It was a winter trip to Ironbridge that started it. Feet stamping, sticks cracking, shouts and breath smoking in the bitter air. Not that it had started well. A long coach ride, a couple of hours trudging round the Victorian Town at Blists Hill then walking into town to see the Iron bridge itself. Year Five were cold and miserable and the teachers and pressganged parent helpers weren’t feeling much better. A coffee was the most I was hoping for, not a transformation.
We probably hadn’t prepared the children properly, I’d include myself in that even if as head I hadn’t had much to do with the teaching of the topic – if you’re going to ask parents to cough up thirty quid for a trip you’d better make sure you prepare the children to get the most from it and we hadn’t. Thing is, when you’ve done The Victorians every autumn term for as long as I have you can be fairly dispirited before you’ve started.
The old-fashioned sweet shop held the children for a little and the pigs in the pig sty were briefly thrilling but tin baths and outside toilets held little attraction and the school house with its shouty pretend teacher was so unlike our primary that they just couldn’t make a connection. They chatted to each other as a man in a waistcoat tried to interest them in a gleaming brass and copper water pump. They bickered and failed to even look at the haberdashers, the butchers and the bakers. The master stroke, a pig sty complete with mummy pig and a litter of six little pigs, appalled every last one of them.
And, to be honest, I was bored too. Bored of herding children, bored of the term, bored of the Victorians every autumn and Local Study every spring. My wife always said “you get what you put in”. I didn’t have much to put in – not much to lose either.
I love the iron bridge – I had fond memories of spending a day sketching it’s gentle, elegant tracery when my marriage was young – but I didn’t let myself hope that the children would get much from it. It is pretty much a bridge at the end of the day. I hadn’t counted on the Men of Iron.
On the bridge – usually occupied by groups of children being lectured on Abraham Darby and his blast furnace – we saw a crowd. Turned inward they were watching something. A steady throbbing beat became apparent. I peered through the crowd to see what they were watching. Twenty four men were turning, wheeling, coming together and moving apart. Complex figures were drawn and redrawn. Sticks crashed together and the voices shouted as one. Accordions and fiddles played in unison. A huge drum kept the beat.
The men wore tall stovepipe hats and red and black rag coats that made them into giants and into shaggy beasts. Their faces were unreadable – erased by a layer of coaldust and charcoal – with eyes and teeth gleaming unnaturally white.
My heart quailed, what would the children make of this? Men dancing? Blacked up faces? Accordions? This would not end well. I looked at them. They were puzzled but silenced. They stepped forward. Spaces were made for them. Shorter pupils were allowed through to the front. They became part of the crowd.
In the circle the noise became more powerful, the men and their dance more compelling, even reluctant children were drawn in. I looked around the crowd and saw my pupils silent and in awe. Transfixed.
The children were quiet on the coach home. It had been an early start and a set of strange experiences for them to process. The adults snoozed too. I stayed awake and thought about how the things we plan and anticipate the most so often go flat on us and how it’s the unplanned things that give us the most joy. I wondered how you could plan for that and my thoughts went around in circles and by Coventry I had a headache and dozed too. My wife used to tell me to take pleasure in the moment. I’d tell her that I’d make time for that when work had cleared a bit. Perhaps I should have listened.
I like to give teachers a bit of time back after a trip so I took Year Five in the morning. I was still woozy – I’d drunk a whisky by myself when I’d got in, and then another – I asked the children to write about their trip and leaned against the wall by the window to watch the last brown leaves drift to join their brothers in the mud by the playground. The room was quiet but for the scrape of Berol handwriters on the cheap paper of the exercise books. No child said “I’m finished” and I let them write on, longer than I usually would, until the bell rang for playtime.
When the last child had come back for her snack, bothered with her mittens and disappeared back outside I glanced at a book.
“The men were like mountain giants. They made magic on the bridge and hypnotised us all”
I looked at another book.
“Without speaking to each other the dancers knew when and how to move – they were a team”
“I liked seeing the men dance on the bridge – I felt like I was in a different time when everything is powerful and I’m strong too”
I took the pile of books to my office with a coffee. The children had fast forwarded through the bus trip and the Victorian town. They had barely mentioned the school house, the pump, the sweet shop or even those appalling pigs. Every one of them had something to say about that moment on the bridge. Stamping feet, sticks crashing together, shouts smoking in crystal air.
The children’s teacher popped her head in when she arrived to pick up the class. I showed her the books, “You’ve got a problem” I said “They’re not going to want to write their Victorian apprentice diary entries now. You’ll have to do something else.”
