Steam Highwayman II nearing 75% funded

Wowee! What a week it’s been. Steam Highwayman II: Highways and Holloways has been live on Kickstarter for a week and 117 backers have already joined the project. Approximately 65% of those are backers from last year’s kickstarter and I’ll be so pleased to be acknowledging them again in the back of the book – but I’ve also see real growth, with gamebook fans, steampunks and kickstarter-lurkers all joining in.

Once again, Steam Highwayman proves to have strong international appeal. The aph here shows that nicely to date.

I’m right in the middle of editing, working with Ben on the cover and generally messaging the new backers as much as I can, but I’ve also been spending some time preparing for the autumn, when I hope to be running some ‘Write-Your-Own-Adventure’ workshops in primary schools. I’ve had success creating these books in each school I’ve worked in and even managed to create a book in 30 minutes with a class for an interview earlier this year – the observer commented that it was one of the best literacy lessons she had ever seen. I’ll be sharing more about that later this summer, as well as creating a new section of this website to host / attract professional traffic – ie teachers wondering who I am and what I do!

Anyway – payday has come for many and with that, a warning. The Steam Highwayman is no fool and lurks in wait: if you’ve been delaying your pledge, better do it quickly before the costs of living snatch your hard-earned cash away from you!

Terrorist Sympathies

I rather doubt he’s had the time to watch Amazon Prime’s The Man in the High Castle, but if David Cameron were to find an hour or ten to stream the digital flagship, he would have real cause to eat his words. Rather than simply needing to apologise for a little exaggerated rhetoric, he might find himself with sincere terrorist sympathies.

In fact, I don’t think he’d really need more than three or four hours. That’s how long it took for me to watch the transformation of an apolitical, apathetic pragmatist into a fanatic with an improvised weapon, a plan and the desire to assassinate a head of state. Frank Frink, a man with no previous indication of a violent nature, is working a skilled and secure job. However, abuse at the hands of the occupying forces, interrogations, imprisonment without charge and the murder of his family eat away at his principle of self-preservation until he decides that terror and violence are his only ways to react.

The series is fantastically conceived and executed with the highest production values. Individual actors do incredible work in making us sympathise and understand characters with deep, disgusting contradictions. But this is really one of the piece’s greatest successes – because of its timing. Terrorists aren’t born. They’re made. Or perhaps, they’re ruined from a man or woman who once lived for another reason until that reason was taken away. However despicable someone’s views or actions might be, what right have I to rob them of sympathy?  Feeling for them never has to mean agreeing with what they’ve done – I come up against this daily, constantly.

As a primary school teacher I daily engage in conflict resolution. This is at another level to the High Castle and to Isis – or ‘Daesh’ as the Prime Minister would rather we now refer to them. To change his term at this late stage smacks of cynical marketing. I’m very sure that he’d rather not be associated with a war on a religious group. But back to my playground. When Tom has plainly hit Murad on the face in a jealous fit, he may need to cool down. The school policy may require sanction or punishment. But for Tom to be able to participate back in the class, he needs sympathy. He needs someone to listen to his as well, however childish, inaccurate or self-serving his version of events is, he must be heard.

Perhaps too many of us never learnt this lesson at school. Thankfully we have art and drama and stories to refresh our thinking, challenge us. In the High Castle, Frank Frink does not carry out his plan to murder – although he associates with terrorists and ‘freedom fighters’. It isn’t fear of reprisals that stops him – he is a man who has ‘lost everything’. It’s the look in the face of a child.

The story has been rather actioned-up as it has been adapted from Philip K Dick’s original. Just as the lead actresses’ hairstyles reflect the current re-imagining of forties/fifties glamour with our own time’s sense of taste, so the role of the ‘resistance’, almost absent in the book, has been given a greater role. You can hear the show’s cast and creators talk about their need to sell the story to a modern American public – who might otherwise be rather challenged to watch a story in which they are so thoroughly colonised and controlled. I read that several advertisements have been pulled for their ‘provocative’ Nazi imagery already – although it was actually one of these large re-imaginings of the Statue of Liberty underground on the Victoria line that alerted me to the adaption in the first place.

I like allohistory – counterfactual history. I think that science fiction has a scientific method inside it – the testing of a hypothesis. To say, ‘What if…’ and to follow through is a creative and an enlightening way to write. The ‘What if the Nazis won the war’ hypothesis is so widely explored that it has become a cliche in its own right, as well as the basis for several excellent novels.
But doing this demands the writer create sympathy. Sympathy with terrorists, spies, liars, deceivers and, wait for it, Nazis. Up to and including the big H himself.

