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Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me

by Kate Clanchy

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Connor has foetal alcohol syndrome: unable to progress at school, underdeveloped, small head and mask-like face. All the older men in Darren’s family are in prison; he witnessed the murder of a child when he was five; he has “anger issues”. Shakila from Afghanistan saw a suicide bomber and then a head on the street; she didn’t know if it belonged to the bomber.

There are few things more harrowing than the spectacle of children permanently damaged, not by accident or disease, but by the iniquities of adults. So if you feel you must turn away, don’t read this book. The jaunty title conceals quite a few horrors.

On the other hand it may well be one of the most uplifting books you will ever read. It’s a collection of true stories, mainly about children, but also about teachers, schools, class, race, education and, most important, poetry.

Kate Clanchy is a journalist, teacher and distinguished, award-winning poet. The book is, first of all, superbly well written, the stories beautifully paced and elegantly punctuated by thoughts about education policy and society.

These thoughts are often trenchant but, unlike almost everybody else who engages in debates about education, Clanchy is no ideologue. She dislikes religious schools, is sceptical of grammars and she is hyper-sensitive to the tortuous ways of class and race. On the other hand, she is keen on school uniforms, precisely because of what the children tell her. She attacks the way arts grants are biased in favour of philanthropic and therapeutic causes. Art is “self-delighting”, to use a Yeats term; it is a glory in and of itself. “Stories come from stories,” she writes, “poems from poems, not from digging up trauma..."

Finally, she has no theory of teaching. She makes the point with two fine character portraits of teachers, Miss B and Miss T (everybody and every place in the book is anonymised). Miss B “teaches the whole person and then her subject”, she takes the child’s background into account. Much fiercer Miss T cares nothing for background, she is there to teach literature, especially Shakespeare. Her pupils stagger out of her lessons clutching their heads. But both are successful and, indeed, loved.

Love is the book’s organising principle. “I have included,” Clanchy writes, “nobody, teacher or pupil, about whom I could not write with love.” In the background, however, one glimpses characters whom she most definitely does not love. There is, for example, one head teacher of a new academy school whose one method seems to be discipline and yet more discipline. Soon afterwards Ofsted says his school is failing and the head is gone.

“Schools,” she says, “run on love.” She recognises there that she is straying into dangerous territory. Eros — sexual love — is always going to be a problem but, Clanchy says, it should not give love a bad name. There is agape — pure, parental-type love: “To the pure all things are pure; to the teacher all love is agape.” Or there is ludus, “the fun, experimental, uncommitted kind of love”, which appears in school plays, proms, trips and so on.

Beyond love, class is really the central theme of the book. “In England,” Clanchy observes, “social classes fear each other more than racial groups do.” Middle class herself, she lives up to her ideals and insights by sending her son to the local “bad” comprehensive to the horror of her peers. “Shock waves rock our tiny community. No one, I am told later, talked about anything else on the playground for a full three weeks.”

In the event it seems to work brilliantly. The boy’s year group was so mixed that “being middle-class counted as just another odd minority”. He was never bullied. Also — and this is a crucial point — he did well, just as well, she thinks, as he would have done at the “good” comprehensive.

This brings us to Clanchy’s most fervently held view: that statistics about school performance are always rigged by the selection procedure or its location. She does a withering analysis of how Theresa May’s own school experience persuaded her to bring back grammars. In fact, as with the private schools, there is no evidence to show they provide a better education than the poor old comps; what they do is select people who will do well. But as soon as you measure how far pupils progress then neither category does better than any decent comprehensive.

For some reason she doesn’t make enough of the private-school point. It seems to me obvious that if you took one year of Eton’s intake and put them in a comprehensive they would do just as well. The privates do nothing in terms of education that cannot be had for free, but they do, of course, provide confidence and connections.

Also, to drive one more nail into the coffin of bourgeois delusions, she points out that middle-class kids drink more and take more drugs.

The social set-up in her unnamed city is brilliantly funny. The middle classes live in buffed-up but still poky Victorian houses that once qualified as slums. A wall divides them from the council estate beyond. Of course, it looks like a council estate because the people are poor, but, in fact, the houses are bigger and rather nicer inside than the Victorian ones. Well, it made me laugh.

But the narrative core of the book is poetry. Clanchy’s technique is to read her class a poem and then see how they react by writing something with a similar theme. Some of the results — she quotes the best here — are staggering. Poems by her pupils keep winning national awards and become a critically-acclaimed book, England: Poems from a School. She even draws remarkable work out of immigrant children with poor English. She does it simply by immersion in poetry. “We know,” she says, “that people learn foreign languages best by immersion, so why not poetry?”

She dreams at one point of hanging a banner outside her classroom in an attempt both to fulfil and lampoon the bureaucrats’ requirement that all lessons have a purpose. It would read: “We are learning to write by reading and to read by writing.”

I can see flaws in Clanchy’s analyses, but these are trivial in the context of her exuberant narrative flow. She only once lets me down, when she slips into the glibly nonsensical statement “all great literature is subversive”. I have no idea what this means and nobody has ever been able to explain it to me.

Never mind, read this book, then lots of poetry and the world will be a better place.

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