And in our comprehensive schools!
Ignorant hirelings. The very same. They’re still out there. The Goon Squad. The Measuring Crew – and getting closer all the time – since 1988, when the National Curriculum was hatched and 1992, when the dread Ofsted was spawned. They’re coming for our imagination. It irks them. They’re coming to kill it. We’ve been fighting them for so long, but hey come back stronger, like Grendel’s mum.
They’re coming down our corridors right now.
We can hear their heels.
We are Dutch Elm School, West London, somewhere in 2004.
We’re in our classroom somewhere in the Arts Bloc.
It blocks the arts.
We’re a 9th year class having an English lesson. We’ve been deemed ‘low stream’. Me too. I am their teacher.
The class is gloriously various, fast, funny, bright and multilingual. So why are they ‘low stream? Aren’t they all God’s children? We’ve never streamed them. Well, no more. They must be streamed – divided, cleansed, culled and ‘depressed’. Why? They are surplus, the Other – paupers, foreign, the crazed and unfortunate seeking some form of sanctuary or asylum.
Well, no more. It’s time to hurt the Weak. How?
Tests. We don’t do education any more. We do tests.
I must measure and mark and label and level and test them to destruction. I too must be tested to test if my testing is testing enough to test them for the real tests, which will test them and shrink them enough to be incurious serfs of the system. I’m complicit in it, this war on the various – and on imagination, energy, ambiguity, metaphor and the subconscious.
A corporeal war.
I’ve been up all night devising a lesson invincibly dull enough to be conspicuously measured. I’m wired, sleepless, and half daft on a pint of ‘Rescue Remedy’. It’s useless. Smack or Ketamine would chill me better, but won’t play well with line management.
Why must I kiss their culture, pimp it to pay the rent?
They’ve got us by the modules.
I feel ill.
The doorknob twists. The door opens.
‘Here come the Man!’ yells Shaka from under his dreads
Well, two of them, actually. Head teacher Gradgrind, whose Nosferatu grin can traumatise a child from forty paces. Me too. And Inspector Guppy, with a skin as bright as jaundice and a mind as dim as a Toc H lamp.
Let’s call them Tweedledee and Tweedledum National Curriculum.
A testicle-shrinking duo.
We exchange quick rictus grins.
I welcome them to our little shades of academe.
‘Pretend we’re not here!’
‘Who they? The Old Bill?’ mutters ‘Big Ant’ a bit too loudly
I smile like a liberal and go selectively deaf.
My reading voice goes very wobbly.
I seem to be swallowing marbles.
‘Why you be speakin’ Welsh, sir?’
I effect a nifty pedagogical transition and schmooze into OFSTED module 4, part 2, subsection 3, level omega – the writing. Dee and Dum cross the class like a malign cold front. Dum perches at the back with a clipboard with enough criteria to sink Socrates. Most pupils scribble vigorously. Most are doing ‘good behaviour’. They equate it with quiescence. So do our inspectors. Most are on message.
Shaka isn’t. He’s more off trolley.
He negotiates his rich inner space, shakes his dreads and skanks to the Dub in his soul.
It’s not on the syllabus.
He points at Messrs Dee and Dum and chants.
‘Them Crazy Baldheads!’
Dum asks him to account for this behaviour.
‘Because I’m Shaka!’
‘Who these plums, sir?’ yells Big Ant.
I smile like a liberal and sit next to Teodora, a very clever pupil, whose English is difficult to measure, what with being Kosovan and very traumatised, having seen her whole family recently bombed to smithereens. She seeks asylum and somehow smiles and writes beautifully in Albanian.
Dee and Dum killjoy round the room.
They stop at two boys.
Kieran and Seth.
Kieran looks like a lost Elf.
Seth looks like Steerpike.
These are seriously clever boys. Both are scintillating, imaginative, quicksilver intellectual pupils, whose outcomes cannot be easily caged. Both are very bored by the school, the National Curriculum, the Tests and probably me. Kieran often bunks and busks his songs, like the poet Savage, on the savage streets of Harlesden. He gets suspended for absence. Still, he’s present today and scribbling a very dark yarn about the terrors of Westway.
Dee picks his work up, glares at it, has kittens, reads a bit more, has more kittens and confers with his chum Dum.
‘Do you condone this type of thing?’ he asks me.
They then move on to Seth.
Oh dear. The Soup Kitchen beckons.
Dum picks up his book, glares at it, shakes his head, has a lot of kittens and confers with Dee.
‘Just look at this!’
It’s rather Gothic. It seems wounded. It’s been slashed and savaged in black and red ink. There’s a plaster from which blood seems to seep.
