I spent last week helping out at an old school of mine because their Head of Languages was off sick. I spent three days working with GCSE groups to help them through their oral exams. It is a secondary school that was coming out of special measures when I left. Then, a couple of years ago, it was rebranded and given a good few hundred thousand pounds, a new name, uniform and Head Teacher.
Yet, from what I saw, the issues were still much the same. The windows may have been given a coat of paint in a new colour, the reception area was smart, and the meeting room in which I carried out the GCSE oral exams was fabulous. But the courtyard where some or the children go at break and lunchtime was grey, soulless and lacking in seating, cover and plants. The uniforms looked smart, but when I commented on this to the lady on reception she said (in front of the children I had just complimented) ” Yes, shame their behaviour doesn’t match their appearance”.
There were new, large signs saying that it was a non-smoking premises, but this obviously didn’t apply to the Year 11s I saw coming out from behind a bank (directly in front of the Head’s office), nor to the Year 9s who were standing, unhidden, behind the language rooms. And the language rooms were the same huts that I had taught in 10 years ago and were leaking, crumbling and smelly back then.
And the children I was working with – all of them very pleasant, but desperately underconfident. On a one-to-one basis, most of them managed to say something to me in French, but the moment they were in a group, their eyes went down, they began to fiddle with their various face piercings, giggle, chew gum with open mouths or fiddle with their split ends. It was as if it was the cool thing to do to pretend that they were rubbish.
Other evidence of a culture that it was uncool to achieve came in what I didn’t see. There were no awards, cups, posters anywhere in the main hall, very little student work displayed in the corridors. Yes, there were comfy chairs and a coffee machine in the reception, but where were the photos of student achievement, where were the newspaper cuttings, the art work, the school-play posters? Where were the kids who made eye-contact in the corridor, or who held a door open rather than knocking you off your feet when they went past? Where were the members of staff outside their classrooms at breaktime and between lessons making sure that children arrived on time?
I left feeling desperately sad for these children. They are the ones who most need building up, but I felt, despite the influx of money a few years back, that they were still being let down.