Let this brief story be an encouragement to us as we embark on a new half term!
On Thursday morning of half term I was accosted by the bin man as I stumbled out late with my rubbish. As I trundled the black bin down the road to meet the swiftly retreating lorry I received a quizzical look from the bin man. For once not because of my haggard looks so early in the morning:
“Remember me from school Mr Frost?” He told me his name and the memories flooded back: he was one of ‘those’ lads from a previous school I had taught in; exclusion meetings, home visits, staff complaints, time in my office with his various family members. My distant memory is of a small, dark haired, wiry boy who just couldn’t stay in class and essentially needed some structure, some time and a bit of love. I remember ‘protecting’ some teachers from him and protecting him from some teachers. I think we know what I mean. I looked at him now, over the bin lid; a little taller, closely cropped hair and a small, neat tattoo across his neck. I asked him his age and his answer serves as a reminder of how long I’ve been at this profession. Then he volunteered: “Hey look, I’m married, got a three-year-old, nice house, nice car. You see no one ever thought I’d manage that did they Mr Frost?” I left this question hanging there, but of course what he meant was ‘You never thought I’d amount to anything did you?’
The vast majority of children that we work with are wonderfully focussed, positive about themselves and the world and their potential future, and have loving, supportive parents who value education as part of that process of growing towards that future. It is sheer pleasure working to support them. But back then my bin man was a perfect fit of all the educational ‘potential underachieving criteria’ that we talk about a lot in schools: Male, white working-class, free school meal, low literacy, family crises, high exclusion rates. And I remember for children and families like this we had the whole raft of support and interventions ready to go and available for children who were very disengaged: adapted curriculum, multi-agency support, EP, school nurse, anger management, counselling, but even as I set up and supervised this process and watched it all play out, and believed at times that we were getting somewhere (at least within the limits of what resources were available then), I’m not sure I really, truly believed that it could change for this boy. I feared for his future. I had little faith in where he was going. Not the worst, but not clever. I put my hand on his shoulder and wished him well. Then I watched him climb back into the white truck and move on. I had so many more questions for him. I wanted to ask what had happened when he left school, what influences had changed him for the better, above all how he had secured an apprenticeship. Was his youth worker we put him in touch with part of the turnaround answer? What had been the deciding factor in getting this young man to become a fully functioning part of our society? We analyse failure with serious case reviews. Do we interpret success with the same level of precision? Do we unearth the elements which enable young people to steer away from a chaotic start in life, difficult upbringing and multi-generational problems?
Anyway he is now 27, a bin man, earning good money, supporting a family, making a contribution to our society. Am I surprised? Yes. But in our different roles in school we only see a tiny window, a thin 3 or 4 year sliver sliver into the lives of teenagers that we work with. For the relatively small number of vulnerable, challenged and challenging individuals that we have worked with, deep down we know that it is in part because of that support, professionalism, care, and love that we give they may just go on to lead fulfilled and happy lives, building families that are so much more positive, supportive and functional than the ones in which they grew up. This is why we do this job; it is a huge part of our moral purpose. Occasionally we bump into those people as grown or semi-grown adults who remind us of the fruits of our work.
So, as we begin a new half term it’s good to reflect on the value of everything that each one of us does in our schools, let this chance encounter be an encouragement to us all. Part of being proud of our inclusive, communal society is the way in which it supports the most vulnerable, the way in which it gives those with difficulties a way back in, a step up to become more than we all thought possible.
And so if anyone questions the income of binmen in my hearing, now I will have an answer. They don’t get paid enough. I want this family to have the best chance in life. Their father wants it for his 3 year old daughter and I do for them both and for the teachers who teach her.