A tribute to you, stalwarts of the frontline

As the 20th century limped towards its close, I found myself timidly accepting an invitation from The TES to write a light fortnightly column, alternating with the late great Ted Wragg. The timidity was natural. We're all a bit nervous of teachers. For one thing, we remember our own. For another, anyone with even the slightest sense of justice must be in awe of the amazing people who voluntarily stand up in front of huge groups of sullen, aggressive, unfamiliar, virtually unpunishable children and undertake to teach them.

But I could not resist it because, as a parent of 15 years, I had become fascinated by schools. I crept into the corners of this closed world as a journalist, a Year 1 parent-helper, a PTA member, a governor. I liked teachers, in the main, but was also anthropologically fascinated by your tribes and beliefs. So I carried on, year after year, praising, analysing, taunting and generally horning in on your world from the comparative safety of the back pages - and cowering under the occasional brickbats. "Your children, no doubt, are ungoverned, spoilt, foul-mouthed, idle and intransigent, a prey to drugs, sloppily dressed..." wrote one right-wing head; and from the left came equal venom: "Your military-imperial caste, which wants to keep its secret codes like Latin in order to monopolise the Brideshead universities..." Midway through these assaults, I mopped my brow and shambled into virtual detention, or fantasised about Hogwarts being converted into the Voldemort City Academy with compulsory Dark Arts modules, or founding a pressure group called CARRUT, the Campaign for Real University Teaching.

The cartoonist Bill Stott, a former teacher, illustrated my pieces with fine jokes, which kept my spirits up. But when it came to collecting columns and cartoons into a book, the greatest pleasure was coming across half-forgotten rags and tatters of education history from this most quarrelsome and overmanaged of decades. Goodness, you've had a lot to put up with.

Remember Chris Woodhead's crazy war against tiny Summerhill? Remember the brouhaha about mini-scooters, Lenny Henry playing an improbable superhead on TV, Tessa Jowell's "Toolkit for non-competitive sports days" (yep, that'll be the same Tessa who's now bonkers about the Olympics)? Remember the lawsuits about girls in trousers, the coming of AS levels, the head who was terribly shocked by a fax advertising Puppetry of the Penis, but said "Fortunately, it came through to the Bursar's Office"? Remember the Tory idea of "turnaround schools", or the primary that taught analysis of Cinderella with reference to the Human Rights Act ("Being made to work in the kitchen infringed her rights under Article 19, Miss")? Remember how, in the petrol crisis of 2000, the Government issued a long list of essential services, right down to tax inspectors and financial institutions, but left out all but special schools? Remember the government guidelines on sex education, which told girls not to do it at all, while advising boys to carry condoms? Remember Patricia Amos, jailed for permitting truancy, and the Prince of Wales announcing (about once a year) that we had vandalised our moral and aesthetic heritage?

Of course you do. You were fighting the good fight. I was just a war correspondent, not even embedded. But this book is dedicated to you: to Sir (and Miss) with love. Because we can't do without you. And not many of us could do what you do.

A Little Learning: Broodings from the Back of the Class is published by Routledge, pound;11.99. TES readers can get 10 per cent off if they call 0870 4448628.

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