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A New Beginning...

As teachers throughout England and Wales prepare for the start of what will inevitably be a demanding and uncertain autumn term, the opening chapter of Mentoring Mr Singleman harks back to a time when cynicism was an affordable luxury...

The September sunshine fell softly through the tall windows of the staffroom of St Petroc’s School, turning the light oak panelling a mellow gold. The room was alive with animated chatter as teaching colleagues, tanned and rested, greeted one another warmly after the long summer break. Most wore relaxed clothing. A few were dressed down to such an extent they seemed merely to be swinging by on their way to the beach - a look that was not entirely misleading.

It was In-service Training day, when the students were still on holiday, but the staff were required to attend a series of dispiriting and entirely counter-productive senior management briefings. The pleasure of renewing acquaintance with old friends was therefore tinged with resentment. Nonetheless, thought Dave Singleman, as he chewed on the pain au chocolat provided for the occasion by the Governors, this precise moment – the greeting moment – was the high point of the term. From here, things would only get worse.

The Head, in a concession to the ambiguous nature of the day, was also in relaxed rig, his higher status detectable in the razor-sharp creases of his chinos and the stiffness of the collar on his open-necked shirt. The only suited figure in the room was Killick, the most nakedly ambitious of St Petroc’s three deputies. He showed interest in neither pastries nor bonhomie but sat alone, a black coffee untouched at his elbow. In his hand was a file of papers, and these he studied with an expression of forensic rigour. In Killick’s view education was a serious enterprise, and exam results the only acceptable evidence of its success or failure.

Although to all intents and purposes a comprehensive, St Petroc’s carried itself with an air of dignity. Half a century ago it had been the grammar school that served one of Cornwall’s most westerly conurbations, and it had buildings and grounds more dignified than the glass and concrete structures that sprang up in the seventies. More recently, it had bowed to government and financial pressure, and embraced Academy status.

As nine o’clock approached, the melee began to throng its way through the double doors in the back of the staffroom and to drift, without any evidence of urgency, towards the theatre. Dave fell into step alongside Mark Armitage, his closest friend at the school and a fellow member of the English department.

“And so it begins,” he murmured, half to himself.

“May it be a good one,” said Mark. “How was your writing course?”

“Good, thanks. Really good, actually. Mousehole! is up and running.”

Dave pronounced it “Mowzle”, for his embryonic novel was not intended to be a study of domestic rodents, but a swashbuckling epic, loosely based on a Spanish invasion of the Cornish village of that name in the sixteenth century. He was fond of his working title, and in particular the exclamation mark, but he worried from time to time about the challenges it might present to a marketing department.

“Meet anybody interesting?” Armitage’s tone was neutral, and Dave didn’t take the bait.

“You mean famous authors of the future?”

“I mean fabulous women of the here and now.”

“Ah yes. Fabulous women. Show me everything you have in stock.”

Mark smiled. “Never mind. Enjoy the single life while you can. Some of us come back to school for a rest.”

Armitage was five years older than Dave, happily hitched to a blonde matriarch who had produced three small Armitages in rapid succession. Dave was an occasional supper guest of Mark and Hermione, and gentle ribbing of his bachelor status was an unspoken condition of their hospitality that he didn’t entirely resent. He saw his friends, with their comfortable, chaotic household and easy-going affection, as role models of a sort for some possible, if remote, future existence.

“It’s my birthday today, you know,” he said.

“Yes of course it is! Many happy returns! Twenty..nine?”

“I wish. It’s the big three-oh. I am, officially, no longer young.”

“Anything planned?”

“A bit of surfing after school. Then the Idlers are taking me for a beer and a burger.”

“Ooh-er. Hang on to your trousers.”

