These days heads tie the shoelaces

27th July 2007 at 01:00
It's only thanks to occasional visits to schools that most children's writers keep abreast of changes. Many of the things we notice intrigue or startle us. But I hadn't realised what a sea-change had taken place until I was walking along a primary school corridor beside the headteacher.

He was grumbling about some tiresome slew of paperwork keeping him from his main purpose when a child of six or seven came round the corner, a shoelace trailing.

I was just thinking back to how, when I was in school, the mere sight of the head coming towards us would set our hearts fluttering with unease. Would we be stopped and questioned? Why were we out of class? Whatever the answer, we would be sharply ordered not to dawdle and sent on our way.

How times have changed. This child stuck out her hand like a traffic cop at just the right height to bring the head skidding to a halt to save his manhood. He looked down. She pointed to her shoelace. He dropped to his knee, tied her lace in a neat double bow and patted her off on her way.

"That was a confident child," I said. He stared at me, baffled. "What child?" He hadn't even noticed the encounter.

When did our children come to believe that most of the adults around them were out to help and support them? If I was asked: "What are you up to?" in school, I sensed a trap. This change is the result of the shift in emphasis from "teaching the subject" to "teaching the child". Over the years, those who couldn't adjust to seeing the young people sitting in front of them as at least as important as the work on the board behind them have retired or left the profession.

I can't forget Miss Fletcher, my French teacher, bursting into the room and telling us irritably: "As if we weren't behind enough. Now I've been deputed to spend this lesson giving you careers advice. I'll give you careers advice find out what you enjoy doing most and then look around for someone who'll pay you to do it. Now, open your books."

I shouldn't think Miss Fletcher would have wanted to shift her emphasis from irregular verbs to sympathetic nurture.

No one goes into teaching now unless they are prepared at least to pretend that they enjoy the company of young people. Sarcasm is out. So is humiliation. Up to a point, so is losing your temper. But pupils are generally safe from having their characters dissected and found wanting alongside more legitimate criticism of their behaviour.

Sometimes, when I see young people sitting idly on trains, leaving off staring out of the window only to pick up their mobiles and text some inanity, I think back to the remarks I remember enduring. "The trouble with you, young lady, is that you have an almost totally unfurnished mind and are too ignorant to know it... Who's taking this class, Anne? You, who knows almost nothing? Or me?"

I'm glad teaching was the way it was when I was at school (no doubt the young today are equally glad it isn't). But as for which of us was more fortunate, I wouldn't know. If I did, I probably wouldn't dare say.

Anne Fine

was Children's Laureate 2001-03

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