The journey of hope and idealism into pragmatism that we follow in the High Castle leaves the audience in truly strange place. By the end of the final episode, we’ve been tricked into following one of the few likeable characters, Wegener, into another assassination attempt. Hitler stands there in front of him, a pistol is in his hand, and if he shoots… If he shoots, he will become responsible for a nuclear war as Hitler is replaced by the warmongering Heydrich. Both Empires dominating the world, the Japanese and the Nazi, are founded on abuses, genocide, slavery and murder. But war between them cannot be the answer. That way, the strange newsreels warn, is devastation.

What of justice, then? The series touches on the holocaust, whispers worse and more recent atrocities – the ‘enslavement of Africa’. Shouldn’t Hitler die for these?

Until something better is on the ground and until someone who will not push the button on Japan, the Fuhrer lives. So justice must be delayed… Or given over to someone more qualified to judge.
Now I realise that the High Castle is a fiction, both as a novel and as a Amazon Prime series. But in it’s half-real setting it engages much more directly with the state of affairs in Syria and in my playground far better than most of the hyperbole around terrorism.

That doesn’t mean I entirely agree with it. I have a personal conviction that there is a better option, that we don’t have to settle for the best of bad leaders. I follow Jesus – and I know how well that resolves personally, although I am ready to say that I don’t yet now how that resolves politically or nationally or internationally. I get called an idealist quite frequently. My schemes only ever work if everyone joins in – the same in the classroom, actually.

But he had terrorist sympathies. He had terrorist friends. And it didn’t make him a terrorist. I wonder how he trod that line – informing on Simon the Zealot? I don’t believe he took the initiative to go to the occupying Romans and offer them the addresses of all the freedom fighters he knew.  But scripture does tell the story of his personal sympathy for everyone he met, occupier, opponent, beggar and lord.  And that was his answer for the politics of the world too – to meet everybody, one by one, and change their minds through sympathy.

Sorry about all the spoilers.

Verses 65-72

Do good to your servant

According to your word, O Lord.

He will only do good, since for God to do is to do good.  We can have no other expectation: he only does good and he only does it well.  Scripture is our witness to this, that he has done good since the very beginning and will continue to do good endlessly.  Scripture is to be trusted since scripture tells us of our Saviour – which no-one else and nothing else does.  So we should seek those books and points of view that reinforce our understanding and show us God being good.  And when we make ourselves his servant, this inevitable good is promised to us and his breathed Spirit confirms it.

Teach me knowledge and good judgement

for  believe in your commands. 

Faith is the key here: believing God’s word to be good makes us teachable.  Without an attitude of wonder and gratitude, we won’t ever gain understanding. Here knowledge and good judgement are inescapably paired – for without one another, each is senseless.  We are called not simply to know what is right but to exercise judgement and to use our knowledge to live differently, and so prove our faith, as James encourages.  This is God’s teaching style: first he gives us faith to believe him, then he gives us better and truer information and the opportunity to embed it by using it.  The more we follow this pattern, the more drastic the change in our life.

Before I was afflicted I went astray

But now I obey your word.

Yes indeed – conviction, shame and reshaping are God’s tools.  He does not want us astray – better afflicted with grief or suffering and on the correct path than ignorant and in bliss- stupid bliss.  Better the daily challenge to our self!  Lord, how I thank you for this time – this rest. Remain in me, O Lord, so that I may continue to find rest.

You are good and what you do is good;

Teach me your decrees.

Here is the proof!  We know God is good and free from imperfection, because we see his goodness in the things he does.  His actions are essential to him – unsurprising (once you know him well) – suited – fitting – proper – and he must act to be true to himself.  He is, after all, the Living God.  And he wants us to mirror this integrity. O God, that my deeds befitted what you have made me!  Teach me!

Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies

I keep your precepts with all my heart.

Lies are sticky, but only touch the outside.  Lying is an act of arrogance – to believe that you are bigger than the truth.  But a whole heart will survive that – and a whole heart is needed to follow God’s law, since it is not an outwardly thing but an inwardly, spiritual law of the heart.

Their hearts are callous and unfeeling

But I delight in your law.  

