Where there's a Willesden there's a way

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Spinning to the head of the class

It's almost time to locate the nearest sofa and hide behind it. Because 9pm on ITV sees Ahead of the Class, the television adaptation of the book of the same name by Lady Marie M. Stubbs. It's the story of how a "Superhead" came out of retirement to take over a troubled school and give its children a future. I'm feeling queasy already.

I'll have to declare an interest here; Marie Stubbs was my headmistress for many years. And I'm quite troubled by the furore around this book; myself and my family have known and studied her methods quite closely over the past nineteen years. And before I continue, don't think this is adolescent lashing out at figures of authority or a chance to settle old scores. I'm far too old for that sort of thing, and enough time's gone past to give us all a bit of perspective on all this.

What's worried me is just how much her side of the story has been taken at value and held up as an example for our troubled times. If you google her, you'll only find one whisper of criticism (and now two). She's always been an excellent publicist and now it would seem that in retirement she has gone from applying her talents to her school to herself. She's been very successful in that respect.

What first started ringing alarm bells with me was the phrase "...now children walk down brightly painted corridors". I've been there- in the run up to an inspection, the second floor corridor became a shocking shade of crimsom. The toilets, too, took on a red wall, a yellow wall and a blue one. It's very easy to buy a pot of paint and some flowers, but the flowers disappeared the day after the Ofsted inspection, and red walls don't change a thing.

I'd respect these as genuine attempts to make a change if it wasn't for the malicious tactics my school employed. The system contrived to keep students from leaving to go to other sixth forms (with much better results and a wider choice of subjects) and many of my friends remained there because their application forms had been "lost". I'd been tipped off by a number of well-placed staff members that this was a deliberate move, and so was able to ensure my forms were actually sent off.

Students who did move on were heavily pressured to stay, and after they left returned to collect their GCSE certificates on Speech Night only to be refused admission, which was a particularly vindictive and petty move.

Every student was compelled to do Reception duty, which was quite a good policy. It wasn't quite as productive towards our education when I got pulled out of a mock GCSE exam in order to do it. In the book, Mrs Stubbs does allude to her thorny professional relationship with Father George Dangerfield. I was once witness to the most unprofessional thing I've ever seen when, on a holy day of obligation in a Catholic School, she talked for 40 minutes out of the alloted hour for mass on the importance of never calling anyone a loner. Father George refused to say mass in twenty minutes, saying that to do so would be a sin. After a flurry of activity Father George kindly agreed to say mass after school instead which would of course be compulsory, somehow earning the entire year group an after school detention and leaving us amazed that adults could actually act in this way.
I could cite examples all day of this bizarre behaviour and obsession with presentation, but that's not especially productive. I don't deny that it's a very good book and that she took on a very difficult task. What I'm trying to say is that anyone can tell their story to make themselves look very good (this blog being an example- in reality I just sit on the sofa all day), but achieving results is something else. So I'm going to take this whole thing with a pinch of salt.

But I'm not quite in the right frame of mind for My Headmistress:The Movie yet. I'm still getting over the live show.


Blogger Lenice said...

I work in the education system in the U.S. and I can agree, gimmicks and trendy ideas tend to be more important than actually teaching the kids.

12:02 am

Blogger presenttense said...

I think a lot of people feel that way. And yet as David Aaronvitch put it in the Guardian, there's a lot of teachers out there just doing "what works" without gimmicks and publicity that we just don't hear about. Arguably they're doing more than the Marie Stubbs of the world.

Nice to see Doafw's reaching out across the Atlantic. Welcome!

12:13 am


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