This is another chapter from my book. It tells the inside story of teaching and Headship. It tells the story of how to become outstanding – the highs and lows.
Chapter 6 – PSHE and drugs
I was a young teacher in my second year of teaching. The current Headteacher Mr Walton had decided that the field should be out of bounds. The wet weather had created such muddy conditions that the classrooms and corridors were becoming caked with mud. He informed the staff that anyone walking on the grass would be caned. He was hoping this deterrent would solve the problem.
He hadn’t reckoned with Terry. He was a young student from the new comprehensive intake who had been a problem from the start and was no respecter of rules. Indeed it appeared that Terry regarded rules as a challenge. He earned the respect of his fellow students by flouting rules with blatant disdain.
Terry was the perennial thorn in the side of the school. He was loud, aggressive, rude and surly. He disrupted lessons, picked fights and openly defied everyone and everything.
I was walking down the corridor when I was asked by the Head to assist with the apprehension of young Terry. He had been brought to the Head for flagrantly walking on the grass and when he had ascertained his fate he had promptly got up and run away. This was not playing the game. The Head was used to Grammar School boys. They took their punishment like a man. They didn’t run away!
We went hunting for Terry.
Soon Terry was found. But Terry refused to come quietly and what followed is indelibly imprinted in my mind.
Two burly male teachers marched Terry down the corridor to the Head’s study. Terry was screaming and struggling. When he started kicking out at the two staff two other male staff grabbed his ankles and lifted him off the ground. He was carried headfirst, screaming and writhing along the corridor and he was manhandled into the study. I followed in the wake.
By this time the Head had become angry. His authority had been challenged. What originally was one stripe was now six. He intended to make an example of Terry.
The four male staff had to drag Terry to the desk and physically restrain him by all four limbs; each taking an ankle or wrist and tugging so that Terry was pinned across the desk like a frog awaiting dissection. All the while Terry continued to shriek and struggle to his utmost. He certainly had a florid vocabulary for a thirteen year old.
The Head retreated to the other side of the room and then ran, jumped in the air and brought the cane swishing through the air with all the force he could muster.
Terry screamed and went taut in some great spasm. Then he resumed his struggles in a futile desperate attempt to free himself from the four staff.
The Head repeated this five more times.
At the end of it they let Terry loose and he stood in the doorway with knotted fists and purple face swearing at the six of us.
Some say that caning does no harm. That it is a deterrent. The blood running down Terry’s legs from the split skin on his bum was not the harm. In my opinion the hatred and loathing in his mind were the injuries that would leave the everlasting scars. They wouldn’t heal.
As for deterrence – it was the same string of surly, defiant individuals who were paraded for beatings every week.
I’d never heard of PSE as it was then called. I was a biology teacher.
In the normal course of my lessons I came to the section on reproduction and as a natural part of the lesson opened up various discussions on sex and rounded it off with a lesson on contraception and sexually transmitted disease.
The lads seemed to appreciate it. Some of the questions were obviously geared to attempting to cause me embarrassment but when I fielded them honestly they realised that I wasn’t going to get phased by it. It was obvious to me that there was a huge level of ignorance and interest and a great need.
This was before the age of the internet, in a post-60s culture which still had vestiges of 1950s prim prudishness. Information and contraception were not easy to get hold of. Sex was not freely discussed. They were desperate for frank discussion and advice and very receptive.
I thought no more of it.
Mike my head of department, who wandered in and out of my lab while I was teaching, had noted that I was doing sex education with the lads.
‘Does the Head know you’re doing this?’ He asked.
‘No,’ I replied slightly baffled. Why should the Head know? It was only sex education. Most schools in the country were doing it.
‘I think you’d better check with him first.’
I went and checked. He said NO.
Introducing sex education was a major event. We had to get a majority of the staff in favour of such a controversial venture. He agreed to put it on the staff meeting agenda for discussion.
The staff meeting agenda went up and sure enough there it was at number 11.
We had our meeting and went through seven items.
‘Ah well’ I thought. ‘It will be featured next time.’
The next staff meeting came round and it was now number 14. Seemingly lots of really important issues had come up and required urgent attention.
