Charlie Carroll is a supply teacher whose book is called ‘On The Edge’. I asked him if I could share some extracts. Charlie kindly agreed, so here is the second of two blogposts (the first is here) sharing a supply teacher’s experience of tough schools in England, from Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Yorkshire, Liverpool and London.
I was covering at Burns Technology College. During period 1, an ICT lesson, I had to send out Max Darby for playing a game which involved gunning down women. Two boys were playing online pool with each other; three girls were looking at tattoos; one lad playing Pac-Man and another playing The Sims. There was one boy – Elijah – who had done no work all lesson, barely even making the pretence to try whenever I strolled past. At the end of the lesson, he approached me and handed over the report card which had to be filled in by each of his teachers to document how well he had done that day. I wrote the truth in my allotted space: that he had done nothing. ‘Why did you give me a shit report, sir?’ he protested when he saw what I had written, and stormed out.
Hocking was a brand new school. It had state-of-the-art equipment and resources, clean classrooms and corridors, and the students’ uniforms were impeccable. Yet the behaviour was spiteful. The students were vile and cruel to each other.
One day, a 16-year-old came up to me at the end of a lesson to sign the daily report which monitored his behaviour. He had done no work throughout the lesson, and I had written as such. He looked at my comment, said, ‘You’re a f*cking prick, you are,’ and strode out. A teaching assistant laughed as the door slammed shut. ‘We get that a lot here,’ he said. ‘You’ll get used to it.’ Another day I was asked to cover a Drama lesson. It was disastrous. There was fighting, there was screaming. It was chaos.
‘Mr Carroll, would it be too implausible to suggest that the use of religious imagery within Romeo and Juliet’s shared sonnet is Shakespeare’s way of implying to the audience that they are a match made in heaven?’ It took me a moment to answer. ‘No,’ I said. ‘No. I don’t think that would be too implausible at all.’ Each class beavered away just as voraciously, the only interruption being the odd question. One boy asked if he could take his blazer off. The exemplary behaviour, it seemed, came from the hard work of a team of happy teachers who were plainly supported by their headteacher.
The next school was Boscombe Heights. Period 3 was a nightmare. With the class in unbounded chaos, a boy called Liam did his best to incite a riot. After 20 minutes, I had to send him out, only to find that the classroom I had sent him to – manned by the Head of English – was also so chaotic that he was sent back to me again 10 minutes later.
Year 11 were next. ‘Tough lesson, sir?’ one of the girls asked me as she took her books out. She laughed knowingly, and two of her friends joined in. ‘Don’t worry, sir,’ said someone else. ‘We know how hard it is for supply teachers in this school.’ ‘Let’s make a start on the play.’ ‘Are you a real English teacher, sir?’ ‘I am, yes.’ ‘Could you talk us through it a bit? We’ve had supply teachers for the last month. We don’t really get it.’ At the end of the lesson, a boy piped up: ‘To be honest, sir, it was just good to actually be taught today. It’s not often it happens.’
Taylor College was next. Outside the entrance, three teenagers surrounded by eight younger students. I noticed something change hands. One of them spotted me approaching: all hands quickly shoved into pockets, and each of the teenagers walked off in a different direction. It was not hard to see what was happening: a drug deal had taken place, virtually on the school’s premises. That same afternoon, I overheard one Year 10 boy snarling at another in the corridor, ‘You tell that f**king Adam to stop spreading lies about my stuff – he hasn’t even tasted it.’
My lessons were not lessons at all. Assaults were common. One boy strode out of the classroom to return a minute later with a long plank of wood with which he intended to ‘batter’ a girl –another girl physically restrained him. During a Food Technology lesson, one 14-year-old boy waved a sharp knife menacingly in front of another’s face. It was a frightening place to go to school.
‘You’ll be teaching maths. The school’s called Varka,’ the supply agency told me.
In period 4, at 1pm – 20 minutes before the lunch break – two girls ran out of one classroom and tore down through the block, smacking loudly on doors and barging into the classrooms. Within five minutes all of the students were out in the corridors.
Pupils were play-fighting, though with full-blown punches and kicks; a group of girls were smoking; one lad was being beaten up by six others. Nothing at all happened to any of those students by way of consequence.
Another lesson began. With a shrill cry of ‘F*ck yooooo!’, Will jumped up from his seat and began pounding Joe. That was the signal for chaos to erupt. Sam immediately joined in, picking up anything he could get his hands on and throwing it at everyone in sight (including me); Ryan jumped up and down on the centre of a table; Ralph leapt up and started to swing from the thin, bending pipes which flowed around the back wall; Sophie stole a board-pen from my desk and wrote ‘You motherf*cking c**t’ on the wall.
Landstrom College, lunchbreak. A ball hit me in the head. Voices cheered, ‘Ten points!’ ‘Oi, throw it back!’ ‘You can have it back at the end of the day,’ I called back to them. I entered the hut I had for period 5 and locked myself in. The door began to shake and rattle in its lock as it was pulled heftily from outside. The shouts began with a frightening immediacy. ‘Give us back the ball!’ ‘That’s my ball!’ ‘F**king c*nt!’ a loud and resounding thump interrupted me. It was followed by another just as loud, and then another after it. The thumps increased, and the intervals between them decreased, until I found myself in a cage of loud and violent noise. ‘Give me my f**king ball!’ a boy screamed. I counted 11 boys, all revolving around the hut in a weirdly tribal Lord of the Flies dance, smacking the walls of the hut with long and knobbly sticks, screaming for the return of their football. ‘Come out here! I’m going to f**king smash you!’ My heartbeat rose and my adrenaline surged. Then the jeering stopped. The Assistant Head had arrived at the crucial moment.
Edgham, an all boys’ school in Hackney, period 2: after 10 minutes the throwing began. First it was a rubber, then a paper aeroplane, then a pencil case, and finally a chair. I should have stopped them when it was just a rubber, but I had left it too late: now there was no chance. Tables were upended and, before I could get out of my seat, one boy had grabbed another and was beginning to punch him gleefully in the thigh. My shouts to stop were so loud that the Head of Department came running in from next door. She removed the violent student, barked a few imperatives at the rest, and seats were returned to.
London has seen the most, and worst, knife attacks in the country. In 2008, 28 teenagers were stabbed to death in the city, and over 6,000 arrests for carrying a knife were made. Many of these incidents happened on school grounds. Metal detectors – ‘knife arches’ – have now been installed at the entrances to hundreds of schools throughout London, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool. At Boreham, the Senior Management Team had security wands with them at all times, and never hesitated to scan over and around a student if they felt it necessary. Random knife checks took place often.
Pascoe is a clear example of how first-rate our state educational system can be, despite challenging behaviour. During my third day, a pupil threw his bag across the room and screamed, ‘You f**king twat!’ at the teacher. He was immediately excluded for a week. The outburst was dealt with swiftly and correctly. And this is why Pascoe is so successful. The key is the leadership team. Teachers could teach and pupils could learn.