The Idlers Club was a loose cabal of four or five single male members of staff who dedicated themselves, only partly in jest, to the pursuit of pleasure and to keeping schoolwork to the bare minimum. At lunchtime, while other colleagues caught up on marking or replied to parental emails, the Idlers ostentatiously played poker. They organised occasional “Sunday School Outings”, lads’ weekends upcountry which generated unsubstantiated rumours of outrageous behaviour. Ineligible to join himself, Mark enjoyed teasing Dave about his association with the closest thing St Petroc’s possessed to a resistance movement.

They took their seats at the back of the auditorium, where three of the Idlers were already established. It was a tactic shared by a good three quarters of the staff, so that the senior management team, who liked the stage to be atmospherically lit, found themselves addressing their remarks on safeguarding and value-added indices to a dozen or so newcomers and loyalists in the front row, beyond which lay a gulf of blackness. On a medieval map it might have been marked “Here be Indifference.” It always puzzled Dave that they didn’t simply tell everyone to shift down to the front, as any teacher would have done had Year 11 tried the same tactic. But familiarity with the classroom and the realpolitik of behaviour management was not the Head’s strong suit.

He settled himself in his seat and concentrated on finding the right mental attitude to carry him through the next ninety minutes. This was essentially one where 90% of his focus was on his own affairs – Chapter 2 of Mousehole!; Plymouth Argyle’s prospects for the season; the disappointingly few birthday cards he had received. Like a faithful Doberman snoring on the hallway rug, however, he kept one ear cocked, alert to any vital information that might be buried in the dreary Powerpoint presentations that would constitute the first part of the day.

On the stage, the Head was seated between his two senior deputies – Killick on his right, still studying his sheaf of papers, and Emily Flowerdew on his left. Dave, who had no time for Killick, had an enduring fondness for Emily, who was responsible for pastoral matters, a brief she addressed with great compassion and a will of iron. Behind this trio the third deputy, Anderson, who was burdened with the title of Director of Digital Strategy, fiddled with the laptop that sat on its own small podium in the centre of the stage. This device was as important to proceedings as the control console of the Star Ship Enterprise, yet somehow preliminary fiddling seemed always to be required. Eventually Anderson straightened himself and nodded to the Head, who rose to his feet and cleared his throat.

“Welcome back everyone, I hope we have all had a restful break. We have a number of new faces to welcome.” Dave sat up slightly. New staff these days were invariably young and often female.

The new teachers were welcomed in order of seniority, and each felt obliged to half-rise and make some sort of acknowledgment to the invisible host behind them. First to be introduced were three new Heads of Department, and it didn’t escape Dave that they were all around his own age. His own progress up the management ladder to date was limited to a small responsibility allowance for running the Year 8 Shakespeare festival. He knew that in order to maintain what the websites called his arc of ambition, he should be applying for more senior positions himself.

The Head moved on to the more junior of the new arrivals.

“Kate Porteous will be joining the English department…”

A neat, compact brunette with John Lennon glasses stood and raised what might have been an ironical hand before dropping back to her seat. Dave glanced at Mark, but his friend was staring up at the redundant mirror ball in the centre of the lighting grid with a wry smile, musing perhaps on his own lost days of dance floor derring-do.

Introductions over, the floor was given over to the coiled spring of pedagogical potential that was Anton Killick. Killick had come to them the previous year from a prominent London academy, and had been touted at the time as a bit of a catch. A clean-cut, powerfully built man of little obvious imagination, he maintained a scrupulous but faintly remote politeness to all colleagues, and always signed his emails “kind regards”, a salutation that Dave considered to be at best passive-aggressive and at worst downright deceitful.

Killick embarked on an efficient dissection of the recent GCSE and A level results, with complex extrapolations based on an obscure national metric of added value. These apparently showed, via a series of intricate graphs, that while the staff of St Petroc’s might feel that they had done a perfectly decent job by their students, they were in fact lagging a point or two behind similar schools elsewhere in the country.

“As a consequence,” explained Killick in a neutral tone, “we will be including an element of Value Added in the school’s appraisal programme going forward.”

The callow enthusiasts in the front row leaned forward attentively, some nodding. Up in the cheap seats a perceptible wave of unease rippled through the darkness, accompanied by a barely audible “Jesus wept!” from one of the Idlers.

