From edge to edge: walking Wainwright’s Coast to Coast

I’ve been for a walk.

Route map, Robin Hood’s Bay

A long walk: the Coast to Coast. Opinions vary as to its actual length, because it isn’t an official National Trail. It’s a network of footpaths and rights of way, stretching across northern England from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, developed by Alfred Wainwright in 1973. The routes you can take vary depending on a number of things – whether you choose high-level or low-level options, what time of year it is, how far off the trail you happen to be staying on particular nights – and so, while most estimates put the trail at about 190 miles, we actually walked about 215.

We’ve been thinking about doing the Coast to Coast for a few years now. Back in 2014, we did the Hadrian’s Wall long-distance path, and the Coast to Coast seemed the next logical step. We’d heard that it was a lot tougher than Hadrian’s Wall – it’s much longer, and across wilder countryside – so decided to leave it until the Dude was a bit older. Then this year, with the lockdown making travel outside the UK complicated and increasing demand for holidays within the UK as a result, we decided the time was right. After all, we reasoned, we’d spent so much time cooped up in south Lincolnshire that we needed to get out. And given that we couldn’t decide on just one destination, why not walk across the whole country?

Why not, indeed? It’s only a walk. Wainwright himself described it as ‘a country walk of the sort that enthusiasts for the hills and open spaces indulge in every weekend’, although he did add that ‘It’s a bit longer than most, that’s all.’ You dip your boots in the sea at St Bees, then put one foot in front of the other – many times – and before you know it you’re celebrating at Robin Hood’s Bay with the sea surging round your ankles. Easy!

Boots in the sea, St Bees

The Coast to Coast crosses three national parks – the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors – and has a total ascent of just under seven thousand metres. The quickest crossing on record was made by Damian Hall in 39 hours, 18 minutes and 40 seconds, in May this year. Most people take between twelve and sixteen days, but at one point, we met a woman who was doing the crossing with her two children – both under ten – in stages of about five miles a day, fitting the stages into weekends and school holidays whenever the lockdown had allowed. They’d started in January, she said, and expected to be finished by October.

Ennerdale Water

Our walk took us fifteen days, including a rest day in Richmond, the biggest town on the route. We stayed in B&Bs, youth hostels and pubs, and had our luggage transferred from place to place by the fabulous Sherpa Van Company, who I would highly recommend. We could have camped, and carried our own stuff, but given that we’ve just emerged from the toughest school year on record, the lure of proper beds and dry socks was far too great.

Climbing Loft Beck

The received wisdom about the Coast to Coast is that if you can make it through the first five days, you’ll be fine. The first five days take you through the Lake District, and contain the biggest hills, breaking you in gently on the first day with Dent Fell at 352m and culminating four days later with Kidsty Pike at 780m. This period coincided with the hottest weather of our crossing and the climbing was exhausting. We started out with three litres of water each, but had to ration our drinks carefully, as there were very few places to stop and refuel: nowhere until we got to Ennerdale Bridge on the first day, and only one place – the snack bar at Honister Slate Mine – late on the second. Honister came just after the climb up Loft Beck, which runs up between Brandreth and Great Gable, and by then all three of us were hot, exhausted and desperate for a drink.

Heading into Patterdale

And then there’s the pain, especially in the first few days. Pain in your calves as you drive yourself uphill, every fibre screaming. Pain in your knees and hips on the downhill stretches. And most of all, pain in your toes, which seems to happen no matter how well-worn your boots are and how much extra room you’ve allowed. You imagine them in the dark like squashed eyeless creatures desperate for air, every step hurting. You are caught between being desperate to take your boots off and dreading what you’re going to find when you finally peel off your socks. We had to make an emergency purchase of new walking boots for the Dude, who split the sole of one of his boots on the second day, and there were many Compeed stops and necessary breaks to paddle in streams.

The Swale

The pain is worth it. Miles and miles of hills, stretching off in every direction, green shading into distant blue. Curious sheep and silent water. Skylarks and swallows. By the fourth day the ascents were getting easier and I was settling into the rhythm of what Rebecca Solnit describes in her book Wanderlust as ‘the mind at three miles an hour’.

Above Osmotherley

There are tough bits. Some of these you anticipate, like the big climbs, and the endless walk along Haweswater, and negotiating the way down from Hartley Fell, which is notoriously boggy. Some are unexpected: the switchback of the North York Moors, the driving rain that hit us on our penultimate day, and the tangle of footpaths in the Vale of Mowbray. On longer days (our longest day was 25 miles) the last few miles are agonising, especially, if they’re on the road. Wainwright describes the last quarter of a mile along the road into Keld as ‘the longest quarter of a mile in England’. He’s only partly right. There are many long quarter-miles as you go along.

Scarth Moor

There are also landmarks. Crossing the M6, and leaving the Lake District for the gentler hills of Yorkshire. Climbing up to the mysterious Nine Standards, a series of cairns that mark the Pennine watershed. Reaching Keld, the halfway point. Passing into the Vale of Mowbray, going under the A1, and emerging onto the North York Moors. And then seeing the sea, in the distance at Whitby, for the first time since we left St Bees all those miles ago.

The Nine Standards, Hartley Fell

And there are all the chance encounters along the way: the people you chat to, the places you stop at, the things you see. The sound of Bob Dylan playing from someone’s stereo in Moor Row on the first day, giving us a lift just when we needed it. A group of eager young people near Grisedale Tarn, all wearing matching crocheted frog hats. Bolshy sheep and keen-eyed collies. The very welcome tuck shop at Danby Wiske and the excellent Joiners Shop cafe at Ingleby Cross. Jo the tame crow at Graculus Sculptures in Reeth, and Bob the sheepdog and his owner, who accompanied us between Richmond and Brompton-on-Swale. All the brilliant hosts at the places we stayed at, including those who washed our clothes and brought us coffee and reassured us that the next day would be easier.

The tuck shop at Church Holme campsite, Danby Wiske

The last day gives you a bit of everything: rolling moors, woodland paths, waterfalls, steam trains at Grosmont, the first glimpse of Whitby Abbey. You feel like stout Cortez, standing on a peak in Darien and looking out at the Pacific. Little knots of walkers are drawn together, like iron filings to a magnet, as they approach the coast. You reach the cliffs above Robin Hood’s Bay, and then it’s the last few miles: through the fields, past allotments, into streets of solid Victorian guesthouses, and down the hill, passing holidaymakers and ice-cream shops and overflowing pubs, to the slipway, where you dip your boots in the sea again, elated, hardly believing you’ve made it.

