Half past eight on a mild November morning; a boy and his mother appear outside one of the Year 6 classrooms. There are other children gathering too, waiting for the fire door to open and to be admitted to the classroom, but the boy and his mother are hanging back. As I watch them out of the office window they look as though they may be arguing, or at least disagreeing about what to do next. Oh, and the boy has his right trouser leg rolled up to the knee.
It being an understatement to conclude that something doesn’t look quite right, I trot down the stairs and out to see them. I’m wrong – they are not arguing, but the boy is reluctant to go into class and mum is trying to persuade him. A situation with a classmate. I do my best to help and they head off to talk to the teacher. But I’m still intrigued by the trouser leg. It turns out that had been part of an argument earlier that morning; the boy had wanted to wear shorts to school, but he had grown out of all his pairs and his mother was reluctant to buy anymore just as winter was starting. So he had rolled his trouser leg up in protest.
Two colleagues walk past me in masks on their way to the car park. They are heading off to the next village to collect a child who can’t otherwise get to school. He lives with his mum; they are both healthy but his mum has been told to self-isolate because of a Covid case in her workplace. Imagine that, I think as my colleagues drive away, teachers turning up at your house in a fancy car to chauffeur-drive you to school. For a moment, I’m back on my long, lonely walk to my middle school – at least a couple of miles I think it was – a tiny dot struggling along the road in an oversized coat with a huge school bag banging against my knees; probably an inaccurate recollection of all sorts of levels. But we did used to walk to school on our own from a fairly early age in the 1970s, I remember that much.
I head towards the infant school gate. Parents and children are pouring along School Lane and gathering on the playground. The smiles and cheery good mornings are addictive; the best part of the job. I watch slightly guiltily as the parents kiss their children goodbye and then embark on the long trudge across the school field towards Charles Close. It’s a bit of a trek but no one complains and I, like they, know it’s necessary. Still, I wish I didn’t have to ask them to do it.
Assembly next, that should mean everyone in the hall – literally assembling. But these days it means talking into an iPad for 20 minutes. I’ve actually quite enjoyed making these little films. I recorded one on the beach, another reading a story sitting on the sofa, and last week I filmed my journey to work. (In hindsight I wish I’d paid a little more attention to my driving before that one. Turns out some of my colleagues are sticklers for the highway code. Should I really have both hands on the wheel at all times?). Today’s is in the library with the head girl and head boy. We chat together about the issues the school council is working on, in particular what we are going to do about the toilets. The school councillors have written a list of all the ridiculous things children get up to – blocking the sinks, flooding the floors, locking the cubicle and then climbing out, something you can do with tissue paper and the hand dryer which creates a sort of confetti fountain. And of course our old favourite: throwing wet tissues up to stick on the ceiling. I concentrate on looking serious and unimpressed while we discuss the list, but inside I’m laughing. I know it’s silly and irritating, but at least the children are not being unkind to each other.
I’m struck by how at ease the head girl and head boy seem on camera. I’ve become more used to the sound of my own voice too – although I’m still struggling to believe the old guy in the frame is me (where’s my hair – where did that go?). We all spend much of our days on Microsoft Teams and Zoom calls, either at work or at home. Most headteachers are recording their assemblies to be beamed into classrooms. We are all broadcasters now. An uneasy thought surfaces occasionally in my mind; the skillset which I used to do my job pre-pandemic is different to the one which is required now – communicating virtually is very different to speaking in person. And then there is the technology, and the logistics, and the understanding of virology (or is it epidemiology?) – part headteacher, part public health officer.
Back in classrooms the day is in full swing. The children are sitting in their rows, the teachers are at the front and lessons have begun. Everyone looks happy and the vast majority of them have both trouser legs rolled down. It’s not school as we knew it, but it is the new reality and we can be grateful that we are all still here, still healthy, still learning.