A heart of flesh loves instruction from God – loves being changed, being directed, being contradicted, because  it means relationship with one who is good and does only good.  A fleshly heart is keen for its own changed life, for the effects on the people around.  It is not only callous, unfeeling and insensitive to reject God’s purpose in sanctifying and changing us – it is stupid and selfish!  Stupid because we cannot pretend that faith has any other purpose, selfish because it prevents others from receiving God’s truth.  Every believer must whole-heartedly give themselves to God’s process of change.

It was good for me to be afflicted

So that I might learn your decrees.

Amen – even at a considerable price, to say this brings us determination and helps us to value what is valuable.  Because even if I knew many things previously, then I had not learnt from them because I had done little  It was good, Lord, that I should suffer and be prompted into action.  Recalled to life!

The law from your mouth is more precious to me

Than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.

Now I can say this for real.  Our true riches are the words of God spoken to us in Scripture, made living and real by his spirit.  With them comes such wisdom that we can solve problems in the world, we can change our relationships for more beautiful and worthwhile ways.  With these words come challenges to our selfishness, our egocentricity, our remaining sins.  May it ever be so, Lord God!  Not dead words recalling a past, as some think, but your living law that teaches me and explains everything I observe in the world around – your law that brings me now to an attitude of worship – shows your great love for me, Father, as so good! So good!  Amen.

Verses 33-40

Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees;

then I will keep them to the end.

The Lord’s teaching is eternally effective because it changes our character, instead of simply describing the way things are to us.

Give me understanding and I will keep your law

and obey it with all my heart.

To try to keep God’s law without understanding what it is, or what it is for, or how it works, is not the point.  We are no longer slaves but sons and heirs and he wants us to join the family business and participate in his way with a whole-hearted response, just as he does.  Has it ever occurred to you that God is not above the law?  He keeps it pure and undefiled, in his son, in his spirit and in himself.

Direct me in the path of your commands

for there I find my delight.

My search for joy can finish in his command – in his Word – if I care to think about it in that light.  If we seek delight there, we will find it.

Turn my heart towards your statutes

and not towards selfish gain.

Yes, that all my ambitions might find a place in you, Lord.  We are very broken – we can’t turn our own hearts at all!  This is a real symptom of the disease of sin – a disobedient heart that longs for and lusts after unholy things – but this is a true proof of God’s grace: he will turn our heart for us.  And God’s laws run exactly opposite to selfishness: we need have no worry or guilt or self-criticism when our hearts are after the things he says.

Turn my eyes away from worthless things;

preserve my life according to your word.

To stay fixed on the valuable things is to remain alive!  Life is not worth living if all we can see are diseased things.  But the things we let into our spirit through our eyes will extend and preserve our life.

Fulfil your promise to your servant,

so that you may be feared.

Testimony is powerful, isn’t it?  It is awe-inspiring and intended to shock us with God’s gracefulness and faithfulness.  If God were to keep all his promises – just consider how many that is for a moment – wouldn’t that unutterably change our lives?  Now consider: God will keep all his promises!  His promises to Adam, to Eve, to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to David, Solomon, to Hannah and to Simeon and Anna and Mary and Elizabeth and to Jonah and to Jeremiah and every secret promise he has made to every king, prophet, teacher, labourer, designer, musician, angel, messenger, translator, builder, farmer, meteorologist, child and grandparent.  Consider the scope of these promises!  All the promises he made to Jesus and to John!  If you have ever had the Spirit assure you of something, that too will be fulfilled – and if, like me, you are too forgetful of the promises God has made to you, testify to them, write them down, record them for your children, tell them abroad.  All the little ones – the ones we consider little – about the weather and the mood of someone we have to talk to and the ones about work and money.  All the great ones about our name in the book of life.  When we speak them with our mouth our brain records them in our experience and we build our faith.  We redesign our life.

Take away the disgrace I dread,

for your laws are good.

Fear is the enemy of satisfaction.  So we make a good swap with the Lord – our disgrace for his law!  Seek to please God, rather than any other authority, and fear no disgrace!  We cannot be disgraced before God – dis-graced!  Because Grace is not revoked.

How I long for your precepts!

Preserve my life in your righteousness.

With all this in mind, can’t we say we long to hear from God, through Scripture, through the still small voice, through a song or dance of worship, through the wind in the trees!  To understand his law and his way of living, his new covenant of grace, his sacrifice in our place, his healing power, his life where there was death!  These are the things that will bring us life as we understand them, experience them, make them primary in our lives.  His righteousness – his unique characteristic – is what we seek!  And we were promised that those who hunger and thirst after righteousness will be satisfied.

