Back to school

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Yesterday, I spent the day at Weston Favell School in Northampton, which, when I attended between 1978 and 1983, was called Weston Favell Upper School. (It has now expanded to take in two extra years, due to the death of the middle schools. My dad drove me past my old middle school, Abington Vale, whose wake I attended about four years ago, and it is literally boarded up, awaiting regeneration into housing.) I had been asked to speak to Year 7 pupils at Weston Favell, aged 11-12 (I still haven’t got my head around the numbering of years) about my career, my time in Northampton, writing books, writing for EastEnders etc. What is now called “the main site” is where I spent those formative years, but since this building is being completely rebuilt and resembles something post-nuclear, Year 7 and Year 8 are housed at a nearby site, which used to be Cherry Orchard Middle School in my day. There is something a little temporary about the place (I’m assuming like my old middle school, it’s effectively condemned), but for me there was something comforting about entering a building that is probably unchanged from the 70s and 80s. It was literally like going back to school.

My day involved three hour-long sessions, two in the main hall, one in the library (which has some new-fangled name involving the words “research” and “centre” but is actually still a library with some computers in it). For each hour-long session, I tried to connect with the kids by asking them what they wanted to be when they grow up, then revealing that I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, and I took along a lot of ephemera, such as my childhood diaries and an EastEnders script. It was, for me, a mentally tiring day, but hugely rewarding, as I’d hoped. (You don’t do a day’s teaching for the money!) I met a number of teachers and staff, but my key contacts were Denise Moody and Elaine York, who couldn’t have been more helpful. It was also a huge treat to see Jean Elderkin, or Mrs Elderkin as I knew her when she taught me A-level English 25 years ago and helped inspire me to one day become a 42-year-old man with no idea what he does for a living. It was truly an educational day for me. This is what I learned:

