This is a story about loyalty, from my first year of teaching at Tallis. '96 or '97, I forget now. In the dreadful old building, but with the same fantastic South London children. I think about the cast concerned, M and N, and W, from time to time. They are of an age for their children to come here now, and I think that some do.
Inspections from OFSTED back then were multi-day affairs for which a number of weeks’ notice was supplied, generating large amounts of paperwork in response. A school lived or died by the aggregate score of lesson observations as the main measure of teaching quality, together with the proportion of GCSE students awarded 5 A-C grades including English and Maths. Both measures since utterly discredited, although they ruined many a teaching career.
Schools stank of new paint and desperation when the Inspectors came calling, as they did to Tallis that summer. The English department was under the cosh over the exam results from the year before. I can still recall the (feigned, we felt) surprise of the Lead Inspector, his face pursed like a man sucking a Werther's Original on the top deck of the 286 whilst taking himself to Queen Mary’s for treatment for his prostate difficulties.
The Year 9 class I had that year were sufficient to generate a measure of anxiety about the likely findings of the Inspectorate. I was a newcomer in these matters and Year 9 students, delightfully, are on the cusp of late adolescence and early young adulthood - 13 going on 14, or rather older (it might appear) in some cases. There had been a number of trials to face over my successful delivery of the curriculum and relationships with some of the students had been rocky. One girl, N, had just taken violent exception to my contacting her parent to express distress at her forthright manner in class. Mum had not been entirely supportive on the phone and it was clear that full and frank discussions of the neophyte taking English lessons had occurred at home. Even shaving my head and bulking up by going to the gym six days a week so that I resembled, vaguely, N's scary older brother - the lad had been removed from Tallis by mutual agreement just after the start of the year - was no longer cutting it and resentments were reaching a rolling boil amongst N's crew, all of whom sat, pallid but with striking maquillage, along the back row. “Why,” N had yelled the week before, fixing me with a gimlet eye, “d’you got to bring my FAMILY into it?”. Subsequent pique kept her at home for a period and I was hoping that there’d be a continuing series of no-shows for the inspection.
And then there was M, out of school more than in. He was a slight lad with an extraordinarily loud voice for someone with his frame. I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered the like in the 25 years since. His family all had very significant hearing impairments but I don’t believe they signed, so M communicated with them simply by raising his voice. Schooled in this from early childhood, he knew no other way of speaking than by doing so at the most remarkable volume. He had a diaphragm like a blacksmith’s bellows and great autonomy at home because his parents deferred to him in all worldly matters, such were their communication difficulties. He was self-made, it appeared, in most ways. Writing was challenging for him and so it was a thing he refused to do, although on occasion I wrote at his dictation whilst the rest of the class grudgingly got on with something. The endpapers of his book were full of scurrilous neon felt-tip illustrations and although they were torn out with rigour on my part wherever I came across them I was in a double-bind about it as the only way of preventing them recrudescing was if he did not take his book home - making him therefore unable to complete any homework.
The wry humour of my predicament both over this and over his conduct in lessons was not lost on him as M was a keen observer of my many failings as a classroom practitioner, even liking to end lessons with exit-interview comments: “I DIDN’T GET ANY OF THAT.” or “S**T LESSON SIR. JOKE.” - even though it clearly wasn’t. (A joke, I mean. The lesson I can’t speak for now, actually.) Death in Terry Pratchett speaks only in majuscules, and so did M, and both were equally fatal to a calm state of mind. His views on any matter tended to the extreme and this and the volume with which they were presented usually instantly derailed orderly learning. Remonstrating with him was utterly without point, as was setting a detention, as he just stayed at home until the dust had settled. Calling his parents was useless for obvious reasons. During lessons M drew smut in his book, whilst occasionally putting his hand up to chip in, a hand I was usually too craven to pick for fear of what might be said. Not that it made much difference: even M’s sub-rosa mutterings of discontent were quite audible as his whisper was at normal conversational volume for a mortal.
Now terror was abroad. Some lessons across the school earlier that week had failed to make the grade and that and the statistics showing us up meant it was coming down to the wire. The final lessons that Friday needed to be decent or the school was for it. I was hoping the Key Players would be out but honesty has always been our leitmotif at Tallis and we resolutely refused (as other schools did, and do, one hears) to send the naughty kids home on gardening leave any time we were inspected. And the week of the inspection both N and M were in every day. I didn’t quite understand why.
My heart was in my boots - I hadn’t yet been seen but knew I would be. N bore grudges I was certain and was sure to play up; M was quite simply indifferent to what anyone else thought. He liked to call a spade a shovel and had previously shown that he was almost entirely indifferent to authority, for to him no power was legitimate but his own. Luckily, though, the inspectors knew enough not to appear in the classroom of a Newly Qualified Teacher it seemed, and I’d been spared a visit, perhaps also for reasons to do with the way that class’s timetable worked. During Monday morning’s lesson the inspection team had been setting up their workroom, and the midweek lessons were last thing in the day, when Findings were being Written Up.
The school only had to make it through to Friday lunchtime without terminal mishap, as the final debriefing session with the inspection team occupied Friday's graveyard slot. I had the Year 9 class period four, the last possible time for a visit, and of course the door opened after the first ten minutes of the lesson and the Lead Inspector came in with the Clipboard Of Doom and took a seat at the back, began flipping through the lesson plan. Revenge is a dish best eaten cold, and the lesson was potentially a cup of lumpy cold sick with a spoon shoved into it. If N or M wished to show me up and take the school down too, this was their time. I can’t now remember what the topic was - something from Blair's National Literacy Strategy probably - Writing to Focus Group, a thing of that sort.