Boots in the sea, Robin Hood’s Bay

It’s a hard walk. This is partly because of its unofficial status: there are some points where navigation is tricky, and where landowners haven’t bothered to maintain footpaths properly. But mostly, it’s because of the distances involved and the fact that there aren’t always convenient places to stop for a break, particularly in the early stages in the Lake District and when you’re crossing the North York Moors. There are some ascents where you need to scramble, and while I like a scramble, I know not everyone does. There’s also the relentlessness of knowing, each morning, that you have to get up and walk: the demands are mental, as well as physical. If you’re new to multi-day, long-distance walking, I’d recommend Hadrian’s Wall, or the Pembrokeshire Coast, both of which feel less remote and better supported. On the way back to Whitby, where we stayed for our final night, our taxi driver told us about people she’d picked up who’d tried, done a few days, and found they couldn’t cope.

Mist at the Wainstones, North York Moors

But: it’s brilliant. There’s that sense of testing yourself against the landscape, of digging in and pushing yourself on, and the feeling of proper physical tiredness, as opposed to the brain-fogged exhaustion of the last year. We made it, the Husband and the Dude and me, and now we’re at home washing socks and trying to decide where the next adventure will be.

Gotcha!

I can’t remember when I first came across the term ‘Gotcha Day’ in relation to adoption, but I remember my reaction was one of instinctive, unfiltered hate. I’m not holding back here. Adoption is such a complicated thing, involving so much loss and so many ethical tensions, that the whole idea of ‘Gotcha Day’ is like finding an injury that’s stubbornly refusing to heal – perhaps one that’s a bit septic and inflamed – and ramming a great big triumphalist fist right through it.

Part of my loathing is because ‘Gotcha Day’ is all about the adopters. The children don’t seem to figure, except as an object. Separated from everything you’ve ever known? Scared about these new people you’re going to live with? Not sure whether they’re going to let you eat your favourite foods or sleep with the fluffy toy rabbit that has been the one constant for you through all those changes of foster placement? Worried about whether you’re ever going to see your siblings or your grandparents again? Well, stop whining, because we’ve got what we want. Gotcha! And if you’re a birth parent – well, tough. You had your chance, Gotcha Day seems to say, and they’re ours now. Look what you could have won!

Aside from all the greedy grabbiness, the other thing I can’t quite wrap my head around is the idea that the transition from foster care to adoptive family is a simple act, a single event. There’s a pervasive myth that adoption offers a happy-ever-after solution to the problem of children who need homes and adults who want children. Like Paddington Bear with his marmalade sandwiches, the child rocks up, you’re told to look after it, and hey presto, you’re a family. One couple on our prep course planned to take their children on an instant trip to Disneyland. Someone I talked to just before introductions couldn’t understand why I wasn’t going straight back to work. After all, children are adaptable, aren’t they? They’ll cope. Just stick them in school, or nursery if they’re still young, and get on with your life as before, just with this new additional trophy that you can show off. Gotcha!

In reality, those first few weeks and months of placement were the toughest time I’ve ever lived through, and I was a competent adult with a pretty well-honed capacity for resilience. I can’t imagine what it would be like from the other side, as a bewildered small child who’d had no say in the matter. So here are all the things I wish I’d known before placement, to help bust the myths and give you an insight into life as a newly-formed adoptive family.

  • You will worry that people think you’re a kidnapper. Seriously. You’re not used to your child, your child definitely isn’t used to you, and everything will feel so odd at first that you’ll be convinced that people will think the toddler you’re trying to wrangle into a car seat isn’t actually yours People who’ve become parents the conventional way can unfold pushchairs with practised ease and change nappies one-handed. You’ll still be struggling. It took me months to get out of feeling like a hapless rookie.
  • It will be exhausting. As a new adopter, you have to practice ‘funnelling’ – meeting all your child’s needs yourself in order to build their attachment to you, and not letting anyone help with bathtime, meals, bedtime stories, soothing bumps and grazes, helping down from slides, anything. You have to keep things simple, and introduce new people and places very gradually. For the first few weeks, it should be just you. It is knackering beyond belief and there will be times when you want to curl into a ball and sob. If there is anything at all that you can outsource – laundry, shopping, cleaning – then do.
  • Keep everything very, very simple. I remember the first day after the Husband went back to work. I got the paints out and thought we’d spend hours creating beautiful works of art. In reality it all lasted half an hour. HALF AN HOUR. It wouldn’t have been so bad, except our painting session started at eight in the morning. I remember the day stretching ahead of us and not having a clue how we’d fill it. In the end, we made noses out of Play-Doh, and in the midst of this the Health Visitor turned up and must have wondered why I looked like Gonzo from the Muppets. After that, I made lists of things we could do, so I didn’t run out of ideas.
Source: Magnus Franklin, licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0
  • The physical demands on you will be huge. Keeping your child active and occupied, going out for walks, playing in the park … it will all add an extra layer of tiredness and you will need to flo in a corner occasionally. You’ll get an extra work-out if your child is of an age to be picked up and carried. Most parents are able to build up their muscles slowly: you can’t. If you’ve installed stairgates, you’ll get an extra treat, as it’s often easier to hurdle over them than unfasten them. This is great for toning your core. I lost two stones in the first six weeks after the Dude moved in, despite all the cake I was hoovering down to help with the funnelling-induced exhaustion.
  • You will feel lonelier than you’ve ever felt before. This is especially so if you work in a busy environment. I went from talking to over 150 people in an average working day to just the Husband and the Dude. Funnelling cuts you off, too. I hadn’t been prepared for how hard I’d find this and how much my sense of identify would change. Social media – including adoption support groups – will be a lifeline.
  • You will feel judged by absolutely everyone you meet. Adoption made me realise how much parents – and, in particular, mothers – are judged by other people (in particular, other parents, and unfortunately, other mothers). I remember the first time we braved a toddler group. You know those wildlife documentaries where a pride of lionesses spot a new lioness and her cub, and you can see them deciding whether to welcome them in, or eat them? That’s what it was like. It was the kind of toddler group where everyone else’s child is on water and rice cakes. The Dude was firmly wedded to orange squash and Custard Creams. I even got told off by a very solemn little boy for not knowing the words to ‘Wind the Bobbin Up’. Total inadequate, obviously.
  • You will be incredibly grateful for people’s kindness. Lovely people brought us casseroles and cake. One of my best friends made robots out of cardboard boxes with the Dude when it was my birthday, so I could have a couple of hours of much-needed sleep, and then came over for the whole day a few weeks later when I was floored with a virus and the Husband couldn’t take a day off work. You will want to hug everyone who holds open a door or brings you a coffee. Really.
  • People will say ‘oh, but all children do that’, and you’ll want to explode. Yes, all two-year olds are demanding. Yes, all pre-schoolers can throw diva strops when they’re not allowed to control everything around them. But the reasons behind this behaviour can be completely different. Your two-year old might be grizzly and needy because he’s tired, or can’t have another snack, or wants a cuddle and is trying to get your attention. A newly-placed two-year old might be grizzly and needy because they’re scared, because everything around them is new, and they’re sad about the people they don’t see any more and don’t know how else to express it. Same behaviour, different reasons. That means I need to handle my two-year old in a different way. Trust me that I know what I’m doing.
  • You’ll find out who your friends are. Trust me. You really will. Some people will be utterly brilliant. Others will melt away. Some people will find the idea of adoption absolutely fascinating but will shrink from the reality of a traumatised child. You can’t necessarily predict who they’ll be.
  • You will cry when your social worker visits, at least once. Real snotty tears. Lots of people assume you’ll want to get rid of your social worker as soon as possible, because social workers are associated in the popular mind with nosiness and interference. If your social worker is a good one, they’ll be a lifeline in those first few months. For me, the tough point was about three weeks in. Don’t be ashamed. It’s bloody hard.
  • Don’t expect to feel instant love. People will want you to say you do. They’ll want magical moments with sparkles and unicorns. That’s not how it works. Love will creep up on you, gradually, but don’t beat yourself up if it takes a while. Adoption isn’t a heart-warming story; it’s a major life change with far-reaching implications for everyone involved. So don’t punish yourself if you find it difficult. And remember that post-adoption depression is a thing, and get help if you need it.
  • Your child will amaze you. In the midst of all this disorientation, there will be moments when you’ll be struck by how brave and resilient this small person is. Children who’ve been through difficult early life experiences have to have a huge amount of courage to survive and keep themselves together. For me, the real lump-in-throat moment was overhearing the Dude in his cot one night, listing the toys who kept him company. Bear. Bear. Tractor. Bear. He needed to know who was there so he could check they’d still be there in the morning. Moments like this will punch you in the guts and remind you how important it is to give a child security and stability.