It was around this point that I had my own personal revelation.  I wrote, on the 12.1.14; In my teaching, in my writing, I want to please God.  There’s all this talk of pleasing Ofsted – none of pleasing our creator, who cares for us, who’s nearby.  That was when I decided to leave teaching and seek a new way.

Short Children

‘Your children,’ said the Inspector, ‘Are too short.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Too short.  Too many are not achieving the expected height for children of their age.  A child of eleven years old is expected to be a minimum height of 1.34m by the end of Primary School.’

Mr Briggs paused, to check that he had heard what he had thought he had heard.  ‘Some are a little short, it is true,’ he conceded.  ‘Others are taller, though.’

The Inspector shook his head.  ‘Indeed.  A regrettable lack of consistency is observable.’

‘We find that most are tall enough by the time they reach us here in Year Six.  To reach, for example, the books on the shelves.  Jake is exceptionally small – but others are always ready to help him.’  Mr Briggs looked fondly towards Jake’s chair – a real trier, despite all his problems.

‘Ah.  But will that always be the case?’  The Inspector exhaled frustratedly, and answered the teacher’s unasked clarification.  ‘Other people, Mr Briggs.  The children should not be taught to rely on others – they should learn to rely upon themselves.  Each man, I have heard it said, is an island.’

‘But surely allowances must be made?  Is it possible for all children to attain that height?  I myself am rather short.’  Mr Briggs was indeed a little man.  In fact, as soon as any of his children came across that fabulous fantasy, The Hobbit, hidden like a pearl of great worth in the tightly-packed, admittedly rather high bookshelves that lined the classroom, they could not fail to form a mental picture of Bilbo Baggins with his thumbs stuck into his waistband, his head a little balding, his shoes worn through, like their own teacher, whom they could observe minutely from registration to story time.

‘Mr Briggs you are woefully underinformed.  Of course it is possible for all children to attain such a height!  Research has proven it – repeatedly!  Within your borough there are schools who attain one hundred percent expected height – and many children surpass that height!’  The Inspector spoke fervently.  He was in fact over six foot and, although he didn’t like to mention it, the shortest of the inspectors in his office.  ‘Of course such growth is possible!  With the correct diet, the proper climate of aspirational escalation, suitable role models…’  He paused.  ‘There are courses of treatment, exercises, training for staff working with children of Exceptionally Low Height.  In this day and age it is inexcusable for you to be sending children out into the world with such disadvantages!’

Mr Briggs sat down in his story-telling chair.  ‘I suppose it is no use to remark that many of our children are very small when they join us – particularly small, I notice.  In fact, in the course of my career I do believe I have observed a general decline in the height of children joining the school.’

‘Do not attempt to hide behind statistics and trends, Mr Briggs.  It is precisely because of declining height that the targets were set in the first place!  I suppose you realise that it is your personal responsibility to ensure that all the children in your care achieve a height from which they can look down upon their infantile behaviours.  Remaining undergrown can seriously hinder a child in their mental, academic and moral development.  For example, teenage pregnancies are notably more common amongst those of less-than-average-height.’

Mr Briggs shrugged helplessly. ‘In all honesty I must say that it was to escape the worries of teenage pregnancies that I chose primary teaching.  I prefer the world of the innocently soiled to that of the soiled innocents.’

The Inspector paced the room.  He appeared to inspect the working wall, which held a flurry of neon post-its quizzing the habits of polar bears, but in fact he was preoccupied with his own train of thought.

‘What is particularly disappointing is that there is so little progress in height across the key stages.  The majority of your pupils simply make average progress during their time here.  Average progress!  What if everybody made average progress?’

‘What if, what if?’  Mr Briggs chuckled to himself at the horror of a world in which all made average progress.

‘But!  Many of your pupils fail to manage even that.  In fact, according to the data you have submitted, one child is even supposed to have had negative growth!  He is now shorter than last year!’

Mr Briggs raised a finger.  ‘He did, however, lose both his legs in a rather nasty car accident, and I think in his case a little compassion…’

‘Compassion, Mr Briggs?  What place has compassion in this discussion?  You cannot deny that this case is quite, quite awful.’

‘It is, Inspector.’

