At the chalkface: Going mad


A bad week. I may have gone mad. It started at an election party. Never go to an election party. It makes good people bad. As bad news came in, good manners went out. As Middle England trashed the Metropolis, things went weird.

Hitherto sane people snarled at me like creatures in a Steadman cartoon. A grim Stalinist accused me of being “a fucking liberal”, a boho Green of being “Tory-lite”, and a rich Lady Kipper of being a “loony lefty”. Dear me. Sort that out. More ugly truths flashed across a screen. Labour fastnesses went Tory and Ukip. Doom! Especially for our schools. My paranoia bloomed. Was all this consequent on our education system? Has it got that bad? Whatever, I had to go for dignity and accept the democratic process. I made my excuses and left and lay down in a dark room.

Next day my mental health was worse. I stumbled upon a recent report from the National Association of Head Teachers – an outfit not much given to socialist hyperbole. It was harrowing document, like something out of Dickens or Henry Mayhew. It described how teaching has been affected by the cuts, how teachers have become shock absorbers for all kinds of social ills and how schools have become “mini-welfare states”, giving pupils £43.5 million in unfunded support a year. 

Teachers now help the children of unemployed or low-income families with things like food, underwear, washing facilities, school trips, bus passes, haircuts, nits, headlice treatments and even “birthday cards for children who otherwise would not receive them”. 

Read that last phrase again. And weep. Or go bonkers.

These things have a most deleterious effect on our pupils’ mental health, and that of their parents. And, of course, on teachers, who are leaving in droves. 

I recall such things in my classroom – evidence of abuse, poverty, deprivation, neglect and trauma – but nothing on this scale.

Well, we ain’t seen nothing yet. A further £12 billion cuts on public welfare are imminent – £12 billion! Schools have, apparently, been ring-fenced. And pigs might fly over Big Ben. Schools will suffer enormously. One shudders. Which schools? Poor schools. Which children? Poor ones. Are we going back to Victorian times? Rickets? Nits? Consumption? Diphtheria? Or 250 paupers to a class? Slates? Chalk? Are we going back to Tom-All-Alones and Little Jo sweeping our streets? Look there he goes! Past the shutdown library to pick up a bag of groceries from the food bank on his way to his threatened home. Past a nutter muttering to himself. That’s me that is – half mad and cursing charmless Stalinists, boho Greens and shrill, rich Kippers.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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