It’s Ground­hog Day at the turn­stile of op­por­tu­nity

TES (Times Education Supplement) - - COMMENT -

THE MO­MENT of epiphany came for me on a glo­ri­ous sum­mer’s morn­ing while on duty at the school gate. As the young troupers am­bled once again to­wards the great turn­stile of hope and op­por­tu­nity, an ethe­real beam of sun­light sud­denly be­gan to cast a new light on the fa­mil­iar scene be­fore me: surely none of it was for real. I was merely caught up in some kind of me­chan­i­cal loop.

It was not the fact that the same chil­dren turn up each day. Noth­ing weird about that. It’s a school, so we might rea­son­ably ex­pect that to hap­pen. No, my sud­den aware­ness that I am al­most cer­tainly in “The

Day Af­ter Ground­hog Day” – or pos­si­bly the next un­wit­ting sub­ject in the The Tru­man Show – came from sud­denly notic­ing the ridicu­lously or­ches­trated na­ture of their ar­rival each day.

It had taken a whole year of gate duty for me to re­alise that each clus­ter of friends al­ways turned up in the same se­quence, at ex­actly the same time, each day, with each group dis­play­ing the same char­ac­ter­is­tics ev­ery time.

I have now worked out, for ex­am­ple, that at 8.21am Char­lie and friends will al­ways be turn­ing the cor­ner, al­ways swag­ger­ing down the pave­ment in ex­actly the same po­si­tions.

Daisy and Ella will then fol­low at 8.23, heav­ily en­gaged each time in the lat­est break­ing gos­sip.

Al­ways cut­ting it fine at 8.29 will be Laura and Izzy, who will of­fer their semi-apolo­getic smiles and then semi-ac­cel­er­ate to their les­son.

Just as I pre­pare to ac­cel­er­ate to my own les­son, the same dog-walker shuf­fles past and makes his rou­tine joke about how my mug of cof­fee “looks like a pint of Guin­ness!” (It’s black with a white safety lid, you see.) “I wish it was!” is my equally pre­dictable re­ply, ev­ery time. In fact, the only key dif­fer­ence to “Ground­hog Day” is that I have not yet re­sponded by thump­ing him in the face.

Af­ter I re­alised that I was sim­ply teach­ing hun­dreds of pro­grammed au­toma­tons, ev­ery­thing else also started to make sense. I un­der­stood why, at break times, each friend­ship group al­ways headed to “their” own par­tic­u­lar cho­sen space, re­gard­less of all the vari­ables. Ven­tur­ing over to one such group, I asked them why they al­ways chose to meet un­der a dark and dis­mal sec­tion of over­hang­ing roof, rather than opting for the brighter and more at­trac­tive area just a few me­tres away. Their re­sponse was that they had al­ways met un­der that roof ever since their very first day on the up­per-school site, when it hap­pened to have been rain­ing. That first wet day had de­ter­mined their break-time habi­tat for the next two school years. Surely real chil­dren would not be­have in such a way?

Sim­i­larly, most of them are ob­vi­ously pro­grammed never to mix with stu­dents from “the year be­low”. Only a ma­jor me­chan­i­cal fault will re­sult in some­one from the “X” half of the timetable frater­nising with some­one from the

“Y” side. It would be like mix­ing up Mon­tagues with Ca­pulets – and only exam boards ever do that kind of thing.

If th­ese peo­ple are for real then maybe the im­pli­ca­tions are even more wor­ry­ing. We all aim in school to chal­lenge, to open minds and to break down bar­ri­ers and in­su­lar­ity. Much of the teach­ing un­doubt­edly helps to do that. But maybe the very na­ture and struc­ture of our schools en­cour­ages chil­dren to de­velop in the very op­po­site di­rec­tion. Stephen Petty is head of hu­man­i­ties at Lord Wil­liams’s School in Thame, Ox­ford­shire. Michael Tidd is away. He will re­turn at the start of term

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