Teacher Feature: Mrs Tilscher

It’s 1984, and I’m in my final year of primary school. Our teacher is Mrs McGrath and she is like no other teacher we’ve ever had before. She’s tall, dark-haired and exacting, and probably – at least, to our eleven-year old eyes – somewhere in her forties. She sets high standards. She’s precise and exacting: one scruffy piece of work, one desk left untidied, and you know about it. She doesn’t raise her voice, because she doesn’t need to. We respect her and we have an appropriate level of fear for her, too. She introduces us to things that we need to know about, even if we’d prefer not to, like the effects of smoking and what would happen if there was a nuclear attack. It’s classic Haunted Generation stuff, a classroom counterpoint to the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water. More than one person has nightmares because of what Mrs McGrath teaches us, but they’re necessary nightmares, preparing us for a world where things are more complicated than we’d ever realised.

We do fun things in Mrs McGrath’s class as well. We make sweets – fudge and coconut ice and peppermint creams – and decorate chocolate eggs at Easter. We paint, and make models from clay. We have a disco. Frankie is telling us to relax; Nena sings of ninety-nine red balloons, floating in the summer sky. The Los Angeles Olympics loom and beyond them, secondary school. We know that this is the end of something, an important time. Mrs McGrath is steering us as far as she can. At some point, we’ll be on our own.

An apple, for Mrs Tilscher? (Source: Creative Commons)

This transition from those last few months of primary school to the start of secondary, from childhood to adolescence, is captured in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’. Fittingly, the poem starts with a journey, but it’s an entirely imaginary one, a voyage up the Blue Nile with Mrs Tilscher chanting the place names. There’s a brilliant evocation of the atmosphere of the primary classroom. Mrs Tilscher’s room is ‘better than home’: it glows ‘like a sweetshop’ and is filled with ‘enthralling books’, brightly-coloured resources and jars of frogspawn. Duffy fills the poem with smells and sounds you’d almost forgotten: ‘the scent of a pencil, slowly, carefully shaved’, ‘the laugh of a bell’, ‘a xylophone’s nonsense heard from another form’. For all its excitement, though, Mrs Tilscher’s room is also a safe place, where ‘Brady and Hindley / faded, like the faint, uneasy smudge of a mistake’. Mrs Tilscher loves you, and some mornings she’s left a gold star by your name. You’re secure, in Mrs Tilscher’s class.

Except that everything’s about to change. Over Easter, the tadpoles grow, and so too do the children. A ‘rough boy’ tells you how you are born, and you’re appalled. The knowledge you’re gaining isn’t just about physical journeys, now: it’s about those metaphorical ones, the ones that involve something less comfortable and much more troubling than a list of place names on a map. School becomes restless. Reading the poem’s final stanza, you can feel what it would be like to be in that classroom during the last weeks of term: fidgety, full of new curiosities, ready to move on and be somewhere else. Duffy’s description of the atmosphere here is a wonderful example of pathetic fallacy:

That feverish July, the air tasted of electricity.
A tangible alarm made you always untidy, hot,
fractious under the heavy, sexy sky.

And Mrs Tilscher can’t help you any more. ‘You asked her / how you were born and Mrs Tilscher smiled, / then turned away.’ She’s ready to move on, too, to a new class. She’s done her job.

A few of us said we’d go back and visit, when we got to the end of primary school, but we never did. There are some things that you have to leave behind. I don’t think Mrs Tilscher’s students would be going back, either. That turning-away at the end is an odd gesture. Is it an abdication of responsibility, a refusal to face up to her students’ inquisitiveness? Is that smile patronising, telling the narrator that she doesn’t need to know about those things? Whatever it is, it’s definitely final. It’s up to somebody else, now.

I don’t remember my own last day of primary school, but I do remember my son’s, five years ago. There were tears at his final assembly and when we said goodbye to his lovely teacher, who did so much to build his confidence. I am always in awe of primary school teachers, because there is no way I could do what they do, and I am especially in awe of Year Six teachers, who see their students through that final year and get them ready to fly. If any of you are reading this: thank you. I hope you know what an important job you do, and how much of a difference you make.

