Stop, I want to get off.

Tom looked ahead to the tape. It was a strain to bend his neck. Then he remembered his father’s words:

“Don’t waste time or energy looking at the finish. Look at the ground and open your ears; you’ll look ahead when you need to.”

“Trust your body,” thought Tom. On the sound of the gun he flew from the blocks. With arms pumping and legs pounding, Tom eventually looked to the line. There was no-one in front of him. He could hear the frantic pulses of his punching breath. The line came and went. Tom tumbled onto the track. He lay there panting, looking at the sky.

“Have I won?” It was only a passing thought. Tom didn’t care. He was just glad it was over. All that training; hour upon hour running up and down while the world lay sleeping. Days in the rain and wind, fighting the stopwatch, trying not to answer back to his over critical coach. Then he remembered his father and what he would have to deal with. Win or lose, the consequences filled Tom with a sense of dread. Then as he began to notice the patterns forming in the clouds overhead, he felt the approaching march of his father’s footsteps. He could see a tall dark-suited figure tower above him Tom still didn’t care about the result. Then he heard the sigh.

“What did I say? What did I say?” Tom’s dad had an annoying habit of repeating himself. Tom closed his eyes. “You jumped off the blocks, you just jumped out of them. Then you missed your rhythm; missed your rhythm and ended up flapping your arms. After a strained pause, he looked at his father silhouetted against the fluid sky. “Flapping your arms.” He walked off. Tom sat up to see his coach bounding towards him.

“Nice one Thommo. I’ll check the time again but it looks like you’re below eleven.” Tom smiled back. He didn’t like his father or his coach. The worked him, punished him and always criticised.

“Did I win?”

“Yes, you stormed it,” replied the coach, making a running gesture with his arms.

Tom was used to it. While he kept winning his races, his coach would over-enthuse and his father would find something to criticise.

“You’ve got hockey tonight.” Tom looked to his father. “Hockey, tonight.” Tom sighed a silent sigh. It was no good arguing or trying to say that he was too tired or had no real interest in chasing a vicious hard ball round a field with a big stick. This is what is was like. Every day of the week had some extra little activity. “It won’t do you any harm Thomas. It’s good to keep busy. We’re known as a sporting family. And you will get your time below the under-sixteen record.”

Tom was finding it hard. He liked doing things and keeping busy. He liked the friendships he had made. He even liked winning things or playing in front of an audience. But once in a while, all he wanted to do was go home and do nothing. Tom was not into gaming or ploughing through social media. In fact he hated his phone. While almost everyone he knew would spend every spare minute of their spare time with their noses buried in their tiny screens; laughing or shouting “Oh my god” with their imaginary friends, Tom kept his own phone in his bag. Days would go by without it being switched on.

On those rare occasions when there was no after-school club to go to and everyone would be doing their own thing, Tom liked to read about the countryside around him. Whether it was in a book or online, he wanted to know where every street and footpath would lead to. He was constantly playing different birdsong so he could recognise it when he heard it live.

“Can you hear that chaffinch?” Tom would say. No-one ever answered him. Mum was always texting and Dad would give him the look of death before launching into a rant about how he was neglecting his training.

“You’ve got the nationals next week.” Tom would close his eyes as he heard his father’s reiteration. “Next week! You can’t let your training go.” His look of passive resignation always prompted more: “See if you don’t impress in the nationals you won’t get the opportunities for the training. They want boys who are keen and hungry.”

“But I am keen,” Tom would reply. “You’re keenly complacent,” his dad always commented. Tom felt trapped. His whole life was being mapped out before him and there was nothing he could do about it.

The journey between the track and home went through Hunger’s Woods. The road would twist and turn amongst the bright green tangle of trees. Just before the top of the hill, the road began to descend into town. At this point, there was a clear footpath leading to the highest point. It was not much higher than the road but Tom knew it gave a great view over town and beyond; at least that was what Danielle had said. Danielle was the nine-year-old daughter of Andy, the next door neighbour. She was sometimes chat to Tom while both fathers bragged to each other about their sons’ sporting prowess. She liked to tell Tom about the walks she did with her mum and Monkey, their grey Lurcher.