The following staff meeting had fifteen items but sex education was not one of them.
I drew up a list of staff and went round to discuss sex education with all of them one by one. I even included both deputies. By the end of a week I had the agreement of every member of staff with only two abstentions, both of whom were catholics who abstained on religious grounds.
I went back to the Head and presented him with the fait accompli. I softened it by explaining that it was obvious that there wasn’t time to discuss it at staff meetings with all the pressing issues that had to be addressed. The crux of the matter was that the staff were almost unanimous.
It would need governors’ approval. I would have to take my case to the governing body.
I produced a presentation and amazingly won the approval of the governing body.
At my next meeting with the Head I may have inadvertently had a slight air of triumph.
That was soon put to rest.
The governors were only the first obstacle; the whole idea had to be put to parents. It was obvious from his attitude that he felt confident the parents would disapprove.
Unfazed I drafted a letter to parents with a reply slip and had it sent out.
Miraculously there were no objections and most gave their approval.
I once again returned to the Head’s study.
‘You know, Chris,’ he said thoughtfully, finally admitting defeat. ‘These lads are red blooded Englishmen. You can’t tell me that they can watch films of young girls masturbating without being affected.’
I sat there staring at him.
It was obvious that he had not read any of my information and had his own idea of what was involved in sex education. In his mind sex education equated with pornography. His mind had gone down the line that I would be showing pornographic films to the boys.
It had taken me a year and a half to get approval. I realised, in that moment, that a little bit more verbal explanation might have saved a lot of effort.
PSE (or PSHE, PSHCE, SPACE – whatever you want to call it) is the most important subject in the curriculum. It is not a subject at all. It is life.
PSHE should never be a subject that leads to an examination; that would demean it and prevent the freewheeling’, far-ranging potential that each lesson should have.
PSHE should always be taught in a room that is conducive to creating close relationship with students in an environment that promotes discussion and interaction.
PSHE is the most difficult subject to ‘teach’ and can only be successfully taught by teachers with the right sensitivities, skills and attitude. It is as specialist a subject as astrophysics. The vast majority of staff are entirely unsuited to teach PSHE.
As the most important subject in the curriculum it should be given pride of place. Time-tablers should start by putting the PSHE lessons in first, in prime times, early morning, and in suitable rooms. Then they can move on to the lesser subjects such as maths, music, French, science, English and the rest.
PSHE specialist staff should be carefully identified and fully trained.
If there are no suitable staff an urgent recruitment should take place.
Why do I think it is so important when most schools give it such short shrift and even students do not value it?
Most subjects deal with information and skills pertaining to specific interests and careers. PSHE deals with life and death. It is fundamental to how people live their lives, form relationships, involve themselves with the big issues and develop the skills, qualities and sensibilities to lead a fulfilled, productive life. It is real.
As a PSHE teacher I have dealt with health, cancer, death, heart disease, bereavement, relationships, divorce, work, reality, reasons for living, depression, suicide, purpose of life, spirituality, climatic issues, love, fascism, politics, diet, human behaviour, war, nuclear disaster, pollution, extinction, intelligence, cruelty, drugs, alcohol, smoking, friendships, parenthood, contraception, STDs, bear-baiting, racism, abortions, sexism, revision, mortgages, salaries and expenses, managing anger, pornography, female pornography, psychology and the reasons we humans do all the weird, vicious and wonderful things we do.
My lessons were based on tolerance, respect, empathy, responsibility, awe and wonder.
PSHE deals with the reality of life and helps people find their way to a meaningful existence, find harmony and balance and explore why we do the things we do in the hope we can do better.
PSHE helps mend broken people.
We are all damaged by life.
Many of our young people are scarred from bereavement, abuse, abandonment, divorce and horrid experiences. PSHE lets them know that they are not alone and helps guide them through the difficult stuff. It gives them succour and support.
Sadly I have witnessed PSHE taught by idiots who do not understand what they are doing.
I have seen it time-tabled for last lesson Friday. I have seen it reduced to the ‘worksheets of death’. I have seen it reduced to a series of instructions. I have seen it time-tabled in laboratories. I have seen it ‘bought in’ with a series of dire outside ‘experts’ who have no relationship with the students.
