Seeking Beauty

I used to think you had to understand,

To know your place in history’s line,

Your form, your pace, your isocline,

And hold your past and future in one hand,


The hand that holds the pen.  No more.

The pattern of art’s providence

Is far more complex, fractal, tense,

Than any art can frame or store,


And when I’ve walked through quiet pines

I’ve heard the boughs that yawned and swayed

That beauty isn’t something made

But something found between straight lines.


Hear Mozart tumble with his tune –

He knows how long to tease and tweak,

But try and numerate that feat –

Retire, and learn to play bassoon.


I wrote three thousand words today

In just two hours, to do what’s due,

Delineate some skill’s debut

And teach a child to make work play.


But that was not enough, I missed

The target I had had me aim

And have drawn out this writing game

To be the whole week’s stretching list.


What better?  Suffer?  Write and sob

Or inject laughter, distract noise

Forget my children, leave the boys

The girls, the classroom, drop the job?


I am one man – I have one heart –

And when I test it, stretch it out,

The pain is like a desert’s drought,

The muscle rested pulls apart.


Then only through life’s constant work

Can I find rest from doubt or debt.

There’s no relaxing here, not yet,

So I’ll pick up the pen I shirk.

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.”