  1. Kids today are brighter than popular perception would have you believe. Weston Favell is a “bog-standard comprehensive” (to use Alastair Campbell’s hateful phrase from 2001). I have no idea where it sits in the league tables, because I despise league tables for schools and can literally see no good in them whatsoever. However, word in Northampton has it that Weston Favell is “not what it once was”. After a day spent at the place, I can see that the facilities leave a little to be desired, but then again, this was a temporary holding-bay site, and I’m sure the new building will be top-class. The staff are brilliant – firm but fair, I saw them dealing decisively with individuals and groups, and it was clear who was in charge. (I fear things might be different at a London comprehensive, but I can only judge from what I have seen.) The three Year 7 groups I spoke to – about 80 or so in the first two sessions, less than half that in the library – were from different “sets”, in other words, different abilities: top set, middle set, lower set. I was prepared to notice a difference but in fact, I found all three sets to be attentive, smart, witty in many cases, and remarkably perceptive. Certainly, one or two mucked about, but it really was one or two. And they were being asked to listen to a 42-year old bloke for an hour at a time with little more to show them than some old books and a couple of cartoons he’d drawn. There was a noticeable lull in the final session, but it was after lunch, an hour away from home time, and we were in the library, which is much stuffier than the hall. One boy in there was moderately disruptive and spent much of the hour with his head resting on his arms, as if asleep. And yet, afterwards, albeit prompted, he came up to me and apologised. I was taken aback by his politeness and thanked him. I realise why kids are “streamed” at school and put into these sets, but from the outside, I found each set to be as good as the other.
  2. Kids ask questions. After my dispiriting experience at the University in January, where not one single degree student asked a question, I was inundated today. Now, these kids were primed to asked questions, and encouraged to do so beforehand by their teachers, but that’s immaterial. You might not imagine that students in higher education would require priming. I took questions throughout, and at the end I was faced with – sorry to use the cliche – a sea of hands. Some questions were strange (“What car do you drive?” was asked in two sessions – how disappointing our Toyota Avensis must have seemed!), others typical of the age in which we live (“How much do you earn?”, “Are you a millionaire?”, “Do you have any famous friends?”), but most were sensible and well thought out. One boy, who seemed initially disruptive, a bit of a joker who was deliberately sat next to a member of staff at the back, asked the best question of all, one that showed he’d actually been listening intently: “What would you do if television asked you to write a comedy programme and the radio asked you to do a radio programme at the same time?” During the final session, one earnest boy kept asking me if I’d seen certain films and if I knew who wrote them. I couldn’t actually tell him the answers but again, it was clear that he had been taking notice of what I’d been talking about. Never let anyone tell you that kids these days are self-absorbed and socially unskilled. It’s a convenient myth. I didn’t see any mobile phones (not even at break time), so I’m assuming they’re not allowed at Weston Favell, which is a really good thing. I enjoyed telling the kids that when I was their age, we had three TV channels, no computers and no mobile phones. What a dull world that must sound to them, and yet, the kids I spent time with had no access to TV channels, computers or mobile phones, just a 42-year-old bloke talking to them, and they coped admirably.
  3. Teachers should be left alone to teach. I am filled with admiration for what they do. The English department were, I was told, “running around like headless chickens,” because they’d had an Ofsted inspection sprung upon them for today. I realise schools need to be monitored, but all this inspecting, and testing, and quantifying seems counter to what education should be about. I was knackered after three hours of “teaching” yesterday. Hoarse and drained. Teachers do the same gig for longer, and for five days a week, and they get homework. (Mind you, I was also inspired by what I saw, so you have to hope that this is the spark that still draws devoted individuals to the profession.) Let’s hope the staff get hot meals at the new building. They shouldn’t have to bring in packed lunches!
  4. Kids today aren’t so different from kids of yesteryear. Asking them what they want to do when they grow up was partly an ice-breaker, but also a useful straw poll. This what the kids of today want to be when they grow up: footballer, rugby player, vet, RPSCA officer, army mechanic, games designer, beautician, crime scene investigator, chef, “kung fu fighter”. There was even a train driver, which is surely the kind of thing my dad’s generation would have said at school. Nobody said, “famous,” in case you’re wondering. CSI should be proud.
  5. If you want to connect with kids, you have to find a connection. One of the props I took along was a small tin globe I had as a boy, which, in 1978, aged 13 (Year 8!), I had filled with bits and pieces to form a time capsule. The idea was to open it in the year 2000. I actually found it a couple of years ago. What’s inside is, effectively, rubbish (the hand off an injured Action Man, a plastic moustache, the woggle off my brother’s Cub Scouts kneckerchief, a couple of painted soldiers etc.), but the magic ingredient turned out to be a Star Wars bubblegum card. I asked the kids if anyone liked Star Wars, and of course a number of them did. I was able to tell them about my excitement at going to see the first Star Wars film in 1978 (or Episode IV, as they know it), and I think I managed to get across how a seemingly mundane, everyday object – “rubbish” – can attain significance with the passage of time, and become a touchstone with the past.
  6. A number of kids keep diaries. You might think that such a physical, potentially “boring” pastime would have died out in the computer age. Not so. If I prompted even one child to start a diary after my time at WFS, I’ll be happy.

A couple of them asked me for my autograph, which was sweet, and I wrote my name out in full under my scribble, because I don’t imagine they’ll remember me in a week’s time. (They were far more excited about the fact that I knew Harry Hill.) I was especially taken with the ones who stayed behind, into their precious lunch hour, to look at my diaries and drawings and ask further questions. Then a small group of about five of them took me to the library to show me where it was, and delivered me back to the staff room. I only wish I knew a few more of their names. (Two kids asked me if they could be in my next book.)

I showed each group this photo of myself when I was at Weston Favell and I was struck by how square and trussed-up I look in my stiff blazer, white shirt, v-neck and tie. Today’s uniform is the much cooler polo shirt, no tie and monogrammed sweatshirt. The kids at WFS certainly look a lot smarter than those on, say, The Choir, with their ties halfway down their untucked shirts. Some things have improved. Also, they have another thing that we never had at Weston Favell Upper School in 1978: multiculturalism. What a fine, mixed bunch they, are how much more educated they must be than I was at their age.

I realise I may have had a sanitised view of the comprehensive education system – kids on their best behaviour etc. – but I still firmly believe that our young generation isn’t as ruined before it’s started as media coverage would have you believe. If there’s anything wrong, it’s not with individual schools, it’s with the system itself.

