The school inspector from Newcastle

Six-minute story

The school inspector from Newcastle

The letter arrived out of the blue. An inspector was coming down from Newcastle to look at English teaching in the sixth form. We were given plenty of notice but then we realised that the date that the inspector had chosen for her visit was a Wednesday. We wrote and explained; on any other day of the week she could visit English lessons with sixth-formers, but not on Wednesdays.

Her next letter confirmed the day of her visit which was still fixed on the Wednesday. At the outset the idea of being subject to an inspection had not been a welcome one. Now we were upset. A quick calculation on the back of an envelope put the cost of a return journey and an overnight stay – we were in Dagenham, East London – as equivalent to the English department’s annual expenditure on books. Now we were angry. Who did this woman think she was, coming to visit our department for no apparently good reason?

It was agreed that she would visit lessons with older forms. One would be my top set in Year Eleven, a group of capable boys who had already passed their English language exam a year early. Now we were concentrating on English literature. I thought it might be fun to tackle Peter Porter’s poem, Sex and the Over-Forties. There was no doubt in my youthful teacher’s mind that our visitor would be over forty.

Like many other students faced with an inspector, this lot rose to the occasion. I had not prepared them for the inspection, but like any good students they had grasped the situation and decided that, for the time being, they were on their teacher’s side.

Peter Porter’s poem mocks the under-forties for their silly, imagined, immature ideas about the sex life of the over-forties. The poem begins:

It’s too good for them,
they look so unattractive undressed –
let them read paperbacks!

and ends with these words:

back to the pictures in the drawer,
back to back, tonight and every night.

Conscious of our visitor sitting to one side of the class, the boys milked the poem of every single hint or suggestion, asking me simple, unnecessary questions with one eye all the time on the inspector who was clearly over forty. To the boys she would have resembled somebody’s well-dressed grandmother.

I brought the lesson to a close a few moments early and asked our visitor if she would like to say a few words. She stood up with a gracious smile and took my place in front of the class. It was clear now that she was going to say something agreeable, despite the unspoken teasing and mockery that we had heaped upon her.

She thanked the class for allowing her to watch them at work. The lesson had been most enjoyable and, what had impressed her most was that these fifteen-year-olds had produced work that would have done credit to a class of seventeen-year-olds, preparing for an A-level examination.

And really, she had been a class act, not once batting an eye-lid as we tried to wind her up, and finding well-meant and helpful compliments for all of us. Of course we accepted her encouraging words and of course by doing so we acknowledged that she had turned the tables on us rather neatly.

What was the purpose of the inspector’s visit?
What was the teacher’s purpose as he prepared the lesson?

Which of the two adults involved do you think won this confrontation? Could you explain with reference to their intentions and the outcomes of the lesson?

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