PSHE should be illuminating.
It is the heart of the school.
As a PSHE teacher you don’t know what is going to happen. You fly by the seat of your pants. You get kids in a circle to introduce a topic. It can veer off in any direction – from raising a family to aging and dying – from revision to the meaning of life – from why we developed religion to infinity and parallel universes. People talk about their emotions, desires and feelings and open themselves up. A PSHE teacher shares of their own experience; they give of themselves.
A PSHE teacher has no hidden agenda. Their job is not to stop people having sex, taking drugs, smoking or drinking. A PSHE teachers helps students explore the issues and arrive at their own personal decisions. A PSHE teacher plays devil’s advocate, raises things to consider, and allows investigation of all sides of an argument. They take no sides, have no points of view and are there to expertly facilitate exploration.
By ‘teaching’ PSHE you learn much about yourself and your own views and learn so much more from the students.
Other teachers have often said that they teach these elements in their subject areas.
That might be true.
They teach these elements – PSHE ‘explores’ them.
I’d been teaching more and more sexual, health and social issues in the course of my biology teaching and was pushing for a separate PSE subject to be included on the curriculum.
The pressure came from outside. In the late 1970s the government was pushing it.
A new PSE programme was introduced and I got to teach the sex and health modules. Another member of staff, who had no real interest or knowledge, was placed in charge on a high promotion scale. Ho hum.
As a Headteacher my principle job was to ensure that the heart of the school was sound. PSHE was the heart of the school. It fitted with SEAL, restorative practice, Student Voice and a healthy pastoral support system to deliver care and remedial action.
To deliver these extraordinarily important areas you needed extraordinary people. We were lucky. I had found a unique person to deliver PSHE, champion SEAL, Student Voice and restorative practice. Rebecca’s energy pervaded the school and the relationships with students were beyond anything I had ever personally seen. She was a whirlwind of risk taking energy. The only downside was that her huge success and popularity with students sparked jealousy among other staff. They resented her appeal. I think she made them feel inept. She is destined to become the most inspiring Headteacher there will ever be.
The caring aspects of education were always priority number one. The curriculum and teaching and learning were way down the list. If you had the ethos of the school functioning maximally the attainment would automatically follow.
As a Head I continued to teach PSHE, I appointed highly capable staff to teach the strands I could not cover and I refused to allow any old tutor to get involved. They were invariably not merely useless, they were often destructive. PSHE requires specialist staff.
I introduced circle time, following a lot of pressure from two very enthusiastic staff in Ali and Kathy, and I personally oversaw rooming. PSHE had to be in the right environment. I saw to it that it was.
All too often I have seen schools pay lip service to PSHE. They bung any old teacher in who happens to be free. They produce mind-numbing worksheets, outside speakers who have no relationship with the kids, watch DVDs and do the whole thing in halls or inappropriate classrooms.
A school without a brilliant PSHE programme is heartless. Their ethos is a meaningless set of words. Their curriculum lacks a soul.
There are two areas of PSHE that need to be developed more: spirituality and politics. I remain disgusted by the way educational institutions are allowed to teach religion in a partisan manner that verges on indoctrination. In my view religion should be looked at and discussed dispassionately with as much credence to atheism and antitheism as religion. Ironically the USA does it the other way round. They ban religion from being taught in state schools but study politics. That seems healthier to me. However I believe PSHE offers a neutral ground to discuss and explore without fear of indoctrination. As for politics I am equally appalled. Very little political education goes on in schools. Yet for me it is one of the most fundamental things. How can you have a democracy without a full understanding of politics? How can people vote if they are ignorant about the different political parties? Why are we so surprised at voter apathy when we keep people so ignorant? PSHE should be a vehicle to understand and discuss the underlying philosophies of political parties. This can be done, in much the same way as religion, without partisan views being introduced.
Most people now accept the need in schools to cover aspects such as sex, drugs, health, environment and careers. There are still sensational headlines from time to time as prudish reactionaries try to impose their mainly fundamental religious views.