This isn’t on the syllabus.
‘Is this encouraged?’ says Dum to Dee. And me. Dum posits the idea that this is very strange behaviour and could well reflect ‘self-harm’. He’s read about in the Cretin’s Guide to Adolescence.
‘Is this pupil troubled?’ he asks.
‘Yes – by the fucking syllabus,’ I don’t say.
I drone on about creativity. Not the kitsch, shallow New Age confection. The real thing. Dangerous. Vertiginous. Necessary. They say they’re big on it. Dum wouldn’t know it, if it bit his bum.
They turn more pages. It doesn’t get better. It’s written only in pencil. Delicate wraiths, curlicues of ghosts decorate the margins. Dum gazes in horror at more pages, which are bloodshot, writing which is illegible, spelling which is car crash, and letters that resemble pressed spiders.
‘What level is the pupil working towards?’
‘What part of the syllabus is this?’
‘Why are the margins are vacant?’
‘Why is this not marked?’
There’s point at a final comment. Mine.
‘I really enjoyed this – excellent, fantastic, imaginative. Could we please go through it’.
The Hirelings pool their ignorance.
‘Why, Mr Wigwam (sic), is this acceptable?
‘Why is this fantastic?’
You’ll never know.
‘Why is the spelling not corrected?’
‘Do you not teach grammar?’
‘I’m very keen on it.’ I say. ‘It’s essential. But I thought it better to.. Seth’s spelling can be a little erratic’ ’
‘We can see that.’
‘How can this be ‘excellent!!’
‘I .. er.. because it is.. because he’s..’
I’ve had it. I mustn’t lose it.
Seth’s had it too.
‘It’s because I’m dyslexic.’
‘I’m a fucking dyslexic!’ he continues.
‘He is though’ observes Kieran, a shock of curls in a White Lightning fug.
Shut up Kieran!
‘He is too!’ adds ‘Big Ant’, who has no idea what the word means.
Shut up ‘Big Ant’!
‘Do you get it! I’m fuckingdyslexic!!’ says Seth at some volume.
Like Eddie Izzard – and other fuckwits … like W B Yeats, Leonardo Da Vinci and Albert Einstein.
I do more liberal smiling and lament the fucking language. The class toil on in their various tongues.
Tweedeldee and Tweedleedum tick their clipboards like billyho.
Now, let’s freeze this frame, this little tableau, this little cartoon. This the Tipping Point from which we can only fall. It’s downhill all the way from now on. We’ve finally lost to the Bad Guys, those ignorant hirelings. What shall we call it? Imagination killed by dullards? Metaphor mugged by the Literal? Wit trashed by dullards? A war on the various? Mind forg’d manacles? While the Holy Fool looks on. Take your pick. I’ve never stopped thinking about this image. It haunts me.
And unfreeze …
Exit Dee and Dum in much dudgeon. Kieran gets a red for that bunking and larking. Seth gets a red for that fucking dyslexia – and too much imagination. Both are ‘internally excluded’ or ‘externally included’. The poor boys don’t know if they’re coming or going. Shaka gets sent to a shrink – for ‘being Shaka’. ‘Big Ant’ gets sent to the nuthouse and, in later life, to the slammer. The whole class get detention. And I get disappeared for being complicit in all of this sad charde.
Since then it’s all got much worse. Darkness rules. A thick corporate murk. Tweedledee and Tweedledum have won. They have it now. The market’s won. It’s spread like a Camus’ plague from Dutch Elm through the charted streets and blights the children of Albion. Schools serve the state, a micro-managed, mind forg’d manacled hell.
The children of Albion must do baseline tests at 4.
1 in 4 go crazy.
Those hirelings, those ignorant hirelings seem to have won.
Dutch Elm School, somewhere in 2016. Utterly changed. The arts block has gone. My classroom has gone. The whole culture has gone, as if it never happened. It’s no longer a comp, it’s an Academy. Of course it is. A great Non-Pleasure Dome. The Market Incarnate. An Exam Factory. A Pandemonium of Testing, made of glass and steel. It shivers and glitters and is livid with light, which blasts those shades of academe, all that contemplation, all that imagination. That rich darkness.
I’m still banished from the place, excommunicated. If I attempt to enter, CCTV will freeze me, wolves will eat me, corporate thugs will deck me.
But, years later, those hirelings didn’t quite get us.
Most of my class escaped. They did alright. I still see some of them down the Portobello. Teodora is a translator and poet – in Albanian and English. Kieran and Seth are both happy and writing and flourishing. ‘Big Ant’ sells me fruit and veg down the Portobello. And Shaka? Who knows? Nothing but a stranger in this world.