Adventure!

I’m going on a school trip tomorrow, for the first time in over two years. I am stupefied with exhaustion, like every other teacher everywhere who’s still crawling towards the end of term, but I am still ridiculously excited, because, school trip! It will be a fabulous one, too. We’re taking the Gold Duke of Edinburgh group away for the weekend; the weather forecast is good, and we’re going to the Yorkshire Dales, one of my favourite places in the whole world. The students, meanwhile, are like a Year Two class before an end-of-term party, not at the thought of the expedition itself but because we’ll be stopping at a service station on the way and, OMG, service station! Remember we’re in south Lincolnshire, where there are barely even any dual carriageways, never mind service stations. I swear if I were to organise a school trip that was basically a tour of UK service stations, it would be the most popular school trip ever.

Ingleborough, like a sleeping lion

We’ll be in Three Peaks country, climbing Pen-y-ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside, and the thought of being in the hills again after months in the Flatlands has kept me going for quite a while now. The Husband, the Dude and I have climbed all three many times over, starting when the Dude was six. I’ve got a lovely photo of him by the trig point on top of Whernside, munching through a chocolate Rice Krispie cake the size of his own head, completely unbothered by the fact that he’d just climbed the highest hill in Yorkshire. I could honestly witter on for hours about walking in the Dales: the crunch of your walking boots on the path as you approach the Ribblehead Viaduct; the sight of Ingleborough stretched out like a lion in the sun; the waving cottongrass and clean fresh air; the beer at the Station Inn. I’ve even got a favourite route, for goodness’ sake (Ingleborough from Clapham, if you really want to know; and there’s a fabulous café in Clapham where you can buy big chunky sandwiches and wodges of Millionaire’s Shortbread before you set off). It will be excellent.

The gnarly bit of Pen-y-ghent

It’s kind of appropriate that we’re going to the Three Peaks, at the end of this particular year, since I’ve occasionally used the ascent of Pen-y-ghent to illustrate the idea of resilience. If you’ve ever climbed Pen-y-ghent from Horton-in-Ribblesdale, you’ll know that there’s a steep bit, up the ‘nose’ of Pen-y-ghent, where, if you’re me, you might need to do a bit of a scramble, and swear a bit, and stop for a breather. And you’ll think you’ve reached the top, and you’ll look for the trig point. But it’s not there. Because you’re not there yet. You’ve still got another couple of hundred metres to go. The Husband and I did the Three Peaks the year we turned forty, starting with Whernside and ending with Pen-y-ghent, and that final ascent was killing. I might have actually cried. But you drag yourself on, because you’ve got no other choice, and that’s really what this year has been like. Lots of hard slog, and realising that even when you thought the hard yards were finally behind you, there was still a little bit more to negotiate.

Term finishes here next Wednesday, and on Thursday, partly because we like a challenge and partly because we don’t have the sense we were born with and didn’t think about how knackered we’d be at the end of this year, the Husband, the Dude and I will be setting out to do the Coast to Coast long-distance walk. At some point this summer, I might actually sit and do nothing.

Teacher Feature: Mr Smart

There’s been a lot of discussion on EduTwitter this last fortnight about performative attention. Should students receive a sanction if they look out of the window, fail to smile or sit up straight, or reply to a teacher in a manner that is less than upbeat? I was an extremely diligent student, but there were probably many lessons that I spent daydreaming or doodling in my planner. It didn’t mean that I wasn’t thinking. Beyond the obvious signs of engagement – putting your hand up to answer questions, completing everything that’s asked of you, making progress according to whatever system is being used to assess your work – there’s a whole lot we don’t know about what students are thinking about the things they do in class. Someone who seems to be completely switched off might suddenly reveal themselves to have been thinking very deeply about particular topics. There’s a whole hinterland in our students’ minds that we don’t necessarily have access to.

Admit it: we’ve all been there. (Source: Creative Commons)

Mr Smart, in U. A. Fanthorpe’s poem ‘Dear Mr Lee’, is one teacher who doesn’t recognise this. His student – the anonymous narrator of the poem – has been studying Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie and it has fired off things in her brain that Mr Smart has absolutely no idea about. She doesn’t want to write character studies or explore issues about ‘social welfare in the rural community’; she just wants to lose herself in Lee’s wonderfully rich stories of his childhood. She pours all of this out to Lee in her poem, wanting to address him by his first name, even though Mr Smart says this is rude. She wishes she could ‘see everything bright and strange, the way you do’. She’s taken As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning out of the library, but Mr Smart is scornful about it, and says Spain isn’t like that any more. At the end of the poem, we learn that the narrator has failed her exam, but doesn’t blame Laurie Lee for it. His book isn’t a mere set text, but a book that has lived with her, ‘stained with Coke and Kitkat and when I had a cold.’

I used ‘Dear Mr Lee’ in a conference presentation I gave some years ago, to illustrate some of the tensions that exist in English teaching. What is the study of English Literature all about? Should we prioritise student enjoyment, or disciplinary knowledge? This is what my PhD focused on, and one thing I looked at was the fact that debates that were circulating at the time English literature became an academic discipline in the universities, back in the late nineteenth century, were still apparent in discussions about Curriculum 2000. They’re still going on today. There’s been a lot of discussion on Twitter this weekend about whether English should aim to promote a love of reading, and if so, how it should do this. I admit that I’m on the fence about this. Over the years I’ve heard advocates of the full gamut of approaches, from letting students read whatever they want, even if it’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in Year Nine, to listening to canonical texts being read out loud in tutor time. I am deeply sceptical about both of these particular approaches, but I’m not convinced I’ve found the answer, either.

Geek that I am, I’d like my students to be able to enjoy their engagement with the discipline of English, to recognise that there is something deeply pleasurable about analysing texts and writing about them. I’d also love it if my students read outside the curriculum, and as an English teacher it’s part of my job to recommend books and give students the space to share their enthusiasm for reading. There’s a problem, though, when we make English teachers responsible for something that spills over into students’ lives outside school and doesn’t necessarily correlate with their success in curricular English. Some students will love reading, but some won’t. Some will achieve stellar grades regardless of whether they read outside of lessons. Some will be avid readers but struggle to get a Grade 4. We can encourage independent reading and even give space for it in the curriculum, but reading occupies a complex area, a bit of the Venn diagram where ‘something you’re made to do in school’ overlaps with ‘something you do at home if you really want to’.