I have stood for a liberal, open view. This is the modern world. We can open up a new world without the hidebound austerities of past generations. I have no wish to live in a joyless mediaeval society orchestrated by indoctrinated morons. This is the twenty first century.
The main reason that fundamentalists have an austere vision is the promiscuous society with its numerous casualties. There is no doubt that sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll have taken a huge toll and that many people find themselves caught up in a mindless lifestyle based on gratuitous hedonism. I am as concerned as anyone. As a society we have to find a way of guiding our young people towards a meaningful life and the way to avoid the pitfalls that go with sex, drugs and alcohol. I have lost good friends to that thoughtless lifestyle. However if the general population had access to the youngsters full of life, idealism and altruism as I have they’d probably be a lot more hopeful.
I firmly believe our youngsters will go on to solve these social problems. The way to do it is through good education. The way to solve drug, alcohol and sexual problems is through excellent PSHE, not restrictive prohibition.
If I had my way I would pour money into PSHE and training brilliant PSHE staff. This would impact on the future more than anything else.
As a society I would make drugs legal and increase drug education and support for drug users. The war on drugs has not only failed. It has back-fired and fuelled the interest in drugs. It has succeeded in putting money into the pockets of criminal gangs in the same way that prohibition in the USA created the rise of gangsters such as Al Capone.
Take the funding away from organised crime. Take the allure of drugs away from the young and educate everyone properly.
When I was at school I had a few friends who started experimenting with drugs. Jeff was one of them.
He started off drinking cough medicine. At that time it contained morphine. He would drink five bottles at a time and get out of his head. He moved on to cannabis and then acid.
Like Syd Barrett the acid ‘fried’ his brain. The big debate is whether it triggered some underlying mental illness or even if the need to take the drugs was induced by the illness.
It is obvious to me that much more objective research is needed.
We need real scientific study and less government propaganda. Kids do not believe the propaganda. They think it is all manufactured lies. They want truth.
The last time I saw Jeff he was highly disturbed. He thought machines were planted all around him, in trees, walls and people surveying his every move. His eyes were shiny and empty like those proverbial black holes.
Jeff jumped in front of a train shortly after.
I remember Jeff as a gentle, intelligent and highly creative young man. He should have gone on to be a brilliant talented photographer.
Jeff is like so many others whose life was blighted by drugs or alcohol. That has to be addressed. Prohibition is not the answer.
PSHE is not about telling people what to do. You do not go into a lesson trying to get students to stop doing things. You go in to get them to think and discuss issues, explore issues and come to their own view.
I know saying NO is counterproductive.
If I were to go into a lesson and tell them that I had a hugely powerful motorbike outside. It was 500,000 CC and would do 0 to 500 MPH in 2 seconds. Nobody who had ever ridden it had survived because it was so powerful – would anyone like to try it out? The hands would go up.
‘I’ll have a go, sir!!’
It’s human nature. The adventurous and inquisitive see it as a challenge. There are the kids who think they are immortal, who are sure they could handle it. The more danger – the more kudos.
Teenagers are also acutely aware of the hypocrisy. It is no use adults saying that kids shouldn’t take drugs while their parents are off down the pub pouring one of the most dangerous drugs of all down their throats. They know about the huge number of people using dope, cocaine and heroin.
They don’t believe the propaganda.
I always found it more effective to encourage students to think about the effect drugs were having on their friends. It was powerful for them to recognise the slump in educational performance, the mental changes and mood swings, the demotivation and behaviour changes. They could see these clearly and note the affect this had on lives and careers. That was far more effective.
It is time to bring in better research, information and education. Our society is saturated with alcohol and dug abuse. Prohibition has failed.
One of my heads of year came to see me. He’d been told by a student that one of the gentlemen in our care was selling cannabis behind the sports hall.
I told him to investigate. He checked out with a few other lads and built up a picture of what was going on. The boy had been dealing for a while. On this particular day he had brought in a lot of dope in £5 deals. He’d sold one lot to a lad at the bus stop. He’d sold five other lots behind the sports hall. It had all been done quite openly in front of a number of our more innocent boys who were quite shocked. The head of year had the times and names.