“Can we stop here so I can see the view?” Tom was always wary of making a direct request to his father. It was usually ridiculed. Tom did not know why he asked; maybe he found some reassurance in the way his father taunted him with his answer:

“Views are for girls.” Tom said nothing. The car eventually reversed into the driveway.

“It’s a wonder he didn’t take off.” Tom’s mum looked up from her magazine. “He was flapping that much it’s a wonder he didn’t take off.” Mum looked back down.

Upstairs, Tom sat on the edge of his bed and stared at the house across the road. The front garden was divide into four sections. Separated by a low hedge, each quarter had a centrepiece. Tom’s favourite was the one with the rose covered archway. The man he would often see there was always trimming a branch and gently caressing each flower head. Tom did not know who he was. Father did not talk to the people across the road. They had a bigger house.

“Clarinet.” Father’s voice boomed from the bottom of the stairs. “I can’t hear the clarinet” Reluctantly Tom put the three pieces of his clarinet together and began to play one of his old tunes. It was a jolly piece from an old exam book. He didn’t need the music. The door burst open.

“You’ve got your grade five in two weeks.” Tom stopped and drooped his head. “Grade five. Where are your scales?” Tom kept his eyes closed for a few seconds. He returned the mouthpiece to his lips and started one of his dreadful scales. The door closed and he was left alons. But he wasn’t alone. He couldn’t even play for pleasure without his father’s criticism. Yes he did have an exam coming up. Yes he did have to practice his scales. But why could he not do it his own way? Why was his father constantly on his back?

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Days off school.

“Magistrates had ruled that Jon Platt had no case to answer as, overall, his daughter had attended school regularly.”

Every year, my father’s factory fortnight started the week before the end of summer term. I can’t remember when we stopped but we would have that last week off as a matter of course. No problem. We always went to school. I’ve just checked prices on a holiday for a family of five on one of the Canary Islands. It was the same Thompson deal. The difference between the second week of July and the second week of August was over a thousand pounds. Isn’t this blatant profiteering on the part of the holiday companies? “But your child’s education is worth more than the price of a holiday,” may also be a valid argument.

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But is it? What will a child miss in a week in July? A sports day? (Not every child’s favourite.) A special school trip? (Day out versus a week of sun and fun.) A themed week? (The mind boggles; Oliver Twist versus walking Disney characters.)

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You can just hear the platitudes emanating from teachers, headteachers, politicians or anyone else who expresses an interest. The campaign for real education is particularly vocal about many such issues. They always manage to get involved in interviews and discussions through the media.

I think most will agree that it is important for children to understand the value of daily attendance and attention. Education is a vitally important part of childhood. Let me stop at the word education. Where does education occur? In the classroom? Possibly. At home? Possibly. In the playground? Here I vote for a resounding emphatic YES! Surely the playground is the best platform a child has to learn about the pecking order and inequalities that may stand in the way of his or her dreams? The playground is the classroom of reality.

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And how much education goes on when a child is on holiday? Learning about new areas, seeing their parents in more relaxed mode or at least away from the pressures of work, making new friends from other places or getting first-hand experience of a different culture.

Then why does the actual classroom matter? If a child attends regularly, has a good attention span and a healthy ambition to learn then it is a rather useful place.

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Similarly for those who may not be so good at the above, it is still experience in the way of the world, as are the general day to day affairs of the school itself. Assemblies, lunch times, registration, discipline, letters home etc are all good examples of how a community functions. They are good habits; good in the sense that they provide a model of a how a society operates. But it’s a habit and not a law. It is general but not an all pervading absolute set of rules. “They will miss important work!” is perhaps the most repeated reason. “They must take some homework with them.”

If you look at the work of some philosophers; Cicero, Thomas Aquinas or John Stuart Mill for instance. These men offered ideas of being bound by hard and fast rules which lauded hardship and eschewed expediency.

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Cicero.

What would Cicero say about this? “You must never take the easier way. This is no way to build resilience or strength of character.”

Don’t you think it’s nothing more than a tool of power? Aren’t we just being suppressed into the same grinding regimes we have historically fought against? I don’t know the details of the case that went to the high court but this sort of thing is a local news regular giving both sides an opportunity to air their beliefs and principles.