And while we should strive to create a culture where reading will flourish, we also need to recognise that some of our students might not want to share their feelings about books with us. I remember what it was like to be fourteen or fifteen and immersed in books that I wouldn’t have wanted to discuss with my English teacher in a million years. The thoughts and feelings I had about them were often so complicated and half-formed that I’d have hated to write them up as a book review or record them in a reading journal. Leave me alone, I’d have thought. It’s none of your business what I’m reading. Let’s give students the right to think their own thoughts. And let’s recognise that the daydreamers and doodlers might have a deeper relationship with the texts they read than we will ever know.

Diversifying reading

The lack of diversity in student reading has been an issue for decades. It has, however, received increased focus over the past year, and has been the subject of a major report, Lit in Colour, produced by Penguin Books UK and the think tank The Runnymede Trust. The report, published last week, found that in 2019, fewer than 1% of GCSE English Literature candidates answered a question on a novel written by a writer of colour, and fewer than 7% answered on a novel or play written by a woman. 82% of the students surveyed did not remember ever studying a text by a Black, Asian or minority ethnic writer.

I’m ashamed to say that at my school, our students’ GCSE diet is overwhelmingly white and male. Shakespeare is compulsory, and while there are three women writers on the 19th-century novel list, I have to say the idea of teaching Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice or Frankenstein at GCSE didn’t appeal to any of us. Studying a nineteenth-century novel at GCSE is daunting; being assessed on it through a high-stakes end-of-course assessment is even more so, and we wanted something that was both short and accessible (we’ve done Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for the last few years, although we’re switching to A Christmas Carol this year). Our modern text is An Inspector Calls. So we haven’t opted for any of the texts that would allow us to offer a more diverse range at GCSE. This is partly an issue of resourcing, but also of expertise. We’re teaching texts that we know, for which we have units of work that include extensive PowerPoints, worksheets, contextual information and sample responses, and for which students are able to find study guides and websites to support their learning. And I’d imagine that many schools, quizzed on their text choices for GCSE, would give a similar answer.

Lower down the school, though, it’s different. We have tried really hard over the past few years to increase the levels of challenge in student reading, and to diversify the texts we use. All our Key Stage 3 students have a reading lesson once a fortnight. This isn’t ideal – I’d rather have a little bit of reading every lesson, rather than one chunk once per cycle – but it’s a product of the way our timetable works and I can’t see it changing. These reading lessons used to take place in our lovely school library, and three years ago we put together reading lists for each year group to shadow and support the units we were working on in class. Our Year Seven reading list, for instance, included texts like I Am Malala, Wonder, The Reason I Jump and Ruby Holler; our Year Nine list contained Persepolis, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Safe Area: Goražde and The Way We Live Now. But there were problems. We had copies of all of the texts, and multiple copies of some texts, but not enough. We didn’t have the funds to buy more. We started a Sponsor-a-Book scheme, to allow parents and local businesses to support us. Some came forward, but not many. And then COVID happened; and bubbles happened; and we couldn’t use the library any more.

Patchwork quilt, USA, c. 1885, displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This gave us the chance to go right back to basics and look at Key Stage 3 reading again. We decided pretty quickly that we wanted to replace independent reading with a series of class readers. Our stock cupboards gave us some possibilities, but we knew we’d need more books. We secured enough emergency funding to buy two new sets of class readers for each year group, and set about deciding which books we wanted to introduce.

One decision we made very early on was that we didn’t want to buy any books by white men, no matter how good they were. There are lots of excellent books for this age group written by white men, but frankly there are enough white men on the curriculum anyway and we wanted to do something different. So, all of our new books had to be by women. We’re a boys’ school, and it’s vital that our students explore and experience female perspectives. We also wanted greater cultural diversity. However, we wanted to avoid stereotypes. One of my former students commented that ‘books for boys about ethnic minorities always seem to be about gangs, as though that’s the only thing we’re interested in.’ We also felt very strongly that in thinking about diversity, we also needed to consider those of our students who come from Eastern European backgrounds. The Lit in Colour report recognises that ‘the term BIPOC does not notably include White Ethnic Minorities who are the target of racism, such as Gypsy Roma Travellers or Eastern European migrants, although it is sometimes argued to include these groups.’ A growing number of our students are of Polish and Lithuanian heritage, with others coming from Latvia, Romania, Russia and Moldova. In a constituency that registered the second highest proportion of Leave votes in the 2016 EU referendum, and bordering another constituency with the highest proportion, we are acutely aware of the hostility that many of our students and their families experience.

Some choices were easy. The Other Side of Hope by Beverley Naidoo is a cracking read with lots of pace and tension, and opens students’ eyes to the reality of lives that are torn apart by conflict. Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin has long been a favourite, with its story of the sinister Coram Man and exploration of the lives of orphans in eighteenth-century England. And Geraldine McCaughrean’s Where the World Ends, set on the remote Scottish archipelago of St Kilda, is a brilliant example of historical fiction that offered an intriguing counterpoint to life in lockdown.

Other choices required more research. We struggled to find any novels for this age group by writers of Eastern European origin that focused on the experiences of recent migrants. We did, however, choose Between Shades of Gray by the Lithuanian-American writer Ruta Sepetys. Its story of 15-year-old Lina, who is deported from Lithuania with her mother and brother in 1941 and sent to a labour camp in Siberia, asks readers to consider what keeps us alive when we are faced with the most extreme of circumstances. We also chose Sarah Crossan’s verse novel The Weight of Water, narrated by Kasienka, a Polish girl who arrives in Coventry with her mother in search of a better life. It’s a book about not fitting in and finding your own way, making tough decisions and relying on yourself, and appealed to our Year Eights even though they complained that the cover was ‘a bit girly.’

Our final choice was Hell and High Water, by the Carnegie Award-winning novelist Tanya Landman. It’s the story of Caleb, a young man whose father is transported to the Colonies for a crime he did not commit. As Caleb struggles to clear his father’s name, he becomes entangled in a web of secrets, finding out about the exploitation and injustice that exist in the world around him – and discovering more about himself in the process. It’s a pacy, intriguing novel full of courage and adversity, and a great read for our Year Nines.

