Hey, Ofsted

Thirty-two years ago, it was the summer of 1989. I’d just finished my GCSEs. Other people kept muttering that I should find a job for the summer, but Merseyside in the 1980s wasn’t exactly overflowing with summer jobs, and in any case I had other ideas. I was alternating between going for long solo walks – pacing around the hot summer streets of Newton-le-Willows, the air thick with the scent of goldenrod and willow herb – and reading. I was due to start my A levels in September and we’d been told that we should read as much as possible over the summer. We had an induction session where we had to write down the last three books we’d read, and cross off anything that was one of our GCSE set texts. I wasn’t completely sure what I should read, but I did know that teenage fiction and pony books wouldn’t pass muster. I’d read a review of David Lodge’s novel Nice Work in the paper, and thought it sounded interesting. I bought a copy of it from WH Smith in Warrington and read it over the course of about four days, and discovered from it that there was the possibility of doing English at university, something I’d never actually thought about before but which started to take hold in my mind, that long summer, in a way that nothing else ever had.

All in all, it’s just a … (Source: Creative Commons)

One of the central characters in Nice Work was a lecturer called Robyn Penrose. At one point in the novel, she mused on what it would be like to have never read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, and then reflected that there must be many thousands of reasonably well-educated people who had never read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, who had never shivered at Lowood with Jane or throbbed in the arms of Heathcliff with Cathy. I’d heard of the Brontës, but what I knew of them came largely from Kate Bush singing about the wily, windy moors. There was a gap in my knowledge and it seemed to me that reading Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre was something I needed to do. I didn’t know it yet, but I was on the edge of something big.

I bought a Penguin Classics copy of Wuthering Heights, with purple-streaked heather moors on the cover and an introduction by someone called David Daiches. I made myself read the introduction, even though it looked complicated. I found out about the Brontës, about the sisters who died so young and the ones who survived, and was intrigued by strange crabby Emily who strode across Yorkshire and didn’t give a toss about anyone. I devoured Wuthering Heights, and then I read Jane Eyre, and between them the Brontës opened up spaces in my head that I didn’t know existed before.

I raided the local library and pored over biographies, dusty-looking books from the non-fiction section that hadn’t been borrowed in years. These books made no concessions to teenage me. I needed to reach up and find my own footholds. I wasn’t sure what to do with all this stuff I was learning about. It was a huge, absorbing mass of ideas and I couldn’t quite make it fit in with the rest of my life. I had a vague sense that my friends wouldn’t know what to make of any of this, and so I didn’t tell them. It felt like dangerous knowledge, all these things I was finding out about these three strange sisters and their slightly embarrassing brother, up there in the parsonage. It was leading me into alien territory, out there on the other side of the Pennines. Empty moorland acres and twittering skylarks and trees sculpted by the wind. I squared my shoulders and trudged on into the unknown.

By the time sixth form started, I was reading Villette. It felt like the biggest book I’d ever read. Not just in itself – six hundred densely printed pages – but in its honesty, its unwillingness to make concessions. I was possessed by Lucy Snowe’s lonely journey to Brussels, her awkward existence at Madame Beck’s pensionnat and her emerging friendship with the equally spiky Paul Emanuel. I tucked my copy into my schoolbag with my French textbook and my History notes, and read it in the library when I should have been learning about the Wars of the Roses. Walking home from school, I played out conversations in my head – imaginary university interviews with lecturers who’d read more than I could ever imagine – about why the Brontës were so important and why Villette was so much better than Jane Eyre.

Learning doesn’t just take place within a classroom. That summer, the summer of 1989, changed my life, and it happened because I had the freedom to spend three months lost in books, going for walks, and thinking.

Horses, when they are young, benefit from being turned out to graze and explore. There are things that they need to learn, but they also need time to just be a horse.

There’s a lot that’s wrong with Amanda Spielman’s announcement that students in Year 11 and 13 shouldn’t be given study leave this summer, but one of the most important is that it ignores the fact that young people – especially after a deeply traumatic year – need to be given time to be themselves. They need to mooch around and pursue their own interests; they need to hang out with friends and spend time on their own. Some will be out earning money; some will have other responsibilities. Some might still need the support of school, and it’s important that this support is there, for all manner of reasons. But what none of them need is to be in a hot stuffy classroom, pursuing someone else’s idea of catch-up. Let them be, and let them breathe.

In the beginning

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad. It’s September 1987, the first week of the new school year, and we’re doing Shakespeare. We’re allowed to do Shakespeare because we’re in the top set. It gives us a sense of importance, of privilege: we square our shoulders and underline our headings and brace ourselves for the task ahead. There are two top sets, one in each half of the year, and the other one is doing Twelfth Night. We’re doing The Merchant of Venice. We’re in Mrs Ferns’ class. I’ve never had her before, but my friend Catherine has, and says you don’t want to get on the wrong side of her. Mrs Ferns has half-moon spectacles that she will lower occasionally, peering over the top of them and fixing some poor unfortunate with a beady glare. She keeps singling me out to answer questions, and for a while I think she’s picking on me, until my mum says that she’s probably just trying to test me out. Then I start putting my hand up more often, and she moves on to someone else.