We went down to the playground together, she went over to the playground box to get the handbell and I watched the children. There was the usual scrappy game of football going on in one corner and a whole lot of standing about but over by the hut something very odd was happening. All year fives. They had formed two lines and were moving together and apart, round each other, away from lines and back into them. Some held plastic hockey sticks aloft…
For the last two weeks of term Year One practised and performed their Nativity, Year Two made cards and the rest of the school invested time in aimless maths ‘investigations’ that resulted in thousands of tiny offcuts of paper and a lot of lopsided snowflakes. I was in my office a lot, partly sorting and re-sorting paperwork for our long overdue inspection, mostly just keeping my head down. That’s why the last day of term was such a surprise.
On the last day before the Christmas holidays we always have a whole school assembly and I tell the Christmas story one more time. We say it’s a school tradition but I’ve always seen it more as a way to keep the children contained for the last forty minutes or so till the bells go and we release them to a fortnight of chocolate and freedom.
I’d already dragged out the journey to Bethlehem and made the search for an inn last a good five minutes longer than necessary and the children were falling into a stupor when I heard the sound of bells jingling in the passageway. Had Mr Bains come back to reprise his Father Christmas from the Foundation Unit party? The children awoke from their stupor and sat up, fatally interested. Sixteen Year Fives streamed into the hall – how had I missed them? They made their way into the middle of the room – children parting and creating a space around them, making a circle. The children stamped four times, precisely in unison and started to move.
They created patterns that wove and interwove. They came together and moved apart. Sticks clashed high above heads, they turned and sticks clashed below. Figures eight were created and erased. Dancers crossed the formation in such a way that on the fourth iteration they were found back in their starting locus.
There was no fiddle, no squeezebox. No CD either, just the sound of feet stamping, sticks cracking together precisely and with force, and the children’s breathing, heavy but controlled. And the rest of the school was silent, I was silent too. At that moment I didn’t know if the children were about to turn the sticks on the staff and take over the school or massacre their fellows. I didn’t know, but in that long moment there was a fierce freedom that pricked my eyes. I wanted what those children had. I wanted it for myself and I wanted it for my school. And I felt very sad and very, very ashamed.
Christmas was quiet. The boys spent most of the holiday with their mother. She phoned on Christmas day to ask how I was. ‘Fine’ I said. As I do.
I asked Anne if she had found the jar of my mothers’ recipe cranberry sauce I’d put in the boys’ bag. Things like that are important, we always had that sauce on the table – I wanted the boys Christmas to be just like it always was. Anne told me how the boys had woken early and opened their stockings snuggled on her bed, covering it with small treasures. ‘Just like normal’ I said, ‘It’s good that it’s just like normal for them’. There was a long silence. ‘Just like normal’ Anne said.
On Christmas Night I listened to a Christmas album by Sufjan Stephens then another by Low. I drank a whisky, then another. The pricking of my tears brought back my two boys, and the men on the bridge and the children in the hall dancing with focus and intent. Moving together and apart. Marking out their own space. Something shifted.
Our first day back after the holidays was an inset. We had booked Raise training but I called and cancelled it. I put the chairs into a circle and got everyone in. ‘Right’ I said, ‘This is how it’s going to be…’
Much later staff told me how scary that morning had been. I’d forgotten to shave for a few days, and my shirt wasn’t ironed, but they said it was more the look in my eye that had alarmed them. That and the force with which I’d hurled folder after folder into the waiting skip. QCA documentation from a decade past, level descriptors and planning formats, fly spotted tick sheets and crusted schemes of work. In the January light my colleagues made their decision – they looked at me with doubtful eyes then one by one returned to their classrooms and came back with armfuls of box files, clip files, poly pockets and expanding folders. Out with the old, in with the new.
That first week was a joy to me. In every classroom tables were pushed back and room was made. Lines of children moving together and moving apart. Figures drawn and redrawn. Sticks clashing. It’s true that maybe not everyone accepted, or even understood my idea but they were bloody doing it – I’d got something started and that was a matter of fierce pride to me. And it’s true that a couple of times conversation stopped when I walked into the staff room but I didn’t go back into my office. I stayed to eat my sandwich and spoke of my pride in what the children were doing and the work the staff were doing to make it happen. I felt like a warrior.
On the second week back we had visitors from Ironbridge. The Men of Iron – or eight of them and a squeezebox player. I’s called in the holiday and they’d agreed to come. Five of them were retired and the others had taken time off work to come and see us. They spilled out of a minibus, as excited to visit us as we were to welcome them. One accountant, a couple of postworkers, even a teacher – God alone knows how he had got permission to come and give us his time. Very ordinary looking men till they put on their top hats and raggy coats and shaded their faces to become the giants we’d seen on the bridge. When they came into the hall and created their magic the school released its breath and something wished for became – for that little time – absolutely real.