My view? Sometimes individuals in individual schools have an agenda with individual children and families. And this is one channel through which such issues may emerge. So I think it best to avoid any sweeping judgement because I do not have enough knowledge. But I remember a parent telling porkies, using family sickness as a way of explaining their long weekend away. I even remember a teacher doing the same thing. In fact, I popped a sickie once so I could attend a fifth round replay of the FA Cup. Through such innocent deception many arguments may form. But I think the business of taking time out of school is not the most important topic.

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There are many more important issues raging at the moment. Education is important and it is important that we continue to discuss it.

I never try to impose views and opinions through my blogs but would rather just give out food for thought. For those who may not know, I spent twe ty two years teaching and I loved being in the classroom.

I have written this without any consideration to subordinate conjunctions. (If you want to know what they are, ask anyone who’s just done key stage two SATs.) I also have no idea if this is in the active or passive voice or has any examples of determiners or diagraphs, but that was a piece of alliteration. If you google the above-mentioned philosophers you can get a general idea of what drove them. I apologise for my scant knowledge of such “worthy” beings.

 Thank-you for reading.

Being poor.

This may go beyond many people’s understanding. (Or so it may seem.) What is being poor all about? I read an article today about so-called Middle-Class families who are poor. “What?” I hear you say. “How can a Middle-Class family be poor?” Surely that is beyond people’s understanding? The article mentions the circumstances of a man who chose a career in writing instead of following some of his peers into the less creative stressed fuelled profession of banking.

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Already, a myriad of responses may be forming in your mind. “He made the choice.” “You can’t just expect to succeed.” “What lazy arrogance is this?” “He’s got his head in the clouds.” Strangely enough, the article was centred around another writer; a mother of three. “What’s the father doing about it?” I have just read the article again and there does not appear to be a reference to any father. Curiouser and curiouser perhaps?

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It also mentions something about her sons having to be content with store-cupboard meals featuring chickpeas. “CHICKPEAS?” Doesn’t it seem outrageous that someone claiming poverty is fretting about giving her growing children chickpeas?

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“Just keep that roof over your heads,” my cousin would say. “Even if you have to have egg and chips every night.”

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I can’t really see my cousin, a hard-working pragmatist with an outgoing natural sense of fun saying the same thing about chickpeas.

Already, we may be discovering how fluid the term “poor” is. It is such a hot potato of a subject. To me “poor” is a very slippery word. For one, it has a variety of meanings and implications. It is also most definitely linked to expectation. From what we have achieved or missed, welcomed or rejected, we can judge how poor or rich we are. Rich-now there’s another word. How about how successful or how happy we are? I’m not going to pass any opinion about the piece in today’s Times 2. (Monday May 9th) It’s impossible to draw any firm conclusions from such a subject with no real terms of definition. All I can say is that I do not feel sorry for her. But it was an interesting read and it prompted me to start writing about it.

In terms of what I’ve expected therefore, I have seen poverty. I have seen every penny being accounted for in food, utilities and entertainment. I’ve looked at my bank balance on the fifth of the month and realised that I have sixteen pounds left until the last working day of the same month. My word, that is not pretty. I have also had whole years go by without being able to do what I really wanted because of a desperate lack of funds.

We’re back to expectations now. were my expectations too high? Was it too much to expect for a person with a good degree and profession? Should I really want to own my own home, run a reliable car, stock a decent wine rack and have three holidays a year?

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Well I sort of hoped I would be able to but it has taken a bit longer and a few oceans have passed under my bridge. Suffice to say, life is a rich tapestry and perhaps expectations are best referred to as ambitions. And some ambitions do take a long time. I don’t do the three holidays a year by the way but we do keep a good wine rack.

“Hang on,” I hear you say. “How come you’ve come thus far in your ramblings without mentioning the poverty of the homeless, those who need food banks, the real poverty we see abroad on the news or even those Wayne and Waynetta scroungers who’ve never done a day’s work in their lives?”

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“Now look here,” I say in reply. “How long have you got? I’m just responding to an article I read. I wasn’t planning to tackle anything global today.” So I leave you with some more food for thought:(Chickpeas and eggs equally acceptable.)