The Inspector began pacing again.  ‘It seems to me that what this school needs is a severe shake-up.  I am sure that you do not measure the children regularly.  Perhaps if you measured them more often you would be rewarded with more growth!  There is not even a height chart in here.  Why, at Highdene school, every class has a height chart that extends to three metres!  They provide a truly aspirational climate, and several of their children have gone on to join the Grenadier Guards.’

‘Really,’ said Mr Briggs.  ‘Well, this is not Highdene school.’

The Inspector now circuited the room, scowling at the miniature chairs that obstructed him.  He stopped by the window.  ‘Mr Briggs, I do not want you to gather the impression that I am any different from yourself.’  He smiled.  It was the smile you find semi-submerged in greedy African rivers.  ‘I simply want all kids to enjoy the world around them – to partake of every opportunity.  They should be able to look out of this window and see a world within their grasp.  See those apples on those trees.  They should be able pick them.  See those wires on those poles – every child wants to reach out for those wires and swing, swing into the future!  But what if these kids cannot stretch to take the book from the shelf, the can of baked beans from the supermarket aisle?’

‘I suppose you could always try lowering the shelves…’

‘Mr Briggs!  You miss the point entirely!  We must not allow ourselves to move the goalposts – to let standards slip!  You are advocating a world in which books and cans of baked beans roll about on the floor!  Where is the order?  Where is the aspiration?  Where is the opportunity, Mr Briggs, the opportunity?’

Mr Briggs too looked out of the window.  It was an autumn day and the weather had just changed.  A cold shower of rain was likely and the wind blew hard in the yew trees by the church gate.  His children had all long gone home, on differently sized legs.

‘There are children,’ he said slowly, ‘quite content to be short.’  He did not look at the Inspector, who was probably rather too shocked to respond in the small pause.  ‘In fact I try to teach each child to be happy whatever their height.  Some grow, some do not, but it is certain that the short ones enjoy opportunities – if you wish to talk about opportunities – that the larger will never have.  They can hide in smaller spaces when playing hide-and-seek – they can walk under low lintels without bumping their heads – and when they are older they can live in smaller, older houses, built for people of much smaller generations.  Small people feel a pride in their size – they associate with the underdog, not the victor.  I am not sure if smallness doesn’t breed compassion.  The smallest child in this class is not the naughtiest, nor the messiest, nor the rudest.  A child can be thoughtful, honest and wise and still stay small.’

The wind blew outside.

The Inspector perched on the edge of a table.  ‘I am concerned that you have simply taken this position to be obstructive and have created these strange justifications to reassure yourself.  You are an intelligent man, Mr Briggs, and I have read some of your research and its interesting findings, but you cannot base educational practice upon convictions.  We are not Victorians.  No, convictions are a weak foundation – proper educational research is what should direct you.  I am sure you have read the recent international study on height in Primary school pupils.  Scandinavian schools repeatedly achieve significantly greater standards year-on-year.  Our national average is the lowest in western Europe and far behind the US.  Even France have taller children and they have a woefully disorganised system with great variations in regional diet, to say nothing of their secularism and their short role models.  Why are we trailing the developed world?’  The Inspector’s faced darkened and his voice became hard and steely.  ‘Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t the teachers holding us back!’

Mr Briggs frowned.  ‘I must say that I find this desire to exceed very strange.  Why is “tall enough” never enough?  Why must we strain to make our children as tall as their peers, then taller than their peers, then taller than last-year’s children, then taller again?  When will we say that our children are tall enough?’

‘Don’t indulge in these flights of fancy!  Your task is to ensure that your pupils reach a national standard of height – a task which you have repeatedly failed to complete.  Pupils are leaving this school at all manner of heights!’

Mr Briggs could not deny that.  Why, every single child in his class had achieved a different height last year.  None had measured 1.34m at the end of the year, and no two had measured the same.  ‘Inspector, as you were inspecting earlier in the day, I am sure that you noticed other qualities which we do our best to encourage in the children at our school.  Did one perhaps open a door for you?  Did any proudly show you their drawings?  Were some bold and forthright in speaking to such a tall stranger in their midst?  Did you find some reflective, careful or kind?’

The Inspector snorted a kind of laugh.  ‘Can you bottle love, Mr Briggs, or standardise thoughtfulness?  Courage, kindness, self-awareness – who has written the standards for these?  As inspectors we stick to those things that can be empirically measured.  Either a child reaches the next centimetre, or he does not.  Next year we will be rolling out tests of weight for all children entering the school, together with a weighing at the end of Year One to ensure that all have been properly nourished.  We expect a dramatic result from this, as it has been scientifically proven that achievement in weight and height are inextricably linked.’

