Back to School

Jenny Diski

It has been my habit, since I was very young, to keep easy sentiment, nostalgia, optimism even, in a secure box, and to forget where I left the key. This isn’t a confession, as it might seem to be in these emotionally overindulgent days. It’s simply a strategy; I’m a non-believer in the recuperative power of easily expressed instinctive feeling. Even so, I teared up at Michelle Obama tearing up, as she said, speaking to a group of girls at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson comprehensive school in Islington: ‘All of you are jewels. When I look at a performance like this, it just reminds me that there are diamonds like this all over the world.’ She told them that they were the women who would ‘build the world as it should be,’ and included education in her idea of health. She even dared to suggest that being clever and learning aren’t things to be mocked: ‘I never cut class. I loved getting A’s, I liked being smart. I liked being on time. I thought being smart was cooller than anything in the world.’

Even now, part of me thinks I should have bunged the whole speech and the rapt attention with which it was listened to in my box of soppiness and firmly shut the lid. But I didn’t. In the early 1970s when I was a teacher, it was possible (hard to credit now) to believe that there was nothing more important that one could be doing than working in schools. It wasn’t just me. The staffrooms of inner-city schools in 1973 and for a few years after that were increasingly inhabited by people who urgently wanted to work with children, who believed they were diamonds, all of them, potentially, and saw it as their job to fight with or ignore the institutions in order to make new forms of education happen. Some of it was naive, vain and plain silly; a colleague in my staffroom came in one break-time after working with her class of what were then called ‘remedial’ pupils and flung herself down into a chair, exploding: ‘These kids are just no good for socialism!’ And a great deal of time was spent in spirit-deadening union meetings hijacked by factions of the left (my left) making points of order. But I won’t recant and stick it in the box marked ‘Youthful Enthusiasm’.

It was very much easier for us then. We didn’t have to account for ourselves in the classroom beyond keeping a moderate degree of calm (not letting too much noise spill out into the corridor) and seeming to pursue a rather vague curriculum that we made up as we went along in department meetings. Once you were a qualified teacher, and were not running into the staffroom crying or bleeding, you were left to your own devices.

The classroom freedom we had in the most difficult state schools was exactly what both Thatcher and New Labour set out to eradicate with quantification. There were no league tables of schools, or SATs to see how teachers and pupils were doing, just CSEs (as they were then), for which in my school expectations were tragically low. There was a small sixth form, but it was for those who were deemed bright enough to go on to O levels. There weren’t half a dozen among the thousand girls in my Hackney comprehensive who took A levels. Most of the pupils were planning to get married or pregnant as soon as possible and get on with their lives. They were practical if not ambitious young women. I battled with them to get them to see reason, but they also battled with me.

‘Miss,’ one of my tutor group of fifth formers said: ‘How old are you?’


‘Why aren’t you married?’

‘I don’t want to get married.’

The rest of the class joined in. They were worried about my future.

‘At least have a baby, miss. Because it’ll look after you when you’re old.’

‘At least get engaged, miss, and get a ring. Then you’ve got something to sell.’

For better or worse, in an inner-city comprehensive in the 1970s, no one cared about outcomes, only keeping a semblance of order until the kids, sullen, bored, angry or passive, could leave school. It gave those of us who minded about that attitude the freedom to talk about all manner of things under the guise of History or English.

The lack of oversight, and of targets, must send a chill of horror through any modern manager of a school, and with some reason: it was pretty haphazard, and who was to say that only good teaching would or did come of the laissez-faire system? The line between liberty and libertarianism is very indistinct, and the desire to dismantle bureaucracy and social inequity leaves open the possibility of chaos, and creates endless opportunities for individual self-aggrandisement. But it seems to me that the risks were worth taking, now that we’ve seen the dismal results of our 20-year-long experiments with centralised targets, management echelons and paper-based accountability.

A couple of years ago I spent several days in a local comprehensive, sitting in on lessons and talking to teachers. I was confounded by managers and management speak. The deputy head talked to me about the essential need to achieve national targets, while operating an efficient internal market and keeping strictly to department budgets. ‘Everyone has to work within budgets, don’t they? Schools are no different from any other enterprise.’ I said I thought they were. He looked at me as if I had taken off with Richard Dreyfuss in the extra-terrestrial chandelier. The head of English gave me some curriculum outlines to look over; they included such topics as ‘Pattern’ and ‘Superheroes’. All the English teachers followed these, week by week, term by term. The term plan for Group Reading was the result of many hours of office-bound effort by the head of department, presented as a spreadsheet with boxes labelled: English and Media Objectives (‘To develop as independent, meta-cognitive learners, able to evaluate their own performance honestly and openly’), ICT Issues, Processes and Outcomes, Technical Skills, Work Related Learning, Differentiation Strategies (including deployment of TA), Citizenship and PSHE, SMSC. The Group Reading topic ‘Lesson Activities and Notes on Learning Styles’ explained:

The course runs for six weeks, each week including three 50-minute lessons (although this is certainly a flexible timescale):

Week 1-4: Reading the text.

Week 5: Creating Powerpoint presentations about a PSHE issue linked to the text.

Week 6: Showing presentations and evaluating performance.

Students work independently during the lessons, using worksheets in colour-coded folders to guide them. The teacher spends lessons, or parts of lessons, targeting specific groups, offering guidance and monitoring progress. The ultimate outcome of the course is a PowerPoint presentation on a PSHE issue relevant to the each group’s text. The following topics are covered:

1) Divorce 2) Grandparents 3) Brothers and sisters 4) Becoming independent 5) Parents and children.

The group reading The Wolves in the Walls ( . . . explicitly chosen for pupils with very poor literacy skills . . . ) do not create a PowerPoint presentation, but instead use ICT to write a sequel to the book, thus empowering them as writers as well as readers, a real necessity with lower-ability children.

In the classrooms, teachers used e-boards attached to computers to display teaching materials that were either centrally produced within the school or provided by the Department of Education. One or two of the teachers overcame their management role in the classroom and somehow managed to individualise the rigid material they were required to use and talked directly to the children both as a group and as individuals, getting them laughing and thinking in between the bullet points. Most of the others among those I observed seemed anxious to get through the lesson plan, and between concentrated sessions on the e-board, issued numbered warnings (standardised throughout the school) to the chatterers and mental absentees, which finally resulted in detention and being sent to the head. I spoke to one angry science teacher who raged that the national science curriculum had been over-weighted with personal and social matters – the actual science content was now, she said, minimal. But the place was orderly. There wasn’t much running in the corridors. The staff knew what they were supposed to be doing and when, the children had their colour-coded folders, and both teachers and pupils dutifully produced evaluation sheets – aims and outcomes, numbers and boxes to be ticked. Teaching was a matter of implementation. This was an officially ‘successful’ school.

What politicians do with their own children tells a different story. After Michelle Obama’s speech there was a wild response from the girls at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who between them speak 55 languages at home and only a third of whom have English as their first language. Tony Blair, an article in the Guardian pointed out, ‘refused to send his children to the borough’s schools. Emily Thornberry, the local Labour MP, who lives a couple of streets away, sends hers to a grammar school 13 miles away in Potters Bar; Margaret Hodge, MP and former Islington council leader, sent hers to schools in neighbouring Camden; and, most recently, Boris Johnson spoke of “extracting” his children from the state system “because I live in Islington”.’

Michelle Obama made her speech and left. It’s a pity she is just a president’s wife and not a full-time peripatetic educator.