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49 thoughts on “Back to school

  1. AC: One trick with the school years is to add 5 to the year Group (as you start school at around that age). Therefore year 4 are 9 years old, year 12 17.

  2. AC: One trick with the school years is to add 5 to the year Group (as you start school at around that age). Therefore year 4 are 9 years old, year 12 17.

  3. I’d love to go back to my old school. I even dream about it. I’ve not set foot in my secondary school for 27 years, and my sixth form for 25, so it’d be a real trip down memory lane. The bells, the smells, etc. I’m glad to hear though, that kids are not as black as they’re painted. That’s why Junior Mastermind gives me hope.

  4. I’d love to go back to my old school. I even dream about it. I’ve not set foot in my secondary school for 27 years, and my sixth form for 25, so it’d be a real trip down memory lane. The bells, the smells, etc. I’m glad to hear though, that kids are not as black as they’re painted. That’s why Junior Mastermind gives me hope.

  5. I couldn’t agree more with your findings. In my experience today’s school children are bright, inquisitive, polite, interested and connected.Of course there are others who are lazy, distracted and rude, but wasn’t that always the case ?I never understand whose agenda or purpose it serves when schools and their pupils are demonised in the popular media; and any suggestion that the bulk of teachers are anything less than hard working, committed professionals makes me very angry.And you are spot on with regard to inspections and league tables. It’s a typical pointless exercise, much loved by the current generation of politicians, which devises an entirely nebulous set of criteria, then sets about measuring and ranking performance against them.In summary : kids and teachers are great, politicians less so.

  6. I couldn’t agree more with your findings. In my experience today’s school children are bright, inquisitive, polite, interested and connected.Of course there are others who are lazy, distracted and rude, but wasn’t that always the case ?I never understand whose agenda or purpose it serves when schools and their pupils are demonised in the popular media; and any suggestion that the bulk of teachers are anything less than hard working, committed professionals makes me very angry.And you are spot on with regard to inspections and league tables. It’s a typical pointless exercise, much loved by the current generation of politicians, which devises an entirely nebulous set of criteria, then sets about measuring and ranking performance against them.In summary : kids and teachers are great, politicians less so.

  7. Hello Andrew, I enjoyed reading your post today and, as much as it is a struggle to remember it sometimes, I agree with you that kids today aren’t as bad as is made out. In my last job I spent a lot of my time travelling around the UK carrying out ‘public consultation’ (ie. talking to people) about museums, libraries and archives. Most kids were fantastic to talk with, and so often they were a lot more supportive of any of these things than adults. And because they weren’t hung up on issues like car parking (which every second adult always managed to bring up!)they seemed to have different and perhaps more interesting perspectives on things. Strangely, despite being born into a connected high-tech world, it was often kids who had less of a problem with keeping and preserving ‘old stuff’ than adults.

  8. Hello Andrew, I enjoyed reading your post today and, as much as it is a struggle to remember it sometimes, I agree with you that kids today aren’t as bad as is made out. In my last job I spent a lot of my time travelling around the UK carrying out ‘public consultation’ (ie. talking to people) about museums, libraries and archives. Most kids were fantastic to talk with, and so often they were a lot more supportive of any of these things than adults. And because they weren’t hung up on issues like car parking (which every second adult always managed to bring up!)they seemed to have different and perhaps more interesting perspectives on things. Strangely, despite being born into a connected high-tech world, it was often kids who had less of a problem with keeping and preserving ‘old stuff’ than adults.

  9. Why can’t they just have First Year, Second Year, Third Year etc like the olden days?! Also this year 8 nonsense is just confusing. Also, why did it go from Fifth YEAR to Sixth FORM ?????

  10. Why can’t they just have First Year, Second Year, Third Year etc like the olden days?! Also this year 8 nonsense is just confusing. Also, why did it go from Fifth YEAR to Sixth FORM ?????

  11. I’m an ex teacher. The sheer amount of planning, assessment, staff monitoring and marking has gone ballistic, no untenable. It’s not therefore a job for a life anymore which is a shame. Good to hear your experience of good teaching practice.

