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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.