Are wealth and poverty restricted solely to financial circumstances? How do you measure success? Surely money is nothing more than one player in a cast of thousands? But everyone’s life is so much more than an epic film. Isn’t it? So for my final word; sometimes you just have to cut your cloth and count your blessings. Thank you for reading.

I went shopping.

Skipping elegantly into a sun-lit living room, Stephen paused to take in the view from the window. Extending majestically into the distance, the crystal blue of an early morning sky gave promises of warmth and welcome. The sun’s reflection sent beams of joy bouncing from the facing windows. Outside people were smiling; their clothing now as bright as their mood.

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Turning back to the room, Stephen could see the sun’s happy intrusion on the inside as it streaked across the rich red of the carpet. The cat mewed weakly. Stephen sighed. Today was shopping day. There was no turning back:

“I said I was going today so I’m going today.” he looked into the kitchen: “Only a small cup please. You never know.!” These were wise words from an old master. You will know why. Going into the morning air, Stephen felt the richness of a maturing spring. “Boing,” it went. And that is where I stop all the trumpery and persiflage in order to report properly about going shopping as an independent disabled person for the first time ever.

Firstly, I must say that the attitude of the drivers (Brighton and Hove Buses) has been a real revelation. To have to fight one’s way out of Brighton, squeeze through the tiny streets of Lewes and end up having to go above and beyond the call of duty to help one person onto the bus takes real strength of character. This was the fourth and fifth journey of my renaissance and I have not felt let down.

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The beauty of a modernish, purpose built shopping centre is that everywhere is wheelchair friendly. I managed every shop. People even moved racks for me. They didn’t have to but it was indicative of  their helpful nature. All in all, it was a very pleasant experience. Of course, it would have been different if I’d have gone on a Saturday afternoon. I’d dare say there are better ways of spending three and a half hours of my life.

But it’s the fact that it is now an option that gives me such a lift. I had saved hard to get this electric wheelchair. We exist on modest means in the Snore household. My wife works but there are nursery fees to pay etc. But today was significant. I may not be able to skip elegantly but I can now go and buy Jo presents without the usual subterfuge of online shopping involving alternative addresses and the kindness of relatives.

You can get a bus to Bromley from Tunbridge Wells. There’s an even bigger shopping centre there. Erm, no. The bladder will never cope. Summer is a comin’. The forest calls.

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Thank you for reading.

Without music.

What would we be without music? Familiar tunes and memories; excitement, relaxation, poignancy, pathos, or saying just exactly how you feel; hitting the nail on the head or expressing something which is beyond words. Whether you are alone or with others, it gives an extra dimension to the experience of life. These extra dimensions can be anything from the smallest hint of empathy and familiarity to something so great it reaches far above life-changing.

I came into music at the life-changing level.  Without music, I would have no sense of being unique. Too often we can be too focused on fitting in; the media is awash with messages directing us to aspire to a comfortable contented stylish lifestyle. It can also be deceptive. We can be encouraged to stand out from the crowd or to break away from convention; usually by buying an everyday form of motor transport that sticks us on the road to join the queue with all the other victims of an overcrowded, underfunded road system. And when you’re in a traffic jam, what helps? Grooving along or chilling to your favourite sounds. That’s you being unique, by the way.

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Without music, I would never have understood that barriers can be broken. What would I have done without music? It may not have been horrendous. I may easily have found a good steady, even enjoyable occupation which led me onto all the other trappings of a nice comfortable life. There would have been many exciting and fulfilling  moments as well.

But it was the day I found the joy of playing with others. Others like me, who were beginning to fall in love with the warm communal cohesion of collective performance, were also going through identical heartfelt revelations.

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From music, I developed a sense of heightened sensitivity. It was an awesome sort of thing. It gave me a belief. I looked at the musicians around me. There were the ones I played with and the ones I listened to.

When I was a teenager, where was my favourite place? Where would it be for most teenagers? A mate’s house, a club, a football ground, the street corner? Mine was the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall.