The writing we got out of the children that day! Instructions, reports both chronological and non-chronolgical, interviews, diary entries, poetry. A couple of Men of Iron stayed to the end of the day – one of them the teacher – and when we shared the children’s work at the end of the day we saw their pride and astonishment and saw it matched ours and in matching it reflected and magnified it and made it magnificent.
My wonderful colleagues made connections to every subject. History was easy – how the First War and the Spanish Flu had nearly done for the dance but how Cecil Sharp had recorded William Kimber’s steps and kept it alive. In DT classes competed to design a badge and baldrick for our dancers. In outdoor learning the children found and shaped staves for stick dances. I saw a whole class in the ICT suite profoundly engaged in coding a set of sprites to follow the shapes and figures of ‘The Monks March’. Stuff the Victorians. Stuff the Egyptians. Stuff Invaders and Settlers and stuff Rivers of the World. These children were driven and the learning was real. The children who had folded paper and snipped to make ragged stars suddenly needed language to talk about the multiple symmetries of reflection, rotation and translation. The dance called upon them for knowledge and gave them pride.
For the first time since Anne moved out I felt alive. I stopped drinking the second whisky and soon forgot to drink the first, I could sleep without it especially since I’d found my old running shoes in the cupboard under the stairs. As snowdrops then crocuses and daffodils pierced the soil and blossomed in the spring light I ran down the river and into the fields. ‘Constant Billy’, ‘The Shepherd’s Hey’ and ‘Old Woman Tossed Up in a Blanket’ played in a loop in my head as I passed hawthorn and blackthorn, hazel and crab and all the wayside herbs that people the hedges and ditches of our lovely county.
A couple of colleagues, Dave and Yusuf our parent governor, joined our local side, practicing on Thursdays in the room behind the Royal Oak. I didn’t have time to practice but I got in the habit of meeting them for a pint after their session then started going a little earlier to see the practice too. Then they roped me in and by May I could join in to dance a couple of the simpler dances. You cannot imagine how much pleasure this gave me. People told me I looked happier and it’s true, I was happier. And the school was happier too. Sarah came back off maternity and asked if we’d redecorated, she was puzzled when we said ‘no’, she just thought the whole place was brighter.
Ofsted arrived the week before spring bank holiday. The whole school was deep in preparation for our visit to Bampton for the annual festival. We’d got permission for a couple of our class sides to dance and I wasn’t going to let that opportunity be wasted, Yusuf and I had persuaded the governors to let us pay for coaches for all the pupils and if they all chose to dance… Well, who was going to stop them?
I should have been nervous about the inspection but I wasn’t. I was excited about the weekend, excited to see our children dance at the festival. Excited too that me, Dave and Yusuf were going to dance with our local side in the as part of the guest sides programme. When we got the call on Thursday telling us the inspectors would be in on Friday I just thought stuff the lot of them – I’m going to make sure the kids are ready to make the most of the weekend.
So, it was an odd inspection. I made time for the inspectors of course. I was able to show them that attendance – our biggest worry – was up. And writing was going well of course. I told them frankly that they could observe all the classes they liked but they’d mostly see children practicing for the festival. I had a lot to do and left most of the work to the governors, the school business manager, the SENCO – to the team.
In the evening me, Yusuf, Sheila – our head of governors – and a couple of others sat in my office. Yusuf and I were sweating as it was half an hour till practice started in the room behind the Royal Oak. The inspector didn’t keep us waiting. “You’re good” he said.
I said, “Is that ‘Good’ good then? Or just ‘good’?”
“No” he said, “’Good’, I’ll be putting ‘Good’ overall on your report. I mean there’s loads that’s really good. There’s some outstanding too but overall I’m putting ‘Good’”
“Alright” I said. “I don’t mean to be rude but I’m keen to get off. Can I walk you to your car?”
“Does anyone have any questions about the inspection?”
“No. No one does – let’s get you to that car. I’ll have to lock the car park gate after you.”
I signed the inspector out, walked him across the car park and into his car. He got in and belted up, checked his mirrors and reversed in a neat quarter circle. I held the heavy car park gate open as he shifted into first and drove towards the gate. The inspector’s car stopped next to me as I held the gate and his window wound down. “Thank you,” he said “I’ve had a lovely day. This is a great school. Maybe not outstanding but it’s great. It’s really great. And that’s probably better. Hope the festival goes well.” And he drove off.
There’s not much more to say really. The festival was brilliant of course. The memory of the moment when two hundred children danced together will see me through any hard times my life brings me. That and the moment when Yusuf, Dave and me were dancing the Shepherd’s Hey.
We were turning, moving apart and together. Making, unmaking and remaking figures, just like the men on the bridge. There was a moment when the dance danced us instead of us dancing the dance. A moment when everything was one. In that moment I saw Anne in the crowd. I saw that she was smiling. And I smiled too.