  12. I’m an ex teacher. The sheer amount of planning, assessment, staff monitoring and marking has gone ballistic, no untenable. It’s not therefore a job for a life anymore which is a shame. Good to hear your experience of good teaching practice.

  13. hi AC.As the product of a ‘bog standard comp’ i’, always pleased to see that on the whole thinks seem ok. i’m always reminded that it’s not the intitution, but that staff that matter. Aged 11 i could not read! But with the help of some individual teaching staff that must have seen something in me that i couldn’t i was given extra help [ i’ll admit my spelling and grammer may still not be up to much….]If not for these people i would have never been able to be in the proffession i’m in today [i’m a dentist, please don’t hold that against me i’m NHS, one day you’ll have to file past us, stuffed and in a glass case, [preserve the moose]]anyway do they still draw massive cock and ball in the french text books. If so then all is right in the world backtoblake

  14. hi AC.As the product of a ‘bog standard comp’ i’, always pleased to see that on the whole thinks seem ok. i’m always reminded that it’s not the intitution, but that staff that matter. Aged 11 i could not read! But with the help of some individual teaching staff that must have seen something in me that i couldn’t i was given extra help [ i’ll admit my spelling and grammer may still not be up to much….]If not for these people i would have never been able to be in the proffession i’m in today [i’m a dentist, please don’t hold that against me i’m NHS, one day you’ll have to file past us, stuffed and in a glass case, [preserve the moose]]anyway do they still draw massive cock and ball in the french text books. If so then all is right in the world backtoblake

  15. Teachers should be left alone to teach.As an ex-teacher : couldn’t agree with you more. I marvel at the work the teachers at my own kids schools do with them. Whenever possible I try to let them know how much I value and appreciate their work. I’m never suspicious of someone who wants to teach. I remain totally skeptical of the motives of anyone who seeks election to public office. Nobody in their right mind could want to do that. I read your 3rd book over the last 2 days – it helped fill in time on the flights between Dublin & Milan. It got me thinking and inspired a song lyric. Well done you.

  16. Teachers should be left alone to teach.As an ex-teacher : couldn’t agree with you more. I marvel at the work the teachers at my own kids schools do with them. Whenever possible I try to let them know how much I value and appreciate their work. I’m never suspicious of someone who wants to teach. I remain totally skeptical of the motives of anyone who seeks election to public office. Nobody in their right mind could want to do that. I read your 3rd book over the last 2 days – it helped fill in time on the flights between Dublin & Milan. It got me thinking and inspired a song lyric. Well done you.

  17. The only people who came to give talks at our school were either the local police (yeh tough school)or very minor celebs like Kris Akabusi. I hated school and had absolutely no interest in learning then. It sounds as if your talk inspired them, which is great!:)

  18. The only people who came to give talks at our school were either the local police (yeh tough school)or very minor celebs like Kris Akabusi. I hated school and had absolutely no interest in learning then. It sounds as if your talk inspired them, which is great!:)

  19. Happy Birthday Mr Collins.One of my housemates had to visit my old comp last week for something to do with work, and I was amazed that one of my old teachers remembered me. I was one of the sit and the back, keep my head down sorts, so it was so nice to hear that he cared what I was up to (admittedly, I only left 6 years ago), and seemed genuinely excited that I was doing OK.The school failed its Ofsted a couple of years ago, and is now a new-fangled ‘business and enterprise academy’. It seems pretty much the same as it always was, except there now (shock horror) boys are allowed.

  20. Happy Birthday Mr Collins.One of my housemates had to visit my old comp last week for something to do with work, and I was amazed that one of my old teachers remembered me. I was one of the sit and the back, keep my head down sorts, so it was so nice to hear that he cared what I was up to (admittedly, I only left 6 years ago), and seemed genuinely excited that I was doing OK.The school failed its Ofsted a couple of years ago, and is now a new-fangled ‘business and enterprise academy’. It seems pretty much the same as it always was, except there now (shock horror) boys are allowed.