It seems a bit weird, this Shakespeare business. My impression of studying Shakespeare has been formed by Adrian Mole, who writes in his diary of ‘translating Shakespeare into modern English.’ It takes us a while to get Salarino and Solanio sorted out, and we whinge about why it didn’t occur to him to choose names that were a bit easier to distinguish. We suspect that Mrs Ferns is playing mind games, sometimes, when she asks us to interpret what kind of language Shakespeare has used, why he’s used this particular word and what it might suggest. We complain that we’re reading too much into it. (Reading too much into it: that thing that every English teacher will be accused of, at some point. Surely Shakespeare didn’t mean to use all those metaphors and things?) But we’re a biddable class, and we do our homework diligently. We’re doing this new qualification, the GCSE, and know that it’s important to work hard right from the start: we’ll be doing coursework soon, and it’ll go towards our final grades. Shakespeare is all part of this. He’ll help us to do well.

In Venice, things are afoot. Antonio is borrowing money from Shylock because his friend Bassanio wants to marry a woman called Portia, who lives in Belmont. We’re not quite sure why he needs money to do this (new clothes? hiring a carriage?) or why Antonio is getting himself in debt for him. Mrs Ferns tells us that Antonio is sometimes played ‘a bit queer’, and because it’s 1987, nobody thinks to pull her up on this, although I know it’s a comment that at least one of my classmates still remembers over thirty years later, citing it as one of the things – the slow drip-drip of ingrained thoughtlessness and prejudice – that made him feel different, and isolated, without any hope of ever fitting in. Mrs Ferns also tells us about the roots of anti-Semitism, and about stereotypes of Jewishness. We think of Shylock in his gaberdine, a bogeyman, another outsider, pleading for acceptance. If you prick us, do we not bleed? In Belmont, the Prince of Morocco chooses the wrong casket, and learns that all that glisters is not gold: the Prince of Aragon, not wanting to opt for what many men desire, picks the silver, and is rewarded with the portrait of a blinking idiot. We know, from long-ago fairytales, that both of them were obviously misguided, that the third casket, the least special, is the right one to pick. But the story is trying to teach us something, as well as to entertain us, and so we let it.

There is news on the Rialto. Antonio’s ships have run aground on the Goodwin Sands: immediately after Bassanio claims Portia as his, he hears that his friend’s ventures have failed. All the riches of Tripoli, of Mexico, of Barbary and India, all lost. We picture silks and spices, rich brocades and woven cloths, all floating on the sea or sunk at the bottom of the English Channel. None of us has ever been to Venice. We know it’s in Italy, and that the streets are canals filled with gondolas, but that’s about it. We know that the Rialto is a bridge, but not what it looks like. We imagine somewhere busy and bustling, alive with colours, the scents of distant lands. Shylock is ready to exact his bond, and Portia puts on her disguise, ready to make her speech. The quality of mercy is not strained: It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath … Mrs Ferns makes us learn it off by heart, and I can still remember it even now, reciting it as my party piece whenever my students complain about having to learn quotations.

Our GCSE coursework is to write the front page of a newspaper, reporting on the trial. I have an idea of what I want to write but can’t make it work. I don’t know how to get the sentences to sound right. I get 16 out of 20, and ‘Good’ in red biro, but I don’t know why I got 16 out of 20, or how I could have got 17 or even 18. That wasn’t how schools worked, then. Today we’d have been given assessment criteria and mark schemes; we’d have been shown examples of what a good piece of work looked like and had the chance to get feedback on a draft of our work before having a go at the finished version. But it’s 1987, so we accept what we’ve got, and move on to our piece of work, on the War Poets, where we do even more reading-things-into-things and where our answers never seem to match up to the ones in Mrs Ferns’ head.

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We tried to go to Venice in 2000, but there was an air traffic control strike in Italy and all the planes were grounded. Then life got in the way, as life does, and we didn’t try again until 2016. This time, we made it. It was February half-term, the week after the Carnevale, and we arrived in a misty Cannaregio towing our suitcases and hardly believing we were here. Venice! But backstreet Venice, away from the tourist hubs. Humpbacked bridges and buildings scarred with graffiti and patched with damp. Elderly men and women with wheeled shopping trollies and small dogs, going about their daily business. I remembered something I’d read in a biography of Edith Wharton, about how the interesting places were always to the side of the important monuments, hidden away.

And then we were at the Rialto. Covered in scaffolding, but still, the Rialto! Shylock wouldn’t have recognised it. The silks and brocades were cheap scarves; the spices were sachets of dried herbs for making different types of pasta sauce. There was Murano glass and fake designer handbags and bottles of olive oil. The bridge sloped under my feet and I stood and bounced, absorbing it through my soles. This was the Rialto and this was Venice and in some ways, this was where it all began. I thought of Mrs Ferns’ lessons and of everything that had happened since, and the people flowed past me on either side, oblivious.