‘Extra-curricular has a name because it matters’

Extra-curricular activities and school trips have become even more important for raising citizens of the world, but, as Hilary Moriarty remembers, things were quite different before our risk-averse times

There’s many a perk attached to teaching in an independent school (answers in rank order on a postcard please), but there are responsibilities and expectations which also, in our enlightened times, have been gently reduced in the state sector.

Half a lifetime ago I felt I was taking my future in my hands and putting it at risk when I declared at the end of a head of department interview that I would not do productions – they might not give me the job!

Subliminally, and at the time correctly, I believed putting on a play every year, maybe even one junior and one senior, and maybe a musical in cahoots with the music department, every second year, was just part of the head of English job description, even if I’d never seen it written down. It was a given. Of course. It went without saying, which was the way of things back in the day.

In the great balancing scales of will you or won’t you get a job, I was lucky that there was enough in the ‘appoint’ scale, and I think that perhaps at that particular moment the headmistress might have been slightly careless of the school’s need for productions and a senior member of staff to be prepared to organise them.

I had a history of producing plays in previous posts, but this job was 30 miles from home, and with four children, one of whom was just nine months old, I knew my limitations. So there it was – I came at a price. And when I duly left five years later, my successor had Hobson’s choice on stage before half-term.

Shrewsbury’s famous running club, The Hunt

Change for the good?

But I digress into the territory of what teachers do and do not do, which has changed radically from my early days in the state sector, when actually much that we did was almost random and cheerfully haphazard, and a very long way from our risk-averse times. The change has been for the good, of course, in terms of safety for all. But sometimes you cannot help but think that the path through the paperwork to ensure that you have all risks assessed and appropriately catered for, is a perilous path in its own right. It’s extra work for no extra pay.

There is a great expanse of opportunities for school trips these days – Antarctica, for anyone who cares to come, lacrosse team to Canada, cricket team to India, historians to Boston for a re-enactment of the Tea Party, geographers, well, where do you begin,
are they not the most intrepid and daring of trippers? In these days, a trip to the theatre seems tame. In my young days, organising such a trip was relatively straightforward.

Could we make life easier for pupils and parents if pupils could be dropped off at their homes on the way back? Course we could. No brainer. It saves the parent driving out on a dark November night, no problem. And there were two routes from school to Stratford, so you could pick the right bus, each with a lead teacher in charge, and be sure you passed your place, stop the bus, be met by parent at front gate, bingo!

Well, almost. On my bus I ticked off the early drop-offs as they went out into the dark, Mum or Dad waving cheerily, all well. On the other bus, my head of department cheerily waved goodbye to her charges as they were dropped off at their various stops and came home with an almost empty bus. And a goodnight to all. Including the lady standing in the deserted car park and quietly asking, ‘Where is my son?’ Neither my boss nor I had a clue.

For our sins, we did not even know which bus he had been on – awkward when it transpired the person in charge of his bus was my boss. Then, if not here, then where?
Still in Stratford? At home? But he had no key, and his mum had the only key to the house, which was about three miles from school. There was no phone (I am talking of prehistoric times). Did the school have a protocol for running trips? No. Did it run trips? All the time. Did we have a policy? A what? Of course not, it’s common sense, isn’t it?

How I bless the day mobile phones got invented and stories such as mine are consigned to history – to the history which, even then, caused us to have a detailed policy in place by the end of the following week. No more dropping people off anywhere on the way home, even if we passed through their blinking garden. Lists and lists for checking and ticking every half hour. Never mind increasing the safety of the children, on a freezing November night at midnight, I have never forgotten the parent leaving the school to go three miles home not knowing if her son would be there. Which he was, very cold, but safe on the doorstep. The relief when she called to confirm all was well – I am a long way from forgetting that.

Did the school have a protocol for running trips? No. Did it run trips? All the time. Did we have a policy? A what? Of course not, it’s common sense, isn’t it?

Opening doors

Independent schools, and their staff and parents, expect that a teacher’s job includes this kind of ‘outside track’ beyond the classroom. There is more to growing up than studying in classrooms and passing exams. It’s about opening doors to a great big world, not holding the handle and saying, ‘No’. Extra-curricular has a name because it matters, and as schools become more and more like each other, less individual in what they offer and what they expect of their pupils, extra-curricular becomes more important.

We are raising citizens of the world. Many of them will go on to run the world in many different fields of endeavour.

On a daily basis, we look after them as today’s world demands, so we lock the gates, check registers, label and monitor visitors, count them in and count them out.

But we also encourage looking up beyond the gates and the limitations of our own small worlds. We do it now with a commitment to care and the welfare of children probably much akin to what teachers always felt, but maybe had not quite articulated in the formal, insistent, watchful way of today’s world. We have formal policies for what must be done and not done – no more haphazard chucking off of buses in the middle of a winter’s night in the forest. We make endless lists, seek many permissions and check we have the EpiPen, everyone’s contact numbers and our phone – and a spare. 

We consult our policies, the tripper’s bible, until they are dog-eared.

But we still go and take children beyond their usual safety zones. To the theatre, of course, but long may they also continue to play lacrosse in Canada and dig for rocks in the Bavarian Alps.

It’s what we do.

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