We're all fighting for a better world;Comment;Opinion

13th March 1998 at 00:00
Regular readers will be aware that the classic black and white film from the 1950s, The Dam Busters, has a habit of sneaking up on me.

Last Sunday I was involved in a familiar teachers' weekend game of "juggling the priorities". Sitting on a sofa, Sunday press spread about me, I reviewed my options: a quick tour round the streets of Monaco with my son on his Grand Prix Playstation game, to satisfy the need to be daddy? A serious marking and preparation session born of my selfless professionalism? Or a guilt-ridden trawl through the papers, only partly justified by my thirst for current affairs, but leaving me well placed in front of the television for the start of Scotsport at 5pm?

As I wrestled with these moral dilemmas, who should flit across the screen but my old chum Guy Gibson, complete with the unmentionably named black labrador, and the rest of the crew. However, the boys in blue (or more correctly, granny grey) gave rise to a more sombre response than usual. The sight of the old Lancaster bombers droning their way towards the dams of the Ruhr brought together a whole collage of thoughts and reflections that took on a definite air of melancholia.

The son of the film's star, Richard Todd, had recently committed suicide, and his father had written movingly about the death of a child, and this was still in my mind. By chance, there lay on my knee a detailed article about the lowering age of puberty among western children, complete with a graph going back as far as the war, which set me to thinking about the 18 and 19-year-old "veterans" of Bomber and Fighter Command and how they might have compared with the pupils we teach today.

Their deeds are about to pass into "proper" history. When I thought of the 18-year-olds I teach, it suddenly seemed unfair that the bravery of those young pilots of 60 years ago might be reduced to a few words of RAF slang and a reputation for devil-may-care commitment to the defence of their country.

A few recent incidents in school have also led me to reflect on the expectations we place on our pupils and their ability to face the challenges that life may fling at them. Several painful interviews, during which parents were forced to recognise that their offspring were less than perfect, and in which the pupils concerned had to do some fierce thinking about their family relationships, were far more than normal school experiences.

That afternoon when one of our third-year girls, who is probably perceived as being fairly hardened to the ways of the world, broke down in tears in my office and sobbed, "I don't want to be in foster care but my mum and dad don't want me", will take a long time to fade from my memory.

It struck me that, in much the same way that the young heroes of the RAF are probably not best served by an entertaining but superficial film, so we need to recognise the dangers of sentimentalising or undervaluing the support that our schools provide for pupils and families.

Those who would seek to restrict teachers to matters academic, or who claim that a pupil-centred approach is a soft option, betray a worrying lack of contact with the reality that many of our pupils face. Increasingly, a major emotional investment is being demanded of our teachers. It may not be there in the contract but, morally, we surely have no choice.

For, just as much as those young heroes of the Second World War, many of our current pupils need support to fly through hardship to the stars.

Sean McPartlin

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