Mr Briggs riffled through the pages of a dictionary open on his desk.  ‘Ah yes,’ he said.  ‘Who does write these standards?  I imagine that whoever set the standard for height was themself tall.’

‘Without a doubt.  As a very minimum, all participants in the writing of educational policy are well-developed in height.  It is simply a fact of life – in fact, they have certainly used their height in attaining their positions in society.  Children cannot rise to the top and achieve their potential without basic height, no more than anyone in society can.  The government’s Every Child Metres scheme is grounded in broader social policy – that all children should be healthy, safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and achieve economic well-being.’

Mr Briggs had had enough of this pompous claptrap.  ‘Who exactly decides what those positive contributions are, Inspector?  What is economic well-being?  Is it the warm feeling of well-being you have by being tall and wealthy?’  He began to get into the stride of his rant.  ‘A feeling of well-being can be misplaced.  There are always people to look down on us, and always people to look up at us – that is the way we are made.  These positive contributions!  To what are the contributions made?  Are they positive in terms of decision, participation, outlook?  Do we risk ruining our society if our children are not able to stand tall amongst the crowd of participating voters?  Or are your plans to standardise children any more than plans to stabilise society – to quash and sideline the questioning voices of the disadvantaged – the disadvantaged whose struggles have always been the catalyst for change?  Was there a minimum height requirement to join the French revolution, or to be one of the twelve disciples?  When will you call the short second-class citizens and mean what you whisper – you the inspectors, you the overdogs, you the tall?  I do not deny the benefits of height – I do not deny that every child should be well-nourished and exercised and should grow as tall as he or she can!  But I refuse to tell them how tall that is!  I refuse to let them think that they can fail at growing!  I do not think anyone can fail at growing.  I am a teacher because the best things I can teach are the ones that I do not understand – the ones that very few people understand – but perhaps some of my children, short or tall, understand one day in their hearts.  The world may judge them for their height, but I will not, and the world will change because these children will be the world, and they will not be scared to change!’

The Inspector narrowed his eyes.  ‘This is very dangerous.  I am surprised that you ever received sanction to teach vulnerable children.  You will not be working here much longer, Mr Briggs.’

Mr Briggs sat back in his chair.  ‘Inspector,’ he said, ‘It is already too late.  These children can never believe you now.  In fact I am sure that at least two of them will become teachers too.  And it gives me some satisfaction to say that they are amongst the shortest in my class.’

I wrote this in Autumn 2011, after a particularly frustrating RBWM meeting of Literacy Co-ordinators.

Tall Children

‘Your children,’ said the inspector, ‘are too tall.’

‘I beg your pardon,’ said Mr Briggs.  ‘Too… tall?’

‘That’s what I said.  They are much taller than they are blonde.  How do you account for that?’

Mr Briggs tried to collect his wits.  What sort of response could he make to such a statement?  He edged forward in his seat to peer over at the spreadsheet the inspector was reading from and then sat back and rued ever supplying the man with his hard-won measurements.  It was very hard indeed to get some of the children to stand still long enough to measure them in the official manner, and now, having managed to get some sort of measurement out of them and then working hard to tabulate it, it was being fired back at him as though it was all… wrong?

The inspector pressed forward with his argument, a stubby finger wagging from a stained, monstrous cuff.  ‘Your children are tall but very few of them are strongly blonde – really showing a consistent colour.  How has your intervention as co-ordinator targeted this discrepancy?’

Mr Briggs fought back an urge to laugh at the man.  ‘Well, perhaps some of them jumped during measurements,’ he suggested in a frustrated ironical tone.  His colleague Mrs Green flashed him a warning glance – for his own sake, he knew.  But his sense of the ridiculous bridled and he wanted to speak.  ‘If the children were shorter, the discrepancy might disappear.  Perhaps we should remove their shoes.’

The inspector sat back, all geniality.  ‘No, no, no.  I am not at all suggesting that we should lower their performance in height, but for several years your children – apart from last year, of course – have been above the national average in height, but below the national average in blondeness.’