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There I saw people who were making a living out of music. I didn’t believe for a minute that I may follow in their footsteps; I wasn’t good enough. But what I did believe was that I could create a career for myself that I could actually enjoy; one that could lift me out from the daily grind my father warned me about and give me something worthwhile. I did it. And music was still playing a huge part.

Music truly gives us extra dimensions. I can listen to so many pieces and relate them to the emotions of daily life. Then I can hear some pieces which spell out all aspects of personal drama such as unrequited love or abject cruelty and the anguish which flows painfully from it. Then there are the unknown or the unproven dimensions. No matter how much we discover about our amazing world and the universe around it, only a piece of music can depict how we feel about it. The same goes for religion and the after-life.

Let me finish with some examples:

Unrequited love. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3HI8hfz-To4

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Cruelty. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yw7qcBZvsr0

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Space. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3ZvVXMpH14

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Heaven. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X0uxQmnBhxk

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You may have your own ideas. These are mine and I celebrate yours.

Another extract written for school.

Cosmic Saviour.

Chapter 1 All Hope Gone

Calling armour ten, armour ten, come in please.” Drew paused, then tried again:

Armour ten armour ten. Is there anybody there?” It was no good; three hours of calling had resulted in nothing but silence. Drew knew it was useless, but he was being driven by desperation. He had to face the truth. There was no-one left on Armour ten. There was no way it could have survived the neutron blast.

Modern weapons; the weapons of the twenty third century were faultless. Once the missile was locked onto a location, nothing could stop it. In the past, defence technology could out think and even out manoeuvre any attack. Within seconds of a launch, missiles could be located and stopped; either by confusing its navigation system or somply blowing it out of space. But then came the seventh generation interceptor-a missile capable of outwitting the best computer. This used super-human strategies never before tapped into a machine, to out-think any counter-attacking source. It was a weapon driven by a human mind with none of the usual flaws, such as emotion or pity.

In turn the other side developed yet another super-thinker. The Hyperion Nine; a machine that could never be stopped. It controlled the number of aggressive missiles to be launched depending on the nature of the defending weaponry. It was the supreme grand master. It was one step from universal Armageddon. No-one had the courage to go further.

A Hyperion Nine had destroyed Armour ten, a small outpost on sector four of the Zeus constellation.

Now that Drew knew it was useless going back to Armour Ten he had to think about the immediate future; the next twenty-four hours. His craft, a pilot navigator, specially designed to guide large cargo ships through asteroid belts had enough fuel for three years. There was enough dehydrated food for the same time and all systems were functioning, so he was in no immediate danger. But he had to decide. Was he going to join the struggle against the aggressors of Baalhan? Or look for a small life-supporting enclave outside the war zone; where he might cultivate some land, study inter-stellar law and perhaps run an advisory service for refugees.

During his short life, Drew had witnessed thousands of people passing through Armour ten., looking for new lives away from the war torn areas. Some had been successful, others simply careered into more trouble and disaster, All Drew could now think about was the multitude of hopeful faces, smiling in desperation and gratitude, eyes pleading for a way out of the troubles. He had always wanted to follow some of these lost people into new galaxies, looking for new adventures. Could he just turn his back on these people and escape to somewhere new? Should he look for a resistance or under-cover group, and join in the battle against tyranny while risking life and limb? This was what his people lived for. A great crusade delivering freedom from the evils oppressors of the universe. Drew was a brilliant strategist; not just in battle but in the more mundane aspects of normal life. He was talented. What a choice. It had to be made soon.

There was a light on his screen:

652 carrier 15 degrees from vanishing point 17 units velocity.”

Drew knew this reference. He knew the craft. For many of his inter-galaxy journeys, Drew had been shipped across the galaxy on a 625. It had been a friendly face, if space craft could have a face. It was the way home or the way to adventure. It was a safe secure craft. Now it had a sinister ring to it. Familiar but sinister. Who was on that craft?

If it had shown up on Drew’s radar it was inevitable that he was on theirs. Staring at the screen he could see the 625 slowly approach until it came into view in his window. Of course they all looked the same so what did Drew have to go on? Body language? This was a ship-how could a ship have body language? Drew knew it was impossible but there was something about the way the craft was moving. Its trajectory and speed did not indicate a friendly approach. At the far end of the ship Drew could see the door light flicker. Someone was in the transport room. Someone was going to be boarding. Beginning to feel the sweat dampen his palms, Drew unstrapped himself and took the three steps down to the boarding deck. He stood ready, prepared with his gun poised as an image emerged at the far end of the compartment.

