Time was moving on, and Derek’s downsizing was becoming a source of stress. Much as he protested, he knew he would have to return to a full-time job, and soon.
‘All that education I received! And look at me – no good to anyone,’ he protested one morning.
‘Well, you’re good enough to me, darling’, Mrs O’Keefe murmured as she caked her eyebrows in mascara. This lifted Derek momentarily.
‘Now, bloody well go and get a job,’ she continued.
Derek allowed himself the morning to peruse the TES website, the Guardian Education and even his Twitter feed. Nothing that took his eye. But that very afternoon, to his rescue (and surprise) came Mrs Fairweather, now executive headteacher of the Park Ridge Academy Trust.
‘Derek, we will need a temporary principal to take over one of our outstanding academies in the city centre. I’ve arranged a month-long handover, then it’s yours for a year whilst the outstanding principal goes off as a school’s commissioner. He’s been seconded by the DfE’
‘OK, that sounds great, Mrs Fairweather. What’s his name?
‘Mr Mann. He’s a genius.’
This seemed perfect. He had a free hit, so to speak. A few months in an outstanding school to find his feet again. And the money would be good (well, he assumed it would be – Derek being Derek, he’d forgotten to ask).
Derek arrived at the school at the beginning of the summer term, the air fresh with blossom and freshly cut grass. The ten-foot perimeter fence topped with barbed-wire coping could not deflect away the optimism he felt. Incidentally, the fence was littered with banners proclaiming various school successes, including one curious one announcing, ‘Nominee for the Emirates Airlines Global Educational Contribution to World Peace.’
‘Blimey,’ thought Derek. ‘Hope I’m not taking over from Barack Obama.’
Once he’d fought his way through at least three levels of signing, counter-signing, disclaimers and photographs, fobs, locks and questioning, he tried unsuccessfully to locate Mr Mann. It was like trying to find Lord Lucan. Finally, two hours later, did he finally come face to face with the headteacher he was to replace.
‘Morning, Mr Mann. Lovely school you’ve got here.’
‘Safe. Very safe. And peaceful. Don’t let anyone in, unless they’re quiet. No parents allowed. Wouldn’t have pupils either if I could get away with it. Hope you’ll keep it that way.’
Now Derek loved his smart uniform and quiet corridors, but this guy was in a different league. He listened in awe as he was briefed on various policies, mostly designed to restrict the movement of anyone. Pupils were not allowed bags, equipment, coats or even hats.
‘Too dangerous. And encourages them to muck around.’
Parents were not allowed past the perimeter fence. They had one meeting on site per year.
‘All feckless round here. Useless. Better keeping them out. Gives the kids a chance to get some standards drummed into them.’ Mr Mann meant business.
Derek was stunned. He’d heard of zero tolerance but this was sub-zero. This was Siberian sub-zero. And yet. The school had amazing results, some of the best in the country. It was regarded as a trail-blazer. This perked him up a little.
‘I’ve heard about your amazing curriculum though – you must be so proud of it!.’
Mr Mann glared at him.
‘Results, not curriculum. We don’t do fluffy crap here, Derek. Reading, writing and mathematics, mate.’
‘What, no music, or drama. Surely PE?’
‘Don’t believe in it. Far too noisy. Sends them too high. No, this is a peaceful school because the children are studying hard. This is the message that we need to give to prepare them for the world that awaits.’
‘What, that they should be quiet?’ Derek was a little confused.
‘Exactly. Did you not see our award? We’re a global leader in peace education.’
‘So you must be big on environmental education then. Greta Thunberg and all that?!’
Mr Mann looked at him with utter contempt.
‘Derek, please understand that this school is about standards, not hippy truanting. We’re not here to ‘change the world’, we’re here to inculcate some standards into some of most disadvantaged children in the country. That’s why we won the Pupil Premium Progress Awards in 2015.’
Derek felt a bit silly. Really, he was in a state of shock, trying to assimilate everything. He knew educational reforms had led to some strange anomalies, but this? No PE? He thought he’d better ask some of the other staff to see if this was all true.
He first met a kindly woman in the office. She was sure he’d be happy here, but did admit that Mr Mann ‘did have his ways.’
In the oppressively silent corridors, he came across a teaching assistant who scurried past. ‘I’ll have a longer chat to you later, but I have to be up in Year 5 for an intervention. Oh no, I’ve just broken our ‘No-Talking in the Corridor’ policy – please don’t say anything to Mr Mann!’
And then a teacher in the staff room, buried in a pile of blue books.
‘I love working here because it’s so peaceful. And we get to teach good, quiet kids too. Did you know that all the others get asked to leave? Hope you keep that policy going when Cole is away.’
Derek liked the sound of this. He didn’t fancy a year of dealing with discipline problems. And no parents to worry about too! Despite its strangeness, Derek was warming to the task. That evening, he related everything to his wife. She was unimpressed.
‘You should find out where the other kids go. That’s really not fair to the rest of schools in the area. Have you not heard of off-rolling?’
Off-rolling? Derek thought that meant taking his 4×4 across the fields during their caravan holidays. Well, in the old days before they downsized. Now he had his S40 which kept breaking down.
Maybe Mrs O’Keefe had a point (she usually did) but this job, this easy job with good money (oh, I really need to ask Mrs Fairweather about that) came above any principles.
The time came for his final handover meeting with Mr Mann later that month.
He actually smiled.
‘Right, Derek. I’m off to the Big Smoke to the Standards Unit down there. They really want me to roll-out my Peaceful School initiative across the country. I hope the school will be left in safe hands!’
The smile had gone.
And Mr Cole Mann was off.
At first, Derek noticed very little change. But as the weeks went on, he was powerless to reduce the noise increasing. It just happened. Within three months, there was giggling on the corridor and chatter in the classrooms. He even acquiesced to a talent show (watched by delighted parents). Staff were unimpressed.
By Christmas, predictions for the following year’s exams were down 10%. He knew Mrs Fairweather would be on the phone soon, but he just couldn’t stop it.
He did keep his eye on the uniform standards though.
The weeks ticked by. Mr Mann never did return, his talent too precocious for the DfE to ignore. His job was advertised, but Derek was asked not to apply. He got a lovely letter of thanks, noting his ‘noble attempts to follow in such big footsteps’ and, yes, the money was pretty good, it has to be said. He even got a small bonus, despite not getting anywhere near his performance management objectives.
At home, he was rejuvenated, endlessly playing over the pupils’ achievements and development.
‘And this morning! Well, we had thirty Y6 pupils, and they had organised the tournament themselves, yes themselves, and were setting out all the equipment, and they actually booked a referee too…’
‘Derek!’ He was cut off in full flow.
Wearily, Mrs O’Keefe continued.
‘Just give it a rest. Could we just have a bit of peace around here?’