Appraisal was one of those ideas that stubbornly refused to go away, despite the failure of successive attempts to implement it over recent years. The idea was that teachers should be observed regularly and given some sort of report, including targets for development, with the process repeated at regular intervals so that the entire school maintained a continuous upward spiral of improvement, efficiency and value for money. It didn’t work, however, merely stirring up fears and resentments related to the spectre of performance-related pay among staff who were already – with the possible exception of the Idlers - working to the maximum.

Dave closed his eyes again, confident that when the time came to worry about appraisal, somebody would tell him what he needed to do. He knew he was a solid classroom teacher, popular with his students and thorough where thoroughness was required, and his results that summer were among the best in the department. He returned to his reverie, but found himself strangely irked by the earlier image of the three new thirty-something-not-very-much Heads of Department. How might he feel if he were in their shoes right now? A little excited, perhaps, at the prospect of a new start, with a department of his own to steer and manage? Looking forward to the extra few hundred that the monthly pay-check would bring into his bank account? Or petrified at the weight of responsibility for implementing the latest daft initiative to emanate from meddlers like Killick, hobbled by the requirement to pay attention to those jazzy graphs? He shuddered.

They were lucky in their own departmental head. Frances Fivey was a platinum-haired goddess in her early forties with a formidable intellect, a deep love of literature, and a live-in girlfriend who happened to be an Ofsted Inspector. Frances seemed able to float above the petty irritations of school life, buoyed up by the enthusiasm and love of her students and the great literature in which she immersed herself. She was already a legend at St Petroc’s, and the daunting thought of attempting to emulate her in a new and unfamiliar school was another reason (so Dave told himself) for his lack of ambition.

“But at my back I always hear, time’s winged chariot hurrying near”

The line, from a seventeenth century poem in the previous year’s GCSE anthology, came unbidden into his head.

Get a grip, Singleman, he told himself. People died young in those days! Yet thirty, even at a generous estimate, was a third of his life gone, with precious little to show for it. A few grand in the bank, supposedly the deposit for some future investment in property; a 1970’s MG that he suspected was beginning to make him look more like an old fogey than a young one. A couple of half-hearted attempts at a serious relationship that had fizzled out within a few months, and the first chapter of a novel with an inconvenient title. It wasn’t an encouraging audit.

With a start he realised that the presentations were over, and the disillusioned masses were rising and shuffling their way towards the foyer, the shiny newness of the day already substantially diminished. He saw Frances waving to him, and made his way through the throng towards her. As always, she looked at ease with herself and the world.

“Hello Dave! Happy Birthday! There’s a card in your pigeon-hole.”

That makes four, thought Dave as he murmured his thanks.

“I don’t think you’ve met Kate.” Standing next to Frances was the brunette with the geeky glasses, a feature offset by a small nose stud and the stray tendril of a tattoo on the left side of her collarbone. It was difficult not to speculate upon where it might begin or end.

Dave shook her hand. “Good to meet you. Kate. Ignore the nonsense about appraisal – it’ll never happen.”

Her hands were neat, and her grip was cool and firm. Her voice was cool too, the accent a bit northern.

“It’s got its place. It worked quite well in my last school.”

Dave raised an eyebrow. “Don’t tell Killick. He’ll have you on the steering group.”

“I’ve already offered.”

No evidence of irony there. Either she had drunk the Kool-aid, or she was chronically ambitious. Through the glasses her gaze was clear and direct. She was pretty, in a no-nonsense, unadorned kind of way. Clear skin and white, even teeth. No visible make-up.

“I’ve got the programme here.” said Frances. “Room 61 next, I think, for the workshop on meta-cognition.”

The four of them moved out into the sunshine.

Mentoring Mr Singleman is available from Amazon at £1.99 for the ebook and £8.99 for the paperback. It tells the story of two teachers who struggle to begin a relationship under the critical gaze of their students.

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