We’re not there yet. All of our Key Stage 3 students have read at least one novel by a woman this year (in many cases, two or three). Most, although not all, have read a novel by a writer of colour. We’re about to introduce Iridescent Adolescent, the English and Media Centre’s fantastic anthology of short stories, and we’ve got more writers of colour and more working-class writers. We wanted to get beyond the stereotype that novels addressing themes of ethnic diversity that are suitable for teenage boys are all about gang culture and urban violence, and I think we’ve managed to do that. We’d like more sensitive male protagonists. What we’d really like would be a novel by a young writer from an Eastern European background exploring the experience of recent migrants, so agents and publishers, get cracking.

The other thing I’d say about diversifying your reading in schools: finding suitable novels, following up recommendations and discussing which texts would be most suitable for your students, takes time. Reading is an essential part of CPD for English teachers. Just because reading is something we enjoy and spend part of our spare time doing, it shouldn’t be assumed that we’re willing to do this particular CPD in our own time. Schools need to give students time to read, but they also need to invest in time for their English teachers to read as well.

Secrets, complications, and long lost families

A new series of Long Lost Family started in the UK this week. If you’ve never seen it, its format is easy to explain: members of the public contact the show asking for help in tracing estranged relatives, the show’s researchers track them down, and – if they consent to meeting up, and being filmed – there’s a reunion. It’s a hugely popular show, and I know lots of people love it, but it makes me uneasy. The situations that Long Lost Family focuses on are varied: an absent father, a brother who moved away, an aunt who emigrated and stopped getting in touch. But many of them involve adoption, and that’s where my squeamishness comes from.

There’s no doubt that Long Lost Family does an important job in helping people to search for birth relatives, and in making its audience aware of how such searches can be carried out. In doing so, it honours the importance of family connections, and helps to break down the sense of shame with which adoption was once surrounded. The adoption stories it features centre on people who were adopted during the ‘classic’ era, when adoption was widely seen as something to be kept secret. There was the stigma of illegitimacy, the stigma of being infertile, and the belief that children who were adopted as tiny babies somehow – shockingly – ‘didn’t need to know’. It wasn’t until the passing of the 1976 Adoption Act – described by a journalist in the Daily Mirror as ‘one of the most important pieces of legislation involving children since we stopped sending small boys up chimneys’ – that adopted people had the right to access their records, or even their original birth certificates. Their past, and their parentage, would no longer be a mystery to them. They would, potentially, be able to trace their birth parents, and be reunited with them.

To us nowadays, the idea of denying people information about their own lives seems so fundamentally unjust that it’s hard to believe how controversial this aspect of the 1976 Act was at the time. Yet there were many people who argued against it. Some pointed to the thousands of birth mothers who had relinquished their children in the belief that they would remain anonymous. The agony aunt Marjorie Proops wrote of the ‘terror’ and ‘torture of discovery’ experienced by women who had given up babies for adoption many years previously and gone on to create new lives for themselves – ‘women who have believed for years that their secret was safe and their past forever buried’. The desire to search was also seen by many as ‘ungrateful’ to adoptive parents. One woman interviewed by the Daily Mirror in 1975 was told by a solicitor that she should be ashamed of herself for wanting to know who her birth parents were. There must have been thousands of people who put the feelings of their adoptive families above their own desire to complete the jigsaw of their personal history.

Long Lost Family goes all out to tug at the heartstrings, with soulful piano music and cliffhanger endings to each segment that keep you watching even though you feel slightly icky for doing so. The people who appear on it will all have given their consent, and they will have access to counsellors to help them process the difficult feelings that surround searching and reunion. Many of the searches it carries out don’t actually make it to television, because they are deemed too sensitive or complex for public airing. The issue I have with the programme lies more in the image of adoption that it conveys to the viewing public. As I’ve said before on here, there’s still a widespread belief that adoption involves newborn babies relinquished by women who have no other options. There’s also a sense that reunion is a straightforward happy ending, the natural conclusion to a story of separation. Who wouldn’t want to believe that what is lost can always be found? So in turn, there’s a feeling that search is an inevitable part of being adopted, that all adopted people will one day want to trace their family of origin.

Nowadays, adoption is different. That means that reunion is different, too. For one thing, the whole idea of only finding out the truth about your past when you’re an adult – that scene in the social worker’s office, beloved of so many reunion narratives – simply shouldn’t happen. All adopted children should know, in as age-appropriate a manner as possible, what their story is and why they can no longer live with their birth parents. Many will have ongoing contact with birth relatives, whether via letter or face-to-face, and many will have conscious memories of their lives before adoption. For another, children who have been taken into care as a result of abuse or neglect might find the idea of reunion extremely traumatic. Even if birth parents’ circumstances have changed, the emotions involved will still be incredibly complex. It’s not as simple as sliding that last piece of the puzzle into place.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Brenda Blethyn in Secrets and Lies: awkward.

People who know me well will know that I can bang on for ages about the way adoption is represented in popular culture. One of the most powerful representations of search-and-reunion that I’ve seen is in Mike Leigh’s 1995 film Secrets and Lies. Itscentral character is Cynthia, played by Brenda Blethyn, ‘a sad-looking middle-aged woman’ with a low-skilled, low-paid job making cardboard boxes in a factory. She lives in a shabby rented house, drinks cheap whisky and is permanently on the verge of tears, stuck in a life that nobody would want. And then, one day, she receives a phone call from Hortense, a young woman who has found out that Cynthia is her birth mother. Hortense is an optometrist, an intelligent, middle-class professional who is happy, contented and successful. Her adoptive mother has recently died, and she has decided to seek out her birth family. It initially seems that Cynthia has forgotten all about the daughter she gave up for adoption, but then, as the reality dawns on her, she is ‘horrified and terrified’. She hangs up, and vomits in the kitchen sink. Eventually, she agrees to meet Hortense, but there is another shock in store. For Cynthia is white, and Hortense is black. When Cynthia and Hortense meet, outside a London Underground station, they walk past each other several times before Hortense finally approaches Cynthia. (Cynthia’s shock is heightened by the fact that Blethyn had not met Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who played Hortense, until this point: she did not know that her screen daughter was going to be black until this scene was filmed.) Their first conversation, in a café, is shot in a single take of over seven minutes. They sit uncomfortably, side by side, and the frequent pauses draw attention to their awkwardness. It’s a scene that gives the lie to all those narratives of happy reunions, the jigsaw finally being completed. Leigh’s message is that reunion is not a one-off event: it’s a complicated process, with steps backwards as well as forwards, that needs to be worked at.