  21. Great piece Andrew. My kids are at school (years 4 & 7) and their friends are without exception bright, intelligent, articulate, polite young people who are more than welcome in our house. The idea that children are all monsters is poisonous rubbish.(Oh and by the way it’s a neckerchief not a kneckerchief!)David, Liverpool

  22. Great piece Andrew. My kids are at school (years 4 & 7) and their friends are without exception bright, intelligent, articulate, polite young people who are more than welcome in our house. The idea that children are all monsters is poisonous rubbish.(Oh and by the way it’s a neckerchief not a kneckerchief!)David, Liverpool

  23. Thanks for the birthday wishes. It was on Tuesday and I had a very nice time.David: I hope you don’t mind if I leave my ironic spelling mistake up – otherwise it will make a nonsense of your correction! (Reassuring to read your words, by the way.)

  24. Thanks for the birthday wishes. It was on Tuesday and I had a very nice time.David: I hope you don’t mind if I leave my ironic spelling mistake up – otherwise it will make a nonsense of your correction! (Reassuring to read your words, by the way.)

  25. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. It wasn’t *that* long ago I was at school, and the vast majority of children are intelligent, thoughtful and could really make something of themselves if given the opportunity. However, seemingly never-ending exams aim to quantify intelligence (an impossible task). The people who put down the education system often have little to do with it, and children become aware of this negative press at a relatively young age. How would you feel as an 18 year old when you’ve just completed your biggest academic achievement to date, only to have it in all the newspapers the next day that exams are easier than they used to be and schoolchildren are all ungrateful and stupid? …which is pretty much what happens.I commented about the students not asking questions when you posted that blog entry. Whilst at school, I could ask a question in front of a class and not care if it was irrelevant. Yesterday, I made a point in a lecture, made a completely ridiculous elementary error and was so horribly embarrassed I daren’t look up for the next hour. Also, Year 8 children aren’t so preoccupied with trying to not make a fool of themselves in front of members of the opposite sex as university students are!Oh, and a belated many happy returns

  26. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. It wasn’t *that* long ago I was at school, and the vast majority of children are intelligent, thoughtful and could really make something of themselves if given the opportunity. However, seemingly never-ending exams aim to quantify intelligence (an impossible task). The people who put down the education system often have little to do with it, and children become aware of this negative press at a relatively young age. How would you feel as an 18 year old when you’ve just completed your biggest academic achievement to date, only to have it in all the newspapers the next day that exams are easier than they used to be and schoolchildren are all ungrateful and stupid? …which is pretty much what happens.I commented about the students not asking questions when you posted that blog entry. Whilst at school, I could ask a question in front of a class and not care if it was irrelevant. Yesterday, I made a point in a lecture, made a completely ridiculous elementary error and was so horribly embarrassed I daren’t look up for the next hour. Also, Year 8 children aren’t so preoccupied with trying to not make a fool of themselves in front of members of the opposite sex as university students are!Oh, and a belated many happy returns

  27. Andrew, of course I don’t mind! It’s your site. You can have as many spelling mistakes (ironic or otherwise!)as you like on it.David, LiverpoolPS Happy Birthday for last Tuesday. How rude of me not to have wished you such in my original post

  28. Andrew, of course I don’t mind! It’s your site. You can have as many spelling mistakes (ironic or otherwise!)as you like on it.David, LiverpoolPS Happy Birthday for last Tuesday. How rude of me not to have wished you such in my original post

  29. I’ve just heard back from one of the teachers at Weston Favell, who has read the blog entry and has no problems with what I’ve written. (I was slightly self-conscious, as you never know if the pupils will log on, and I didn’t want to embarrass anyone.) It’s heartening to hear from others who don’t believe the media line that all kids are bad. Certainly I think they have it harder than we did, with all the tests and league tables, but kids are kids. In many ways, they’re cleverer than we are, and – counter to what one person wrote (and didn’t see published), “multiculturalism” is not a dirty word. I wish I’d had easy access to so many others cultures when growing up. Race wasn’t a big issue, but how much more enriching to know people from diverse backgrounds, both geographical and religious. I had to find all that stuff out for myself in higher education, and am still learning all the time.

