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Cyclical School Chapter One "Whitehall, we have a problem"

Change of plan. I'm going to write the book on 'Cyclical School' as a series of blogs and then cobble them all together in book form. I think there will be about 20 of them in all. Here's the first

On 13 April 1970 at 9.18pm, which was around the time when I was finally learning to walk, there was a rocket on its way to the moon. Aged just twenty months, I knew nothing of it, although my father tells me that I did watch the first moon landing some nine months earlier. I had certainly learned to crawl before Neil Armstrong took his ‘one small step for [a] man’. In that rocket there were three men - Fred Haise, Jim Lovell, and Jack Swigert. The plan was that their mission was to be the third to land men on the lunar surface. But it was not to be. On minute there was silence, the next there was a loud bang and a light started to flash on the instrument panel. It was then that Swigert spoke just six words which have been misquoted ever since, even in the film Apollo 13, - “Houston, we’ve had a problem here”. Six words. And, in that instant, their mission was thrown into utter chaos.


Fast forward almost exactly fifty years, and Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary also spoke six words that threw schools into chaos - “We are now at that stage.” The venue, on this occasion, was not outer space, but the House of Commons. The date was Wednesday 18 March 2020. It was shortly after 5.16pm. I was on the Number 13 bus, waiting for it to pull away from the stop outside the Transport Museum in Coventry. I was listening to Radio 4 on BBC Sounds and I remember it clearly. Just like I know that I was standing in a loading bay at the Brighton Centre when Margaret Thatcher resigned and making a cup of tea in the kitchen of our flat in Byfleet, Surrey when Diana, Princess of Wales was declared dead. What he was referring to was the fact that we has reached the point when he considered it was no longer in the best interests of children and teachers to keep schools open.


I had experienced school closures before, or so I thought. Everyone has the odd ‘snow day’ in their career but, after twenty-five years in the classroom, I doubt that there have been more than ten of them. I had even been part of a school in Guildford in 2002 which had to close for over a fortnight because someone had taken it upon themselves to try and burn it down. They made a fairly good job of it, actually. My department lost the use of three classrooms and all its resources, which were either liberally doused by the firemen’s hoses, reduced to dust or covered in carcinogenic dust from where the roof had fallen in. This was also in the days before The Cloud and portable hard drives on which you could store your entire life. One colleague, whose notes were carefully filed away in innumerable folders on the shelves of her classroom lost everything. Within six months, she had given up teaching.


Anyway, this school closure was different. It felt a bit like going into a tunnel on a train without knowing whether you were on a steam train on the North York Moors and were going to emerge again a few hundred yards down the track into the daylight to find Jenny Agutter waving her underwear at you; or heading under the English Channel to France, in which case you would be gone for quite a while.


It turned out we were going to France.


And then the train broke down.


The train had not been in good condition for some time, to be fair. The carriages were cramped, the guard kept complaining that the passengers weren’t sitting in the right seats. The connection to the free Wi-Fi was dodgy and the trolley service had run out of peanuts. Bizarrely, at each station where we stopped, people who looked official would appear on the platform and throw more luggage on to the train. Every so often, they boarded and spent a few minutes in the buffet car. Then, later, we would hear scathing reports of how the driver was ‘inadequate’, the toilets ‘required improvement’ or that Edna in the shop had been put into ‘Special Measures’ because she had charged someone the wrong price for a prawn sandwich.


Back in the real world, teachers plodded on, doing their best for the few young people whose parents were keyworkers, so that they could go and be ‘heroes’ in hospitals, supermarkets and the kind of thunderous lorries that rumble past my house at 4.00am in the morning and make me think I’m living through an earthquake. Pulling the plug had been the easy bit, it seemed. And we could cope in our little ‘bubble’ of three teachers and about twice as many students with an entire school building to ourselves. We could keep one another at arm’s length. And, anyway, it was little more than a baby-sitting arrangement. Nobody was being taught anything.


It was then that we realised that we had to get back to ‘normal’ somehow; whatever ‘normal’ might be. We had to get back into our old routines. Didn’t we? So, we cautiously drew up plans for turning the tap through just a few more degrees, to perhaps 25% of the school’s original capacity in June with a view to being fully open again in September. But it didn’t work. Even before they opened their doors to relatively small numbers of Reception, Year One and Year Six pupils, primary school Headteachers were up in arms as they could not see how they might possibly keep everyone safe in the circumstances. Reports came in from secondary schools of students who had literally gone ‘feral’ having lived without boundaries for months, whose exasperated parents had pleaded with Headteachers to give them some respite. Schools that had spent weeks agonising over health and safety measures, put up one-way systems and bought hand sanitisers and Perspex screens were defeated in a matter of days and had to shut down again as cases of the virus resurfaced.


Where we will go from here, I have no idea. We have got to find something that is more than ‘as good as shut’ but not as risky ‘Open All Hours’. Something that keeps students engaged ‘until the wind changes’, as Mary Poppins would say. And possibly even once it has.


Cyclical School is my suggestion.

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