Well now. I didn’t fancy my chances but of course I didn’t know then that the students here might hate the teachers, or say they do, in normal circumstances, yet the agio pneuma descends when interlopers come calling. The comitatus was everything: the tribe fought off Tacitus's men at the gates to the hilI-fort in the Downs, piled up the breach with their English dead at Agincourt, and played up and played the game at Wadi Rum in the Age of Empire until the sand of the desert was sodden red. Honour is more than a word, I now know, and loyalty was the thing. As far as N and M were concerned, the honour of the school was at stake and they wished to play their part.
I had taken the advice of the wily Head of Faculty when preparing for the ordeal - we all had - and the steer was to get something set up and then get the kids to knock on with it, on the basis that OFSTED's judgement allegedly hung solely on the charisma of the performer plus a bit of vox pop with the kids. (OFSTED were obsessed with lesson ‘pace’ as well - ‘Mush! Mush, children! We have life-changing exams to prepare for!’). To this the counter was: twenty minutes setup, give out the resources, twenty-five minutes of writing, wrap things up, done. It might throw the inspectors off the scent: if the Sage On The Stage wasn’t performing, it tilted them into a Book Look - and I had diligently been marking the kids’ work, when not tearing it out - or they had to talk to the students. Ranks might close up - that was the hope, anyway. A high-risk strategy with my lot, I felt.
So as long as M’s book was free of pornographic depictions, it might be fine. And that particular kindergarten had been weeded of things rank and gross that possess’d it merely the week before. More, I'd called in a favour with his Head of Year, the only person M rated in the whole school, who'd instructed him not to say a single word if the Inspectors visited. The fix was in, probably one involving fags. N was fond of incorrect verb agreements - we was always doing this that and the other in her biographic writing from earlier in the term - but she was caught up in the drama of her own life with rare intensity and her book was voluminously if inaccurately scripted. As long as no-one wound her up, she might do. The other kids were smashers and the weakest in the class, W, loved WWF. His piece about Wrestlemania 13 was a terse masterpiece of action description, which even though it sometimes lacked even spaces between words (sample: 'TheUndertakerwasdonein') could not but impress even the hardest heart via its innovative use of scriptio continua to convey the feverish excitement of the mash-up being described, one circulating at the time in school on dodgy VHS tapes bought from Lewisham Market.
I finished the set-up, and set them to it. Chop chop. Andiamo. M seemed to be keeping to his word, and N and her henchwomen were getting on with the task: they had strong opinions to defend. I toured the room widdershins speaking to children as, clockwise, did the Inspector.
How would things turn out? At first, N stared him down, but then showed her book. Nods of engagement. All the students had a ‘Writing Frame’, a Wizard Wheeze that I had picked up during teacher training the year before. It was writing-as-colour-by-numbers, but also at the bleeding edge of pedagogical refinement. If a child was stuck, they could dip in to help themselves craft a sentence, that was the theory. Or copy out verbatim, that was the reality. Pens were moving, matters were going along. I was beginning to feel a rising confidence, until I saw that the endpapers of M's English book were being scrawled in with his felt-tips, the lad doing this with an oddly stilted body language, leaning in over the desk whilst his pen moved frantically, the leaves of the book not opened fully, hiding what was being produced, yet working at blistering pace. Shading in, not writing, was happening. What was going on?
The Inspector worked his way round to him whilst a sense of creeping dread began to grow in me. Christ, what was the boy doing? But the pages were flipped back before the Inspector could get to them, and M wasn’t for sharing. A headshake. Would he say something, kill the mood of fragile scholarship? I tried to make eye contact with M to warn him off. Nothing doing. Nada. Zip. Nowt. Studied avoidance of interaction. So: on. Select a few students: oral feedback to individuals, then read the best bits aloud to the class. Take volunteers. Dole out grudging praise. Sing for your supper you buggers. Studiously ignore M and N, praise the behaviour you want to see more of, just like in the teaching manuals. The clock was ticking down and we were nearly there. Then we were.
The Inspector came to the front to thank the class for being so helpful to him in his deliberations. This brief farewell from the Man From The Ministry and then the students were dismissed and began to filter out. N and her shipmates departed. A loud shriek from one as they left, a scuffle. M remained. He had found a Thing To Do. He began to beckon from his seat in the gloom at the back. His gestures, at first shy, intensified. He began to smile. A rictus developed. His wiry hand scooped the air. Yes, you, you there - come and see. Enter freely and leave something of the happiness you bring behind. Like Jonathan Harker at the threshold, the Inspector knew something was up, but could not prevent himself from approaching M for the Big Reveal.
And there it was. With a flourish the book was flipped open on M’s desk, and the Inspector flipped off: M had spent the entire lesson crafting in garish capitals the instruction F**K OFF, neatly laid out across an entire double A4 spread. An illustrative finger indicated the imperative and M made eye contact, nodding excitedly as he did so. Yeah? Yeah? He seemed mute with delight; the inspector was mute for other reasons I think. No-one spoke, a relief.
The tableau unfroze and the parties departed. I packed up my things and left for the English Office, inwardly composing my letter of application to the Audit Commission, a public body my mother, a former headteacher herself, had always favoured over education work. Office stuff, away from the general public. Yes, that was it. Secluded back rooms. Yes. She knew best.
Later the Head sought me out. The Inspection team had turned out to be one of the good ones - they weren’t, always - and the Lead Inspector was a HMI appointed in the days when that actually meant something. My lesson hadn’t saved the day - the other, vastly more experienced English teachers had done that - but I had been mentioned in dispatches for a brave job in trying circumstances. M hadn’t even needed to speak, at the end, because his single contribution said all. No exit interview required.
Loyal to a fault, our lot. Loyal to (a) T.
-- Jon Bradshaw