In the early weeks of my PGCE, on placement in a comprehensive school in the middle of one of the largest social housing estates in Europe, I attended a seminar on pastoral care. It was sobering, to say the least. Rows of eager trainees, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the start of the day, grew increasingly silent and serious as we listened to what the teachers told us about the challenges their students faced. We heard about children who slept on bare mattresses and whose only square meal each day was their free school dinner. One teacher took several students’ uniforms home to be washed and dried, because she didn’t want them to be teased about having dirty clothes. Others spent their own money on supplies: not just pens and pencils, but sanitary towels, clean socks and snacks for breaktime. ‘These aren’t students who aren’t loved,’ one of the teachers cautioned. ‘It’s not that their parents don’t care about them. Often they’re doing all they can, but it’s just not enough.’
This was in 1995, and things haven’t got better. There are lots of children, in the UK and beyond, who are struggling, and who rely on their teachers to help them hold things together. Sometimes, as in the examples above, this is because of poverty. In 2019-20, there were 4.3 million children living in poverty in the UK, meaning that – in the words of the sociologist Peter Townsend – their families lacked the resources ‘to obtain the type of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged and approved, in the societies in which they belong.’ 4.3 million equates to 31% of all children, or, as the Child Poverty Action Group puts it, nine out of a class of 30. (Except that because that’s an average, they won’t be evenly distributed. Some classes will have fewer, others many more.) For other children, it won’t be poverty that’s the issue. It might, instead, be illness within the family, whether physical or mental, and some children will bear a great deal of responsibility for looking after those who are sick or disabled: it’s estimated that there are 700,000 young carers across the UK. There might be anxieties at home around finances or housing or any one of the many things that can crop up to throw life off balance. And for many children, these daily struggles will be the result of abuse, whether that’s physical, sexual, or emotional.
That’s where Miss Honey comes in. Miss Honey is, of course, the teacher of Matilda Wormwood, the star of Roald Dahl’s novel Matilda, and she brightens up Matilda’s sad little life in a way that is desperately needed. Matilda’s parents are truly ghastly. They do not lack material wealth – Mr Wormwood is an extremely dodgy secondhand car dealer – but they do lack warmth, and tenderness, and understanding. While Mr Wormwood is out at work, Mrs Wormwood is either glued to the television or out playing bingo. They treat Matilda as ‘nothing more than a scab.’ It is Miss Honey who recognises Matilda’s quicksilver mind and nurtures her brilliance. Lovely Miss Honey, we’re told, possesses ‘that rare gift for being adored by every small child under her care.’ She understands their fears, reassures them, and helps them to feel less bewildered. In the end, when the Wormwoods decide to do a bunk to Spain in order to avoid the law, she invites Matilda to go and live with her.
Miss Honey, from my ancient copy of Matilda
Miss Honey is a caricature, like all of Dahl’s adults, but there are real-life Miss Honeys and Mrs Honeys and Mr Honeys everywhere, and even the occasional Dr Honey, too. They help to make the lives of their charges a bit less lonely and a bit less desperate. If they’re in a primary school, they will probably be the one adult, outside a child’s immediate family, who has the most contact with them on a day-to-day basis, and who therefore has the biggest chance of making a difference. The role they play in keeping children safe is immeasurable. What they give these children is hard to describe, because it’s so multi-faceted. It could be the first smile they see in any particular day. It could be a banana and a cereal bar to make up for the breakfast they haven’t had. It could be a quiet place to sit at breaktime, when life is overwhelming. It could just be the knowledge that somebody understands, that they’re not on their own. The actual Miss Honeys are the teachers who sit and listen, keep an eye out for someone who’s having a tough time, pull strings behind the scenes to make sure that children can go on school trips that their parents might not be able to afford. They seek out helpline numbers and put families in touch with food banks. Sometimes, they change the whole direction of a life.
It’s not all sparkles and rainbows. It’s difficult, being a Miss Honey. Teacher burnout is a very real issue, especially in an educational environment where externally-imposed agendas and targets exert so much pressure and pay so little heed to the realities of students’ lives. There are days when the real-life Miss Honeys are so tired that they can barely speak. There are moments when they wonder if it’s all worth it, and think about all the easier careers they could have chosen instead.
How different would our education system be if those with the ability to make the big decisions – about policy, about funding and teacher pay, about the curriculum and how it’s assessed – had, in the past, been the pupils who’d needed the Miss Honeys themselves? It’s worth a thought. I’m not sure how it would ever happen, but I think it would be a much better place.