There were three wonderful teachers in my life when I was little. I’ve never forgotten them. They – and the school – helped to inspire my children’s story St Cuthbert’s Wild School for Boys. And now, 35 years later, I’ve seen them all again…
But let’s go back. It’s 1977, and so far I’ve had a grey school life at a tough and gritty Nottingham primary school, without a blade of grass (or so it feels). We move house, and now my sister and I arrive – aged 8 and 9 – at Edwalton. Terrified, and clutching our mum, we get off the bus and walk towards the gates. What’s waiting for us in there? So far, school means only the joyless and slightly fearful place we’ve come from.
As we walk in, I see in front of me (and can see now…) a blonde girl in a grey duffle coat. She’s sewn big white clouds on to the back. Hmm I think. This is new… It seems a good sign. And it is a good sign, because by the end of that first week, I simply cannot believe the school life I am now in.
In the classroom, we do beautiful things like practice italic handwriting with ink pens, and we’re allowed to give each piece of work a border that we can decorate how we want! I love making my work special like this.
Outside, there’s a big playing field where we can run and play. It feels quiet and peaceful in the corners. There’s a wood next to the school! You get in through a wooden gate and we’re going to learn all about nature in there, and do maths and English and lots of other things! And there are animals at the school – chickens, horses, a goat, sheep! We’re going to be looking after them, studying them! And…
What followed were the most wonderful, rich, colourful, learning-full, thriving years that I can imagine anyone having at a school. Yes Edwalton was in a different environment – a greener, more suburban part of Nottingham – but it was still a very mixed, local state primary school, with its fair share of social problems. The real reason for how different it felt was the Head and the teachers and the learning culture they created.
Mr Ball was at that time the the youngest ever Head in Nottingham. He was relaxed and fun. He had his own passions and interests which he brought into school: his dogs, which we loved; cricket and rounders, which we all learnt (and which, on sunny days, he would sometimes stop lessons to play – and I still remember the joy of that spontaneity); politics, which we caught sight of now and then, like when the school TV remained on all day for the general elections; and, by far the biggest one, nature and the natural world.
Far from getting in the way of our education, these personal interests and passions transferred to us, and made Mr Ball real and inspiring. Look they seemed to say, this is what it means to be an adult: be interested! Find what you like to do! Be alive!
And then there was My Jay – tall and with a moustache – my teacher in Year 5. He taught us how to make angels out of clay; helped us to join a bank and save money; and, most importantly, told us wonderful stories and inspired us to do the same.
And finally, gentle, kind, encouraging Mr Wright. He was in charge of The Hut: a wooden classroom in the play ground where everyone went for a year to learn. And what a magical and yet real year that was! Mr Wright knew about the woods – the animals, birds, insects and everything in nature – and he quietly passed all this across to us. We had lessons in the woods – measuring trees, watching wildlife, observing changes, writing stories and poems. We hatched chicks in an incubator and looked after them as they grew. We saw our sheep become pregnant and have a lamb. We knew there was an owl who came at night, and sometimes a fox. We looked at tiny creatures through a microscope. We grew flowers and vegetables. And we documented and calculated and wrote creatively and informatively about all of this, and we loved it.
Looking back, the amazing education these and other teachers gave us did several things: 1) it included and valued the child – us! – our needs, interests, abilities, strengths and difficulties in life. 2) It embraced the importance of being outdoors and in the natural world, both for the sake of imagination and wonder and caring for nature, but also because, quite simply and pragmatically, learning through experience works: it’s a better, deeper, richer learning. And finally 3) it provided this for all children from different backgrounds for free, rather than only for those who could pay for it, and our joint experience was better, richer and more collaborative because of it.
On top of all this, the teachers then gave us the space, freedom and responsibility to learn and get on with it. And in the late 1970’s at Edwalton, we really did.
35 years went by. I moved onto secondary school, sixth form and then left Nottingham for good. And though I never saw any of those teachers again, the rich experiences and learning stayed with me and eventually shaped the work I do and the things I write about.
And then, one day, an email from Mr Ball: he’d heard about my story and wanted to get in touch. The local History Society was hosting an evening at the school and Mr Wright would be speaking about Edwalton. Other teachers would be there. Would I be interested to come?
Of course I would!
And what the school looked like, felt like, after 35 years, is for another time… But the chance to thank my three teachers face to face and to tell them this: what you gave was invaluable, not just to me and other children, but also to education, because you showed what learning for all children could be. And now, more than ever, the education world needs to remember that. I was not going to miss that chance.
So thank you – so very much – Mr Ball, Mr Wright and Mr Jay.
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