nonsense you get nowadays."

Christmas Present can't let that pass. He's bubbling over with the highlights of the day he's just spent touring south London. "In the morning there was the African Christmas in Cherry Garden School in Bermondsey. Forty-four children with severe learning difficulties performed for an hour to a packed school hall.

"The parents were there, Simon Hughes the MP was there, and the school's music teacher, David Herridge, is a talented jazz pianist so we heard wonderful Afro-Cuban jazz versions of favourite songs. Lots of the children played the drums in 'Na Kwa Yule Malaika'. They also told the story of the Sky God baking children of different colours - white, brown, black - and kissing them into life.

"Then in the afternoon near the Elephant and Castle there was English Martyrs School and their Christmas music."

"I know," says Past sourly, "all Furbies and Boyzone and commercialism. "

"Hardly. They wrapped it in a package like a news broadcast, but it was still the Nativity story. And when you've heard at least 47 stars, 59 kings, 63 shepherds and one each of Mary and Joseph, all singing like angels, you don't argue about the label.

"Then in the evening in Peckham we had Warwick Park School's seasonal music: Mozart, Chopin, South African township songs and classroom compositions derived from an Indian raga. And just a few days earlier we had 600 children at Shakespeare's Globe, making music for Christmas and other winter festivals. Joseph Lancaster School's tiny five-year-olds did a song for Chanukkah, with Swanzie Uzomah and Rubina Sultana-Alam standing where Shylock stood in the summer.

"It would need the combined talents of three wise cultural theorists to deconstruct that marvellous occasion of mixed meanings, that hallowed and gracious time, that conjuncture of postmodern representations..."

"Stop," groans Past, "You've made your point."

For some minutes, Yet To Come has been muttering into his mobile phone and stabbing angrily at his laptop. "You won't be able to get away with this stuff much longer," he snaps.

"What prioritised targets are you devising? What framework for systematic and structured learning opportunities have you established? What agreed procedures have you initiated? What performance indicators are you moderating and monitoring? What contextual data or benchmark criteria are you supplying with all this dining and story-telling?" The other Spirits look baffled.

"Calm down," says Past. "Even Mr Dickens, who invented us and invented Christmas as well, thought children needed regimentation only when he was tormented by his memory of the blacking-factory.

"When his imagination was released, he talked about teachers called M'Choakumchild and their cold shower-baths of explanations.

"Christmas was his symbol of generous hope, of escape from the rank-grassed iron-barred graveyard where death contaminates life. We in the Past may have been strict, but at least we thought it was for the children's good. And we put tinsel round the blackboard."

"There was someone else once," says Present, "someone who wanted rational law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, and the same for all..."

"Sound chap," says Yet To Come. "Who was that?" "Herod."* There is silence, followed by the sound of tearing paper. Yet To Come's mission statements flutter to the floor. "Let's think again," he says. "And God help us, everyone. "

* From 'The Massacre of the Innocents' in 'For The Time Being, A Christmas Oratorio' by W H Auden. Tom Deveson is an advisory teacher for the London borough of Southwark

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