The lad concerned was brought in and I questioned him. I told him what we’d found out embellishing it with a list of times and names. We had a good picture of the sequence of events and were confident we’d have the full picture before long.
The lad seemed quite relaxed about the whole thing and agreed that our information was correct. He admitted to selling £5 deals to all the boys we knew about and offered a few more names.
‘Have you got any cannabis on you?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ he chirped, pulling a couple of big chunks of cannabis out of his top pocket and handing it over.
I organised the head of year to round up the boys involved and extract the cannabis.
Soon there was a pile of blocks of very black, oily and extremely potent smelling cannabis on my desk.
We noted the names of the boys concerned along with full details.
The boy who had been sold his cannabis at the bus stop claimed he’d popped it home and put it under his bed. I rang his mother who, with utter disbelief, rummaged under his bed and retrieved the lump of cannabis.
One boy, having heard of the round up, had twigged to what was going on and flung his cannabis over the fence on to the common ground.
‘That’s a shame,’ I mused. ‘I was hoping we might be able to sort all this out internally in school. Now you’ve done that we’ve got a bit of a dilemma.’
He looked at me in anguish.
‘We’ve got a situation where there are dangerous drugs thrown on to a public area. A young child could find that dope. We can’t have that. The only thing to do is to call in the drug squad and get the sniffer dogs out there. They’ll find it.’
The boy went ashen.
‘The only other thing I can think of,’ I added. ‘What if you were to go and have a search where you think you might have thrown it. If you bring it to me in the next half hour I might be able to deal with this internally.’
The boy went off in a hurry.
I was then called for an emergency lesson cover and found myself looking after a class. They had been set some work so I was merely child minding. I was very concerned that the boy might come back with the dope and find me missing so I positioned myself in the doorway where I could intercept him when he came back.
A member of staff came along and saw me standing there looking a bit expectant.
‘What are you up to?’ He asked.
‘I’m just waiting for a lad to bring me some cannabis,’ I replied nonchalantly.
‘Oh yeah,’ he laughed.
Just then the boy came rushing up.
‘I’ve got that cannabis you were after, sir.’ He shoved a big lump of cannabis in my hand.
The teacher stared at me open-mouthed.
By the end of the day I had a desk that was groaning under the weight of cannabis. I had over twenty big chunks. Members of staff were coming in to marvel at it. Between the head of year and myself we had pulled in quite a haul.
It was late and I locked it in my room feeling more than a little satisfied with the way the day had gone. We had got to the bottom of the whole thing, found all the boys involved and retrieved all the cannabis. A good job done.
The next day I opened the door to my room and the smell was overpowering. Despite the fact that the dope was all wrapped in Clingfilm the stuff was so potent that you could get high just breathing the air.
That day we had a police officer in for our Operation Lifestyle assembly. I took them aside and showed them the heap of cannabis.
‘I thought I’d better seize the opportunity and pass this over to you,’ I remarked in a matter-of-fact manner.
She was amazed.
I passed on all the details that I had typed up. She had a list of names and times.
‘I want to deal with this in school,’ I informed her.
‘I don’t know if that will be possible,’ she informed me. ‘I’ll see what I can do. I think we’ll have to follow it up with regard to the dealer.’
I shrugged with a grimace.
‘I’d prefer to handle it myself.’
‘I don’t think that will be possible.’
She took all the cannabis off in a big bag, with each of the separate deals carefully placed in separate plastic bags along with details of the boy they had been retrieved from.
As far as I was concerned that was sewn up. I’d passed it over and it was all largely out of my hands.
I intended to bring their parents in, talk through expectations and punishments, and work out how we dealt with it.
Every school has drugs. It goes with youth culture. The main thing we tried to do was to keep it out of school and stop kids from smoking it before lessons. I’d seen the effect of that in USA schools. It was disastrous as far as education was concerned.
We dealt with drugs in PSHE but what kids got up to outside of school was largely the responsibility of them and their family.
To have picked up so many students and so much cannabis sent a clear warning out there. It was bound to have a beneficial effect – word soon gets around.
