December 15th, 2011

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my favourite school dinner

I've only received three Christmas cards so far this year. This is rather saddening, because it's a very visible reminder that I'm not teaching. If I were I'd have had loads by now from colleagues and pupils, as for most places it's the last week of term. My last job was in a tiny, crappy independent stage school and I got deluged by my pupils with cards and chocolates and ornaments and toiletries and bottles of wine.

For the ten years before that I worked in FE colleges, where one has much less sustained and close contact with students than one does in a school and the majority of students are far from well off. Getting cards and little gifts from those pupils was consequently rarer and much more touching.

I think the best gift I ever got was a packed lunch. Most FE colleges struggle to timetables lessons for all those pupils on vocational (or even A level) courses who need to resit their English GCSE to get a grade C. The East London college where I was working was no exception. I had about half a dozen pupils from the Engineering Faculty who missed an hour of their resit class because it clashed with their main course. They were nice kids, so I arranged to make up the hour at lunchtime on another day. Don't assume I was particularly diligent; I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't been sure they would attend, do the work and pass the course. This caused some problems for my timetabling, on paper at least, as I was already so far over the usual contact hours for a full time post that I was getting overtime (which in FE teaching, like nursing, means you get a lower hourly rate for the extra work).

My boss (one of the worst managers I've ever had, and the one I talked about in the radio thing) grudgingly agreed to let me do it, and insisted on going into the class and giving them a pep talk about 'How Jane is giving up her lunch break to teach you and won't get any lunch, even though she is incredibly busy already and has far too much to do'. This wasn't quite true, as though I was busy, it was mainly because he had dumped so many of his administrative responsibilities on me (a dereliction of responsibility sanctioned by HR and senior management as being good for my 'continuing professional development' because he wouldn't have done the work properly or promptly, but had been there far too long for it to be politic or cost-effective for anyone to start pointing out that he was unfit for purpose). I wasn't quite missing my lunchbreak, either, as one week in three I would have had a free lunch as part of my attendance on the Equality Committee. When I stopped attending that committee to teach my little group, there was three line whip to get me to come back. I would rather teach for three hours than sit in a meeting for one (much as I would rather cook for an hour than wash up for ten minutes), and I would rather have picked okum for three hours than discuss equality policy for an hour; it was with genuine glee that I realised the hour the kids were available was that hour.

The committe chair was the Quality Manager (the second highest paid person in the college - on at least three times my salary). Equality is an important part of Quality because OfstEd take equality (or equality and diversity, as it is now known) very importantly; so importantly than a school can be rated as 'good' overall, if it gets equality right, but still can't manage to get half of its' pupils through English and maths GCSE. This peculiar approach to eduactional priorities is why lots of primary schools in London can afford full-time Diversity Officers, but don't have libraries. She thought the class should be cancelled. I wouldn't cancel it and danced on the unimpeachable moral highground of teaching responsibilty, waving my metaphorical two fingers at her. Then she took another tack, and claimed that their were Health and Safety implications to me teaching so many hours. Health and Safety is very important because OfstEd etc etc. My Union Rep nearly pissed himself when she used this strategy, given how cavalier her - and the college's - attitude normally was to painfully overloaded teaching staff. She got her way eventually, but at least the concession was that money was found to pay an agency teacher for that hour. Challenge the notion that the Equality and Diversity are important and you'll be branded a racist and a dinosaur, but in my career all I have ever seen the Equality and Diversity industry provide is a lot of cushy jobs for largely white middle class people - not just the ones in the schools and colleges, but the hierarchy of bureaucrats in the Dept of Education - with no beneficial impact on educational achievement or the life opportunities of the most vulnerable. Whilst I have every sympathy for the teachers, nurses, librarians etc who went on strike recently over their pensions, I'd cheerfully see whole tranches of public sector workers losing their jobs entirely if I thought there was any hope (ha!)the money spent on them would be put to good use elsewhere in their departments.

Back to my packed lunch. Two of my pupils in that little group were sisters, asylum seekers from Afghanistan. They were completely guilt-tripped by my asshat boss's comments, not least because they were such recent immigrants that they still thought that meals were things that always contained vegetables and should be eaten sitting down in company at appointed intervals in the day. It would't have occurred to them that I could happily wolf down a plate of cheesy chips (the college canteen's speciality) in about three minutes between lessons. They were deeply sorry for me when, at the end of term, they realised I was going to miss my section's Christmas lunch (not the toxic waste served up by the canteen, but proper food made by the tiny in-house restaurant run by the catering school of the college).

Knowing I was missing my lunch, the girls got their mum to make me a packed lunch, having first ascertained that I liked all sorts of food and didn't have any weird dietary restrictions, by deliberately starting a conversation about food in the previous lesson. The tupperware box they gave me had rice with raisins and saffron, little herby meat balls, lentilly stuff, and a salad and a sweet light flatbread. It was my second lunch of the day, but I am greedy and it was delicious and impossibly thoughtful and touching and I ate every scrap.

What made it so touching was that I knew their circumstances. Their father had been killed by the Taliban for his radical views (exemplified by his desire to educate his daughters). Their younger brother had been abducted by their maternal uncles who were clearly planning to kill their mother and abduct them. They lived in a one-room bed-and-breakfast bedist and only had an illicit electric ring to cook on. Read what I've just written and it would seem to give the lie to all the Daily Mailist tosh about bogus asylum seekers and unchecked immigration. Except, as if their lives weren't hard enough, the other vile problem they had to deal with harrassment by Taliban sympathisers in London. Some of these were fellow Afghans, but significant numbers are from the adjacent region of Pakistan, with the same language and customs. Many of them had pretended to be Afghans to get into the UK by claiming asylum. As another student commented ruefully to me, you really don't want to be around people who have the money, the power and the connections to impersonate asylum seekers. Of course, you can't make any criticisms about the imcompetence of immigration controls - least of all of the asylum process - with being branded a racist and a dinosaur . They and their mother, and their friends in similar circumstances had to be scrupulously vigilant about their personal security, often having to move at short notice if they were threatened. Some asylum seekers don't just disappear into a passportless criminal underclass when the Home Office lose track of them, some of them end up in shallow graves in Epping Forest.

They were lovely girls. They have probably graduated by now, and are hopefully being busy engineers or IT bods.