I’m aware that it’s often difficult for adoptive parents to talk about the relationship between children and their birth parents without seeming possessive, or defensive, or reluctant to engage. It can seem as if there’s a binary choice involved, as if searching for birth parents necessarily involves a rejection of adoptive parents. I think some adopters do see reunion as something they’d rather not think about, something that’s so far in the future that it might never happen, and that’s wrong. The social worker who did our initial visit nearly seventeen years ago now – an adopted person himself – said that searching and reunion was something that adopters needed to consider right from the beginning of the adoption process. And roots are important. Look at how many people use websites like Ancestry.com to trace their family trees: online genealogy is a multi-million dollar industry. People wouldn’t do this if a sense of their past didn’t matter. I’ve known for years that one side of my family was part-Irish: what I didn’t know, until I started searching online, was that my great-great-great grandfather was one of the hundreds of Irish people who came over from County Mayo during the famine of the mid-1800s to work in the cotton mills of Lancashire. Finding this out gave me a sense of rootedness, a feeling of where I came from. These things matter. Why would we deny them to our children?

The issue of searching and reunion has been made even more complicated, in recent years, by social media and the fact that young people can now do their searching alone, in their room, without telling anyone they’re doing it and talking through the issues it might involve. Our children shouldn’t feel that they have to do this on their own. Reunion is something that adoptive parents need to be prepared for, so that their children know that wanting to search is okay and that they’ll be supported if they want to do it. And it shouldn’t be up to the child to make the first move. As adoptive parents, we need to raise that possibility ourselves.

So I’ll be viewing Long Lost Family with a wary eye, aware that reunion isn’t all hearts and flowers. It’s messy, and painful, and difficult. But I’m not sure any television programme could ever do justice to that.

Teacher Feature: Miss Stretchberry

There are all kinds of metaphors for teaching. ‘You’re not filling a bucket, you’re lighting a fire’, one earnest trainee once assured me (although students do need to Know Stuff, and fires can’t be created from nothing). You’re spinning plates and playing Whack-a-Mole. You’re conducting – possibly an orchestra, possibly a bolt of lightning – and planting acorns that you hope will one day grow into great oak trees. And sometimes, you’re opening locks.

Miss Stretchberry, the teacher in Sharon Creech’s wonderful book Love that Dog, is one of life’s unlockers. The lock that she needs to open is in the heart of Jack, a little boy in her class. Jack is reluctant, and resistant. His class is doing poetry with Miss Stretchberry, and he doesn’t want to engage. Boys don’t write poetry, he reasons. He can’t do it. His brain’s empty. He doesn’t understand the poems that Miss Stretchberry reads in class. Slowly, gradually, Jack starts to come round. He writes a poem about a blue car splattered with mud, speeding down the road, and lets Miss Stretchberry read it, as long as she doesn’t let anyone else see. A few weeks later, he allows her to put two of his poems on the board, as long as she doesn’t put his name on them. And he starts to ask questions about the poems that his class reads. Why does so much depend on the red wheelbarrow and the white chickens? What’s that business about the snowy woods and having miles to go before you sleep?

The genius thing about Love That Dog – a book about a young boy’s feelings about poetry – is that it’s told as a series of poems from Jack to Miss Stretchberry, written throughout the school year. So we see this process of unlocking through Jack’s own words. Here’s what he says about William Blake, on October 24:

I am sorry to say
I did not really understand
the tiger tiger burning bright poem
but at least it sounded good
in my ears.

And here’s what he says on November 6, once he’s allowed Miss Stretchberry to put his poems on the wall:

They look nice
typed up like that
on blue paper
on a yellow board.

(But still don’t tell anyone
who wrote them, okay?)

(And what does anonymous mean?
Is it good?)

But then the barriers come up again. Jack is asked to write about a pet, but he doesn’t have one. He used to have one, but he doesn’t want to write about it. He asks if he can write about a different pet, but to no avail. Eventually, we find out that Jack used to have a dog, a yellow dog called Sky. (If you can read the poem where Jack and his family go to choose a dog from the rescue centre without feeling a bit teary, you’re a monster.) Sky was a friendly, happy, slobbery dog, a waggy-tailed dog who joined in games of football and loved everyone. Jack starts to write abut Sky, inspired by Walter Dean Myers’ poem ‘Love That Boy’, and is so inspired by Walter Dean Myers’ poems that he writes to invite him to visit the school. A couple of weeks before the visit, Jack finally manages to write about what happened to Sky. He was killed, by a blue car splattered with mud, speeding along the road.

It takes Jack a long time to write about Sky. You sense that when he does, it’s as if a weight has been lifted. There’s the huge excitement of Walter Dean Myers’ visit, and the lovely descriptions of his voice:

low and deep and friendly and warm
like it was reaching out and
wrapping us all up
in a big squeeze

And there’s the sense that Miss Stretchberry has unlocked something for Jack: not only a way of expressing his grief and processing his feelings, but a love of poetry, of playing with language and making it his own.

We don’t find out much about Miss Stretchberry, apart from the fact that she’s good at making brownies. But we also find out a lot about her, through the poems that Jack writes to her. She’s patient enough to persist with this unhappy young boy, rather than writing him off. She’s tactful: she doesn’t nag him or hassle him, but he knows that she’s there. She respects his desire for his poems to remain anonymous. She builds his confidence, by getting him to write to Walter Dean Myers rather than doing it herself. She recognises that quiet praise goes much further than a big fanfare.

Love That Dog is dedicated to ‘all the poets and Mr.-and-Ms. Stretchberrys who inspire students every day.’ It’s a gorgeous book. If I were being political, I’d say that every Secretary of State for Education should read it, as a reminder of why poetry is important, and why education is about so much more than preparation for work. I’m sure there’s a lot more that we could put on their reading list, but it’s a start.

Barometers, microscopes and fine-toothed combs

People have lots to say about the adoption process. When we were adopting, I had an unwritten game of Adoption Bingo ticking away in the back on my mind. ‘Ooh, you’ll probably get pregnant now!’ some people would tell me excitedly. Or ‘It’s alright for you – you’re doing it the easy way.’ This latter was usually thrown in my direction when one of my then-pregnant friends or acquaintances was complaining about stretch marks or swollen ankles, and I’d smile through gritted teeth and then go away and mutter to myself in private. People would also ask questions about the process itself, especially the home study. ‘Why do they have to put you through all that?’ they’d want to know. ‘Isn’t it all a bit intrusive?’