The students involved had been suspended. I sent out the letters summoning parents and students in and adding a caveat that this could result in permanent exclusion. I actually had no intention of going for permanent exclusion.
Half the boys in the school could have been kicked out if we tested for dope, it was that rife in youth culture at the time. I wanted to make a statement. We did not tolerate it in school.
I phoned and discussed it with the chair of governors. We were in agreement. You didn’t hang someone for a bit of dope. To kick them out might have ruined their lives. Everyone deserved a second chance.
We felt pleased with the way it had gone.
The phone rang and the secretary told me she had the Chief Constable on the line. I told her to put him through. I was expecting to receive a bit of praise for the efficient way we’d dealt with it. My head of year had been really on the ball.
‘Hello,’ I said chirpily.
‘I am ringing up to inform you that you have broken the law in two areas,’ this cold voice intimated sternly. ‘You have laid yourself open to prosecution.’
‘Oh really,’ I said rapidly changing my tune. My head was buzzing. What the hell was he talking about? ‘And how have I done that?’
‘Firstly you have infringed the rights of the boys concerned,’ he pronounced pompously. ‘You had no right to interview them without their parents or an adult being present. That is illegal under European Human Rights legislation.’
‘Oh yeah,’ I replied feeling myself getting angry. ‘And the second?’
‘You put yourself in possession of a considerable amount of illegal substances, sufficient to be charged as a dealer.’
I was gob-smacked. I knew that I had, as a Headteacher, the legal right to interview kids in my care. He was talking crap. As to possessing cannabis that I’d confiscated from the boys – that was simply absurd.
I was furious.
I felt that I should explain the law to him but I was not going to argue with the man.
‘I tell you what,’ I said in a measured tone. ‘Do me a favour, why don’t you. Go ahead and prosecute me. I’ll have you plastered over every newspaper in the country. I’d love it!’
He hung up.
A couple of days later a police officer, in on the Operation Lifestyle project, nervously asked to see me.
‘I’ve been asked to pass on a message from the Chief Constable,’ she ventured with a degree of temerity. ‘He wanted me to pass on that he was sorry he was a little heavy handed.’
‘Well tell him he can ffffing come in an apologise himself!’ I told her angrily.
She looked shocked.
I never heard anything more.
In my early years on the senior team I was selected to be part of County’s PSHE Team. We were trained to go round from school to school training their staff. I enjoyed it.
On my first day of training the forty of us were welcomed and given a psychometric test. In the afternoon they placed me and one other in a room while the rest went off to do some training.
We were given no task and we sat around and talked.
‘Why have we been separated off?’ I asked suspiciously.
‘I bet you came out as a shaper on your test,’ he stated.
‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘I came out as a shaper/plant.’
He nodded. ‘And an enthusiast?’
‘Yep,’ I replied, still not cottoning on.
‘That’s why we’re here,’ he stated. ‘They don’t want us interfering with this bit. We’d try and take control.’
It was a bit of an eye-opener. Every team needs a range of types and skills. Shapers can be bloody minded.
The best training we had was a great exercise that really summed up the way we human beings interact with each other.
It concerned a magical land far far away. A wizard came into the land with a big bag. When he met anyone he put his hand in his bag and gave them a little furry creature. As soon as they held it and stroked the animal it sent a great feeling of pleasure and happiness flooding through them. The wizard had an endless supply and soon everyone was carrying a bag around full of ‘warm fuzzies’ and passing them around to everyone they met. The kingdom became a beautiful place full of happy people.
The wizard left and another wizard appeared. He too had a bag but inside his bag were cold spiky little creatures. Everyone he met he gave one of these creatures to. The ‘icy pricklies’ ate ‘warm fuzzies’ and sent a feeling of fear and hatred through the person. Soon the kingdom was transformed into gloom and misery.
So what do we all pass on to others that we meet?
I wanted a school that ran on ‘warm fuzzies’. ‘icy pricklies’ were banned. Whatever bad stuff had happened to you outside you left it at the school gates. I accentuated the positive. I tried to get everyone to recognise all the good qualities in each other. I wanted the kingdom inside to be warm and nurturing.
I think I achieved that.
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