Educating Essex

Entrance to Gyms
Passmores School, Harlow – the scene for Educating Essex.
This photo from vincentballard

Well done Channel 4 for the Educating Essex series. (Though the Daily Wail has a rather different take on it).We have enjoyed seeing a vibrant learning community built round dedicated professional teachers: Mr Goddard as Head (he has blogged), Mr Drew as Deputy and Miss Conway as Head of Year 11 who seem dedicated to responding to the emotional needs of this group of adolescent teenagers. It was good to hear Mr Drew telling his Year 11 students “You have no idea how much I like teaching you, you have no idea.” Passmores School, near Harlow, is an “outstanding school” according to Ofsted which has more than met its target of students’ GCSE achievements.

Ryan, with Aspergers, is beautiful, and moved us (as well as his fellow students and headteacher) to tears with his impromptu speech on leaving day when he declared the two years spent in school as the happiest of his life, with the school becoming his family. Here the argument about whether Asperger’s is “disease” or “syndrome” is settled in favour of syndrome – a difference rather than a disability to be cured. 

Vinni’s story is told with great senstivity. He is in care twenty miles from school, family and friends. He loses his bet that he will be at the end of year prom by failing to attend school for the last term and so forfeits his right to the prom ticket. He does turn up to see what he is missing. I guess a lot of people would have said “What are you doing here?” Not so Mr Goddard. He greets Vinni with “Great to see you. Sorry you’re not here properly.” Mr Goddard comments that Vinni is only a child – one let down by so many people – including himself.

On a day when  the media had been discussing the depressing findings of ICM research published by Barnardo’s, it was good to see youngsters managing to live and work in a community, and to see dedicated professional teachers flexible enough to work close to the emotional and educational needs of the students. That survey suggests that 44% adults agree that British children are becoming “feral”, and that 47% say that the trouble with young people is that they are “angry, violent and abusive”. Oh, the power of the Daily Wail/Fail as the hidden persuader of our perceptions.

I have often noticed the phrase that dates when there were better times. It is “thirty years ago”, and 30 years ago has always been better than today. 30 years could be the measure of a generation, and a way of expressing our fear of the next generation and how they are going to be as members of “our” society. Steven Pinker observes that one of the effects of ageing is to be negatively judgemental about the next generation, and to be inclined to believe that the past (which is our generation) is always better than the present. In his book, The Better Angels of Nature he demonstrates that the (further) past was a far nastier place than we might have imagined and that the present is far nicer than we might have noticed.

Asperger’s Syndrome Foundation

>Two wonderful people

> Easter Day at St Andrew’s Tarvin was “daffodil Sunday” – presumably because of the association between spring, new life and resurrection. It didn’t take us long to realise that the daffodil is the flower of the meadows of the Greek underworld. The asphodel (daffodil) meadows is the region where the dead were supposed to spend eternity. A river runs through these elysian meadows. To the far side of the river those whose lives were neither good not bad were ferried. In the crossing identity was drained away and they emerged into the meadows peopled by those who were neither one thing nor another. (A further place – Tartarus – was for the evil and treacherous.

Two wonderful people we know have died in the last week. Brenda Stride I did not know well. Jen Murray I have known for nearly 30 years. It was speaking to her family that prompted the thought on the daffodil and the elysian fields as the destination for both of them.

Both Jen and Brenda have been local heroes here in Ellesmere Port. Both have given their lives for children. Brenda has spent her life working with pre-school children: Jen’s teaching career has been in three local schools – John Street, Sutton Green and Stanlaw Abbey on Stanney Grange. She was Head at Stanlaw from 1974 to 1991 (I was working the same patch – a 70’s housing estate – ’83-’93). What was remarkable about Jen was her passion for life and for others. She was a wonderful host which showed itself in the school she helped to create at Stanlaw. Appreciating Jen’s work, her friend and advisor, Vernon Hale, commented on the beauty and optimism of the place (this was at a time of really high unemployment in the community). The school was a real oasis of calm (aka a “beacon”) in which, as Vernon wrote, the children had the opportunity to “experiment”, “speculate” and “create”.

The commitment of both Brenda and Jen spans many decades. They have loved hundreds of local children and had a real impact on their families. I wonder at the impact that these two lives have had on Ellesmere Port and the communities that make up this town so low on self-esteem. It would be good to know whether such passion does shape lives and inspire others. I am sure it has done for many. In the end we have to leave them to stroll the elysian fields – on the side of the river where everybody is somebody. For us, consolation is the satisfaction of having been entertained by hearts and minds big enough to embrace all those in their world with love, and the knowledge that they in turn are entertained at the heart of God’s glory.

We have David C Laurie to thank for the photo.

And here’s Sting singing of those elysian fields of gold: