Ready, steady…

Hilary Moriarty looks forward to the start of the new school year

Don’t you love the smell of a new pencil case in September? Even as I write, I am thinking two things: “How old school is such a thought?” and “Ah, probably not”. The feel of a new laptop possibly, then, or glee at the prospect of whole new technologies reclining seductively in the classroom: “Look at me! I will make it easy to differentiate for all pupils, to engage, entertain, enthuse all learners with a kaleidoscope of images and sounds to rival the Odeon on a Friday night, put the universe and Stephen Hawking in your classroom! Flick my switch, smooth my surface, open sesame – the world beyond the classroom is right here on the wall – click!”

What do you mean, you still have a piece of chalk in your pocket? And remind me again – blackboard? Qu’est que c’est?

In my own school days, a new pencil case was a September treat. One in particular I recall. Previous models had been cloth or leather and zipped; this one was a miracle of modernity, in blue and cream plastic. Two-tier, coloured pencils in the lower tray, with pockets for rubber and pencil sharpener and a cream plastic lid which rolled over the top tier, or disappeared obediently ‘down under’ when opened. It was bright and shiny, it was aggressively plastic and NEW, and I loved it. I do not recall it having a smell, but you know what I mean about that physical sensation of joy in possession of – at the time – a wondrous thing. It was like a new year’s resolution made tangible: with this, I could do great things. Next year would be better than last, friendships would stay firm and exams would be passed and all manner of things would be well.

In my day – perhaps still? – starting term with the right kit was terribly important. Reputations rose and fell on a pencil case or, more visibly, the school bag. In the case of my rural grammar school, it just had to be a leather satchel. Battered with wear was OK, even a mark of honour, unlike the shiny pencil case, but it had to be leather, long shoulder strap, banging away at your hip and often very heavy with a text book from each subject for the night’s homework, and exercise books in which the fountain pen might well be used to copy lumps of text book wholesale without a teacher ever spotting the plagiarism. Biros were forbidden, considered indicative of a dangerous decline in immutable standards.

In the sixth form, my class was joined by a new pupil called Eirlys. She was a large girl, exotic for several reasons. She was new in a fairly closed world and still wearing her last school uniform. More impressively, she virtually rejoiced in her size – had they existed then, she would have applied to be a plus-size model. She was defiance on legs – “Miss, why do we have to copy your notes from the board into our books – why don’t you hand them out?” She declared she did not possess a fountain pen because her parents could not afford one. Such open declaration of less-than-affluence was astonishingly novel for us. And she brought the few books she carried to school in a plastic bag.

At the time, I would have died sooner than take this tiny step in the direction of common sense: as Eirlys said, plastic bags were lighter and, at the time, free. Undeniable. We learned a lot from Eirlys, about independence and honesty and courage and iconoclasm. In less than a term, we were all using biros. And that sounds ironic – but honestly, you have no idea how daring it felt at the time. Lord, how far we have come.

Actually, most of us kept the satchel. And in fact I was sorry, over the years, to find myself in schools where satchels were virtually a mark of a somewhat reviled ‘swot’ and most of the pupils used plastic bags. It’s not actually a good look, is it? In a smart uniform, with a supermarket bag bumping at your knees as if you have just run to the shops for a quick supper. For me, books deserved better than that: there was something about a satchel that defined the contents twice over: here be books and books are important. A satchel was a serious thing. Now it’s a fashion item, often in pink or yellow. How far we have come – again.

Logically, in the digital world, there must come a time when book carriers of all kind simply become redundant and all a student needs is an electronic device which can hold every text a teacher could ever refer to and open the doors of museums and libraries and TED talks and encyclopaedias and all manner of knowledge the world has at its disposal. Satchel – be gone. At least one independent school is working on having A-level students complete their external exams on computers – biro, be gone.

We have come a long way from my geography teacher spending all lunchtime filling two boards with tiny writing of copious notes, then perching on a desk during the lesson to watch us transcribe it all into our exercise books. She said she couldn’t write on the board during class because she couldn’t turn her back on us – in a docile grammar school! She spoke very little. Young as I was, it did not strike me as a good model of teaching. She was the intermediary between the information available to her, a geography graduate, and necessary to us, facing a fairly demanding exam. Virtually, she said, “Write this down and learn it – OK?” and went home.

The ‘teacher to pupil’ transfer process has morphed in my time. Does anyone remember Banda machines, which enabled a teacher to handwrite notes and duplicate them cheaply but with risk to sweaters against which bright blue ink could rub off as you clutched them to bosom before class? And stencils? Upside was typing the notes, all nicely legible; downside, apart from hours typing, was tangling with the new army of grumpy reprographics officers in schools: “No, you can’t have them today – you can’t bring them in here in the morning, expecting them to be ready this afternoon! There’s a queue!”

Emerging from this effort to ensure that students had exactly what teachers thought they should have were the dreaded work sheets, now often pasted into exercise books after completion, a bulky filled book giving the impression that even quite senior pupils spent their school lives licking and sticking, like toddlers in a nursery. Evidence of learning – actually, in such a book, virtually nil. Manual dexterity, yes. Does this student know this? Ah well, that probably depends …

Whatever the twiddly bits in and around classrooms, the pencil cases and satchels, the electronic white boards and computers, in the end there is still – honestly, still! – no substitute for a really great teacher, facing the class, master of their subject, able to engage and interest young learners even in a mud hut.

Independent schools are full of such teachers. May you enjoy the best of all possible new years.

Hilary Moriarty is an education consultant, following six years of headship and eight years as national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association.

www.hilarymoriarty.com

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