The decision; the decision about the future, the one that Drew was to take his time pondering over, before reaching a logical, well reasoned conclusion was about to be made for him.

The voice from The Mews.

EDUCATION/BRITAIN/CLASS
unidentified boys’school Date: circa 1905 Source: postcard

Once I met a teacher on a training day. We were sitting by the window watching the children at playtime. I didn’t know her very well but we’d been politely chatting about the common issues we’d experienced throughout the various stages of our careers. Suddenly, she let out a huge mournful heartfelt sigh:

“We’ve tried everything,” she wailed pitifully. “We’ve set them, given them booster groups, extra homework, more specialist training and they’re just not getting there.” She was assuming I knew who she meant when she said “they”. “We’ve had their parents in, the advisors in and a joint project with the local grammar school showing how maths can be really cool.” Now I was beginning to catch on.

“Oh, you mean the tiny percentage of children from predominantly working class backgrounds you can go blue in the face with?”

“Yes,” I concurred. “That percentage.” I stifled a giggle. I could see her beginning to spit blood.

“Do you know what?” She took a deep breath. “We arranged a whole programme of extra weekend work with one boy’s parents; focusing on division remainders and decimals. They both agreed they would go over it with him and make sure he understood it before the test I was giving them the following Monday.” I nodded.

“And?” I had a good idea what she would say next.

“Well, he came back with nothing but a note from his mother apologising because her brother was over and he wanted to treat them to a weekend at the seaside,” I smirked. She put her head in her hands. “Don’t they know?” she snorted between clenched teeth. “Don’t they know how important this is for this wretched boy’s life?”

She continued to rattle on about how he and a few others had simply thrown all her hard back in her face and were strangely uninterested in “improving their chances.”

“Different standards, different outlooks,” I offered in return. She reddened.

“You can’t say that. It’s no excuse.” The conversation ended. Obviously, I was not providing the right sort of response to ease her sense of failure.

I’ve had lots of children like this. Under the relentless drive of determined heads, I have slaved away dutifully bringing up my percentages to national standards and beyond. As an experienced teacher, I’ve seen potential and gone for it. Children were encouraged, even pushed if necessary, but always with an air of encouragement and relevance. Every plenary, if we had time for it, was spent pointing out how their work was connected to real life issues.

I think the real trouble lies in upbringing. When I say trouble, it is trouble for the teacher hell-bent on getting those sub-levels up. They would shriek in despair at those little red oblongs on their  clever little spreadsheets, shared and tutted at in countless staff meetings.

Take that teacher for instance. She was probably quite successful at her own school. The odds are that her parents would have been encouraging and supportive. They probably gave appropriate praise and reward when certain goals were reached. Her friendship group might have been similar. They might have even joked about those who did not appear to match their own drive for academic success. It was probably the same at college or university. They might have entered their chosen profession in the hope that their own patience and encouragement would help set a good example to “that percentage”.

It can be quite disheartening when children and sometimes parents appear less positive or determined than the teacher. But the teacher must remember that sometimes children don’t have the same outlook or ambition that was a feature of their own childhood.

If today’s driven education, based and judged on figures in a box is the absolute future; and the whole system of recruitment and reward in employment is tied directly in with these figures, I dare say that in a few generations time, everybody would see it as their duty to conform. They would reach their potential. The would be seen to achieve it every day; in every lesson by dint of having their whole education experienced measured through SMART targets assigned to every conceivable task.

Of course, the trouble with my argument is that there is no resolution. Just acceptance. I accept the differences. In fact, I celebrate them. I can observe the practices of others and their children without being judgemental. I don’t have a middle-class nose so I can’t look down it. I have my opinions but they are my opinions. I have had the pleasure of teaching whole families. At least one of these families have belonged to “that percentage”. And the attitude of their parents?

“Oh they’ll be all right. They know when to work.” Who am I to argue? It’s the beauty of teaching. I miss it!