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‘Sir’ is a state school English teacher in a big city in the UK. Prior to this he worked with children with a variety of Special Educational Needs, particularly those with behavioural and social problems. His teaching has been rated as ´Outstanding´ by Ofsted which means he once did a great job for 50 minutes. Save for a light dusting of fiction in order to protect the innocent (and indeed the guilty) anything recounted here is absolutely true. Otherwise, there will be some exciting political debate where everything Sir thinks is also absolutely true. Twitter: @seekingsir

17 June 2010


The school in which I am doing one of my teaching placements has a very brilliant thing in it. I know what you’re thinking but no, it is not me. The thing in question is termed the ‘Inclusion Unit’.

‘Inclusion’ is a term used to describe the practice of integrating children with various special educational needs into mainstream education. The Inclusion Unit, as you might imagine, is there to facilitate this process and to provide extra support to those pupils who need it.

The unit consists of three rooms. One room has three full-time staff whose jobs are to liaise with Social Services and a variety of child psychologists regarding the progress of the children. They also do ‘home visits’ to speak directly to parents who are unable or unwilling to come into the school. Another room is a small ‘chill-out’ or ‘quiet work’ space; this is used by teaching assistants to work one-to-one with pupils who, for example, have had a behavioural issue in a lesson and need to be separated from the rest of the class. The third room, however, is where the action really happens, for here resides the eminently brilliant and horrendously long-suffering ‘Mrs. J’. The room is known, by all and sundry, as ‘Mrs. J’s’ which I always think has the distinctly unfortunate effect of making it sound like a hamburger joint from Happy Days which it is very definitely not. It is a much more brilliant creation altogether.

Mrs. J has a complicated job. She is all things to all (mostly very difficult teenage) people. She is part counsellor, part teacher, part parent figure. In short, she deals with the serious social problems at the root of pupils’ behavioural issues. She possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of the children in her care and is gifted at forging relationships and progress where most sane people have long since given up. In a slightly different context, I am fortunate to have worked with Mrs. J before I appeared at her school as a trainee teacher.

One day she asks me to man her room for a minute. I do so until she returns with a crying Year 9 girl – Sarah – whom, by now, I know fairly well. Mrs. J tells me that Sarah has just been telling her ‘about some problems she has been having recently’ and gives me a knowing look that suggests they are serious. She then tells me that Sarah would also like to talk to me about things. ‘Of course you can’, I say to Sarah. Mrs. J leaves us and Sarah begins to talk. Roughly, it goes like this…

Sarah has a very broken home. She has recently discovered that her dad, who left her and her mum when she was 4, has been living only about 3 miles away for the last 10 years. However, he has never once bothered to contact her, although he has sent her ‘a tenner on my birthday’. This new discovery has augmented her frustration with her new step-dad, whom she veritably hates. Her mum is, by all accounts, struggling with her own life, let alone that of her daughter, and the pair of them have had two physical fights in recent weeks, one of which drew police attention. She then tells me that she has ‘had enough’ and that she has been drinking vodka and taking large quantities of paracetamol.

I listen attentively and we discuss how she might progress. All the while I have assumed that the ‘problems’ she is telling me about are the very same that she had discussed with Mrs. J. Two hours later and I am almost home, vainly attempting, as always, to be 23 and cool whilst driving a white Nissan Micra with black plastic bumpers (an assured impossibility), when a thought occurs to me: what if Sarah has been talking to Mrs. J about something else? Although it seems unlikely, what if she didn’t tell Mrs. J about the vodka and the paracetamol? I can’t really believe that she would tell me all of this without also telling Mrs. J but it’s not a risk I want to take.

As soon as I get in, I phone the school and leave a message for Mrs. J. I also leave a message on her mobile asking her to call me ASAP as there may be a problem with Sarah. Unfortunately, neither message reaches her.

I go straight to Mrs. J’s room in the morning. Sarah had been admitted to hospital late last night having drunk most of a litre bottle of vodka and taken a ‘significant quantity’ of paracetamol. It was a fairly good – though happily unsuccessful - attempt at suicide.

Mrs. J says that she only got my messages this morning – she had left her phone at school. She sees my obvious stress and tells me that ‘this would have happened whether I knew about it or not – at best we might have got someone round to the house in the next day or two to speak to mum, which would already have been too late and, to be honest, not likely to have done any good anyway given that mum’s the main problem.’ Far better, she tells me, to focus on the fact that ‘it’s amazing kids want to talk to you about this stuff after such a short time here – she told you more than she told me for Christ’s sake! You’ve got a wonderful range of skills for this and if you keep going there’ll be a few more like Sarah, believe me.’

It is a potential positive from grim circumstances. It means a great deal to me but does little to diminish my feelings of idiocy. On this day I learn the valuable lesson of ‘write everything down’ and I resolve to very definitely do better next time.

My girlfriend at the time came to visit the next morning. I was more pleased than usual to see her.

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