2: Calming the School
Updated: Mar 17, 2020
Most people are embarrassed by failure. They fear that it might be contagious. But I have been compelled to keep describing how I came to be at Eydon Vale and what I witnessed there. At first, it was as a journal. Then I had to make sense of what happened in interaction with like-minded friends. Later, the story became semi-fictionalised. Only now has it become a blog and twitter feed, with specifics drawn from all the failing and recovering schools where I spent my career. It’s been tempting to branch out into general themes like the policing of our educational marketplace, but I have tried to stay true to the particulars.
What did the now demolished Eydon Vale look and sound like? Its architect designed it on an E plan, a visual pun on its initial letter. Its West and East wings jutted out into the playground, and there was a single row of south-facing classrooms with a corridor behind. The unintended joke was that as perfect cubes, the classrooms amplified sound, catching every chair squeak.
Noise was what struck me as I visited the week before my interview as Deputy Head that October. From the car park, it sounded as if all its 700 children must have been shouting at once. As I waited in Reception for Rhiannon Starr, Eydon Vale’s new Acting Head, the bell rang for lunch. To reach her study, we had to pass the hall. There was no queue. Older, bigger children simply pushed their way to the front. As I looked inside, one of the table-tops had become unlatched. All the food and drink slid into the children’s laps.
Rhiannon was slight but vibrant. Her gentle North Welsh accent belied her fierce ambition. A couple of years previously she had applied to be the second deputy in my school. Almost 20 years my junior, she’d had no previous experience of tough schools, but I liked her then and sensed an opportunity for real partnership now. She nodded at the dining hall and explained, “It’s their idea of a joke. It’s bullying, of course, and it’s completely out of hand. One of the Inspectors had food thrown over his suit.”
“And those struts on the walls?” I asked her, pointing at the metal braces that lined the corridors.
“They originally held CCTV cameras to monitor vandalism and internal truancy,” the Acting Head replied. “They did not last long, though. They were all stolen within the month.”
At that moment, a mob thundered past us. Rhiannon stood aside, but one lad clipped my shoulder. “The inspectors said the movement around the school was chaotic. One of them tried to stop a kid tearing around the corridors during lessons, but he charged him down. He called him ‘frit’ to his face.”
Never in my teaching career had I experienced such disorder. The closest comparison I could think of was a drug-ridden American school I had watched on ‘The Wire' The ethos of Eydon Vale was no less menacing. As I later discovered, both schools had slashers. But Eydon Vale’s students were more oppositional, more mutinous. “Why aren’t such boys expelled?” I asked her.
“Oh, they were. The old Head suspended 160 in his last half term. Just before he was fired, he permanently excluded two dozen Year 9s, but the boy who knocked into you was a Year 9, who wasn’t bad enough for the cull.”
No one could possibly learn amid such turbulence. When Rhiannon and I divided up the roles, she concentrated on the completion of Eydon Vale’s new premises, liaising with outside agencies and finance. With all my previous experience in failing schools, she let me focus on the Action Plan, raising GCSE scores and calming the school.