The home study is probably the part of the adoption process that generates the most curiosity. It’s easy to see why. During the home study, you have a series of meetings with a social worker whose job is to find out about you as a person and assess your suitability to be an adoptive parent. You will explore just about everything from your own upbringing to the present day: your family relationships, your education, your friendships and your working life. You’ll consider what makes you tick; the experiences and values that are most important to you. You’ll reflect on how you weather difficulties and cope with change. If you’re adopting as a couple, you’ll also think about what binds you together and how you handle disagreements; how you make decisions and support each other; how attuned you are to each other’s emotional needs. You’ll talk about your financial circumstances: how effectively you manage your money, whether you live within your means or run up debts, what impact adoption leave will have on your household income. And you’ll talk about things that are potentially extremely painful: bereavement, loss and previous relationships. Ultimately, your social worker wants to know whether you have what the charity CoramBAAF describes as the ‘resilience, emotional maturity and capacity to parent a troubled child’. It’s tough, and wide-ranging. It feels, at times, as if you’re turning yourself inside out.

Prospective adopters, that’s you on the slide. (Source: Creative Commons)

Why does the home study have to be so intensive? In short: because adoption involves trauma, and if you want to adopt a child, you have to recognise the trauma and loss that that child will have experienced and acknowledge your role in helping them to begin the healing process. All adoption involves trauma, because being separated from your family of origin – and the sights and sounds and smells that you’re surrounded with – is traumatic, and being placed in foster care and getting used to another set of sights and sounds and smells is traumatic, and then moving to another family – your adoptive family – is traumatic again. And that’s even before we start to think about the neglect or abuse that children might have experienced, or about the fact that many children who go on to be adopted experience more than one foster placement. We are really only starting to understand the long-term effects of this trauma. And adoptive parents need to be fully aware of the responsibility they bear for supporting their children, not just in the weeks and months after placement but years into the future.

Today, the charity Adoption UK published its Adoption Barometer, an overview of the state of adoption across the UK. It has called for ring-fenced funding for adoption support, support plans for children that take account of future as well as current needs, and the extension of support for adopted people until the age of at least 26. Adoption is often viewed – by people who know little about it – as an easy solution, as if that’s needed is a loving home for everyone to live happily ever after. In reality, the loving home is only a starting point. Adoptive families need much, much more.

So, prospective adopters do get put under the microscope, and their lives are examined with a fine-toothed comb. But that’s entirely right. We don’t get the stretch marks, and the home study’s never going to leave you with your pelvic floor in tatters (at least, not unless your social worker’s doing something they really shouldn’t be). But it is hard, and we owe it to our children to make it hard.

Teacher Feature: Mr Sugden

I hated PE at school. It was the one subject at which I was truly rubbish. I probably wasn’t that rubbish – I could catch a ball, as long as I knew which direction it was coming from, and one joyful year in primary school I actually got a B+ for PE in my end of year report, to put alongside the smug row of As that I’d got for everything else. But I was bad enough for PE to be something I dreaded, week after week. I read a blog post this week about the anxiety that many students experience in Maths, and could recognise a lot of it. Fortunately, my main Maths teacher at school was the lovely Mr Wilson, who was just about the least anxiety-inducing individual on the planet and got me safely through GCSE to the point where I would never need to do Proper Maths ever again. But PE: no. It wasn’t exercise that was the problem. It was the rules; it was the picking of teams; it was being shouted at for my incompetence by people who hadn’t wanted me on their team and whose team I didn’t want to be on anyway. It was a horror.

All of this brings me to Mr Sugden, the subject of this week’s Teacher Feature. Mr Sugden is the PE teacher in Barry Hines’ 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave, and was immortalised by Brian Glover in the 1969 film Kes. (Fun fact: Glover was a PE teacher himself before he became an actor, and worked with Barry Hines at Longcar Central School in Barnsley). Mr Sugden is the proxy for every hated PE teacher who has ever existed. He stands in for all those petty tyrants who let the best students pick the teams while the weaklings and fat kids shivered miserably on the sidelines; all those sticklers for the rules who forced people to wear discarded kit from Lost Property; all those wannabe FA Cup-winners who thrived on taunting the kids who couldn’t move quickly enough. If Sugden was your PE teacher, your whole week would pivot around that hated lesson. You’d barely sleep the night before, and then you’d wake, gritty-eyed, and drag yourself off to school hoping against hope that something would happen to mean the lesson was cancelled, like a fire drill maybe, or a smallish meteorite landing on the school.

Brian Glover as Mr Sugden, ready for action. (Source: top10films)

Sugden’s lesson isn’t really a lesson at all, because it’s all about him. He’s there in his spotless kit, his socks held up with tape, his boots ‘polished as black and shiny as the bombs used by assassins in comic strips’, his laces tied meticulously. He captains one of the teams and gets first pick of the best players. His team is Manchester United: he is Bobby Charlton. He’s also the commentator, and the ref. He threatens and domineers and takes it all far too seriously. ‘Are you tryin’ to tell me about football?’ he challenges one pupil who dares to question him. He’s let down by his goalie – the reluctant Billy, in too-big borrowed shorts – and spitefully throws the ball at him, knocking him over into the mud. So determined is he to win that he makes the boys play on after the bell, missing their lunches, until the winning goal is scored. Except that it’s his opponents who win, the ball allowed in by Billy.

Sugden definitely gets his revenge. In the changing rooms after the game, he forces Billy into the shower, barring the exit and spraying him first with hot water, then cold. The other boys are uncomfortable. They plead with Sugden to let him go. It’s the kind of behaviour for which Sugden would nowadays, quite rightly, be sacked. Watching the film now, he’s a ridiculous figure. But he’s dangerous, too: the kind of sadist who, in real life, made the school careers of countless children an utter misery.

School PE has changed enormously since the days of Mr Sugden. It needed to. PE teachers are aware of the vital role they play in safeguarding, building confidence and tackling issues of self-image, and in emphasising the importance of exercise as well as competitive sport. Nowadays, too, there are brilliant grassroots initiatives to get people exercising. I am a massive fan of both Couch to 5k and parkrun: parkrun always has a volunteer tailwalker so that nobody ever needs to be last, and celebrates the fact that in the years since its launch, the average time that participants take to complete their 5k has actually increased. Yet on the women’s running groups I follow on Facebook, there are regular posts from people who, for years, have seen themselves as rubbish at sport, who struggle to exercise in public, and for whom putting on a pair of trainers will always bring back memories of shame and failure. The real-life Mr Sugdens – and the Mrs Sugdens, and Miss Sugdens – did a lot of damage.