  30. I’ve just heard back from one of the teachers at Weston Favell, who has read the blog entry and has no problems with what I’ve written. (I was slightly self-conscious, as you never know if the pupils will log on, and I didn’t want to embarrass anyone.) It’s heartening to hear from others who don’t believe the media line that all kids are bad. Certainly I think they have it harder than we did, with all the tests and league tables, but kids are kids. In many ways, they’re cleverer than we are, and – counter to what one person wrote (and didn’t see published), “multiculturalism” is not a dirty word. I wish I’d had easy access to so many others cultures when growing up. Race wasn’t a big issue, but how much more enriching to know people from diverse backgrounds, both geographical and religious. I had to find all that stuff out for myself in higher education, and am still learning all the time.

  31. (Incidentally, for the record, the reason I chose not to publish the non-anonymous views of the person who posted with a problem with my celebration of multiculturalism was not because I didn’t agree with him, or that he didn’t agree with me, but because he called my words “idiotic”, which means it’s filed under “abuse.” There’s a big difference between disagreement and spoiling for a fight.)

  32. (Incidentally, for the record, the reason I chose not to publish the non-anonymous views of the person who posted with a problem with my celebration of multiculturalism was not because I didn’t agree with him, or that he didn’t agree with me, but because he called my words “idiotic”, which means it’s filed under “abuse.” There’s a big difference between disagreement and spoiling for a fight.)

  33. I wish we had had speakers like yourself at my school, Andrew. between the ages of 13 and 16 I *tried* several times to get the message across to my teachers (especially careers tutors) that my interests were largely writing and journalism. In particular my hero(ine) at that age was Julie Burchill, who at that time (early 1980s) had a regular Sunday column in the Mail on Sunday.Unfortunately not ONE of my teachers had any interest in finding out for me HOW Julie Burchill had achieved her position or how other journalists / columnists had achieved similar positions.Their very vague advice was to (probably) go to university, but with no specific reason as to why (and as I knew that J.Burchill had NOT gone to university the connection was not very obvious) …. nor did they make it clear how difficult life would be if I chose to leave school at 16 and NOT do A Levels and Uni.When I tried to ask WHY uni was so important they tried to persuade me it was good because you would always be able to get a management job in Marks & Sparks or Barclays … that is totally NOT what i wanted to do — so you can imagine i found their arguments for university very unpersuasive!Which is why I am now nearly 40 and have had a very unsuccessful eratic freelance writing ‘career’.Sorry — one of life’s losers!Wish we had had speakers like yourself who could have pointed the way as to how journo / showbiz careers are REALLY carved !!

  34. I wish we had had speakers like yourself at my school, Andrew. between the ages of 13 and 16 I *tried* several times to get the message across to my teachers (especially careers tutors) that my interests were largely writing and journalism. In particular my hero(ine) at that age was Julie Burchill, who at that time (early 1980s) had a regular Sunday column in the Mail on Sunday.Unfortunately not ONE of my teachers had any interest in finding out for me HOW Julie Burchill had achieved her position or how other journalists / columnists had achieved similar positions.Their very vague advice was to (probably) go to university, but with no specific reason as to why (and as I knew that J.Burchill had NOT gone to university the connection was not very obvious) …. nor did they make it clear how difficult life would be if I chose to leave school at 16 and NOT do A Levels and Uni.When I tried to ask WHY uni was so important they tried to persuade me it was good because you would always be able to get a management job in Marks & Sparks or Barclays … that is totally NOT what i wanted to do — so you can imagine i found their arguments for university very unpersuasive!Which is why I am now nearly 40 and have had a very unsuccessful eratic freelance writing ‘career’.Sorry — one of life’s losers!Wish we had had speakers like yourself who could have pointed the way as to how journo / showbiz careers are REALLY carved !!

  35. Hi! I found this article from searching the school's name – I myself am a second year university student at the UEA. Despite being at sixth form in the new building, wiht the school's lowered reputation, I really enjoyed my time there. All the teachers were lovely – especially Mrs Elderkin, who has inspired me a great deal :). Your article was really interesting. Neera xxx

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