Monday, 22 October 2012


"Do come in!" calls the perky young art teacher with long swishy hair. She's spotted us as we hover, all hot and sweaty and jostled, by the open classroom door. Gingerly, and rather reluctantly, we edge forward as thirty-three pairs of curious eyes swivel in our direction.

We're looking around the secondary school, Youngest and I, on open day, just like the other four and a half thousand anxious parents and children expected to visit this week. And it feels as if every single one of them has chosen to arrive now.

His brothers already go to this school. Middle One is enthusiastic about it, always has been. Eldest slightly less so, although he likes the 6th form. I think. Both older brothers were much more grown-up at this age. And a lot taller. This seems to matter more than it should.

The tension in our tour group is palpable, it's been a stressful morning, at least it has for me. The place is huge and rather tatty so there's lots of walking, and lots of children, and lots of chipped paintwork. But this looks promising - a sunny art room with some lovely, bright papier-mache models hanging from the ceiling.

"So, what are you doing?" I ask a group of girls slumped somewhat despondently over sketch pads. The art teacher drifts away.

"Observational drawings of sea urchins," says one.

"Ah!" I say, for want of something better, then I look around for the urchins. "Where are the urchins?"

"We don't have any," says a second, "they're on order."

"You're doing observational drawings of sea urchins, without the actual sea urchins?"

"We have these..." They waft a set of identical laminated black and white photographs in my general direction. I hadn't noticed them before. 

Youngest and I stare at them: different sized grey and black discs, looking for all the world like lunar landscapes at close quarters. Then we look back at the table where the girls are copying them, pencil-shading each circle, one after another... after another ... after another...

"Blimey," I say, momentarily lost for words. Then I look around the room again and realise that every single one of those thirty-three children is doing exactly the same thing, at exactly the same time, and they all look bored as hell. 

"Do you like it?" 

"Oh we LOVE it, Miss!" says the first girl without the faintest flicker of a smile, and then she looks me straight in the eyes and adds: "We really love our school. Honest." 

And my heart sinks.

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