‘Let me be perfectly honest,’ said Mr Briggs.  ‘At a small, family school like ours we look at the children as individuals.  One of my tallest girls – in my class – a girl whom I have taught and seen grow over the course of the last three years – towers over her class mates.  Does it bring her happiness?  No – far from it.  Although there is value in great height, she is not yet of a character strong enough to live with the burden of being six inches taller than her best friend – buying uniform from secondary suppliers that are never the correct shade of red – her shoes immediately recognisable without even that strange knack for scent that children possess.  On top of this, would I wish her to be blonde?  Not at all.  Let her enjoy standing in the background until she values herself enough to step forward.  She may always dye her hair.’

‘Individual cases do not concern me, Mr Briggs.  I am interested in the performance of your school overall.’

The man could not have played better into his hands.

‘Individual cases concern me exclusively, Mr Inspector.  That is why I am a teacher and you are not.’

Tall Children was written Spring 2012.  After a visit from OFSTED.

Non-Standard Children

“Your children,” said the Inspector, “Display a rather idiosyncratic use of the English language.”

“Like Shakespeare,” said Mr Briggs.

“What I mean,” tried the Inspector, “Is that they can’t spell…”

Mr Briggs was really ready for that.  “No, they can spell.  They just enjoy themselves with what they have learnt.  Do you know Shakespeare spelt his name six different ways?”

“What I know is not at stake here, Mr Briggs…”

“So, for example, you would not worry that you can’t spell floccinaucinihilipilification, but some of my eight-year-olds can?”

“Standard English is unambiguous and clear when it is spelt correctly…”

“But we have taught them phonical awareness and phonics skills, and so they try to write sky s-c-i-e.  I find it charming.  Which is more correct, in absolute terms, Inspector?  Which one contains a greater density of correctness per phoneme?”

“If they won’t learn correct spellings from you, where will they learn them?”

“From books!  And maybe greengrocer’s.”

“It is all very well them using non-standard spellings in the playground or at home, but we simply must insist that at school they use correct English.”

Mr Briggs really felt the lava rumbling in his belly.  “Well, yes,” he deadpanned.  “Because I became a teacher because I want my children to maintain a complete and absolute distinction between their life at home and their experiences at school.  I want them to understand that whatever they value at home is worthless here, and however they speak or write there, it needs to be unspoken or unwritten here.”

The Inspector sipped his weak, instant coffee.  “Good.  I am glad you are following the policy amendment memorandum on home-school relations after all.  I had heard some worrying things about this school.”

“And then,” continued Mr Briggs, “We might at last get all the quiet children to speak.  It will really help if members of staff are vigilant and ready to get them to speak in full sentences – to correct them and insist they pronounce their glottal stops correctly.  And to assess them regularly – this will be a profitable and enjoyable enterprise that will help and smooth the process of teaching spelling and reading.”

“Perhaps I have not so much to teach you after all, Mr Briggs.”

“And when we have taught them to regulate their language – because, of course, there is no difficulty in getting any of the children to express themselves at all – and to recognise the situations in which they can dominate and assert themselves by speaking in formal, clipped tones, the world will open like a flower before them, and they will walk into whatever job they dream of.”

“Of which they dream, Mr Briggs.  Please don’t end your sentences with prepositions.”

Mr Briggs walked over to the working wall, where his beloved polar bears were once again capturing the imagination of his class.  One note from a quietly-spoken Romanian girl read ‘Polr bares sleepe in dens on stip slopes wear othr polr bares can’t get them’  He smiled to see that his lesson on abbreviations and apostrophes had struck home.

“If it were really true,” he said, without turning around, “That access to higher education is denied these children because of their lack of standard English, then we have more than one option.  We can change the children, or we can change the system.  Why should we teach the children to fit to the shape of the world around them?  Why should we teach them that that is the way the world works?  Why should we accept the injustice?  If we really wanted to change it, shouldn’t we engineer some sort of response?  Who better to do so than the architects of tomorrow’s society, the teachers?  Because children may leave school reading, or writing, or they may not, but not a one will leave without absorbing and internalising our values – the unspoken much more than the spoken.  They will forget our bullying policy and instead they will take it for granted that we separate the world into a minority of bullies and a majority of victims.  They will remember that the problem lies with someone else, not with me.  They will forget their order for sitting in line in assembly but they will remember that children should be seen and not heard.  They might remember the shape of a courgette seed and that you can make green paint in more than one way, and they might extrapolate from that that there is more than one way of skinning a cat.  But if we let them they will also assume that the world is full of the rulers and the ruled, the winners and the losers, the speaking and the silent.”