I’ve got an incredibly annoying friend called Geoff. If I am chatting to a new acqaintance at a party, he’ll come up behind me and say, “Soph’s Mum is the Sheriff of Nottingham, you know. If you’re not careful she’ll set her henchmen on you”. He, inexplicably, thinks this is funny, and socially welcome.
I suspect he does it because actually he’s impressed by my Mum. And a bit scared. And so he should be, ‘cos she is kick ass. Mum’s the daughter of a miner and spent almost 50 years teaching in primary schools, mainly in inner-city Nottingham. The streets of Hyson Green hold no fears for her – any potential muggers probably remember her wiping their nose and teaching them to read. And their Mums and Dads too.
In the sixties she hung out on the Left Bank in Paris, drinking cheap red wine into the night, arguing with revolutionaries and emigres, and entrancing a bewildering succession of boyfriends. Back in the UK she got up to all sorts of direct action, as part of the anti-apartheid protests. A few years ago she was Mayor of Gedling. That’s Geoff’s excuse for the Sheriff of Nottingham gags.
Mum’s never felt the need to hide her intelligence and she’s always
believed in standing up for people. I took that for granted as a child, but I appreciate that role model more and more as I get older. Even now, at the age of 70, she’s coming up with new ideas and ways to empower people. Which is a long-winded, Friday afternoon, way of saying I had a fascinating chat with my Mum on the phone the other day.
She’s still a governor at the school she used to teach at. This week she told me she’d got the Board of Governors to visit to the school and get guided round by the children. It sounds like a fascinating experiment. They were all amazed to realise how much the children’s views differed from the teachers. And how bursting with pride the children were about their school.
For example, the teacher who looks after the library feels it’s not up to scratch – perhaps because she has an idea of how she would like it to be and all the things she feels are missing. But the children don’t know about any of that and they think the library is ace. It was all, “Look! Miss! Here are our books on animals! The books on space are here!” and pulling out their favourites to show them.
They’d also done a language project and had one wall decorated with Chinese characters, and the pinyin for Chinese words the children had learnt. The teachers had felt this project was a lot of trouble and hadn’t been a great success, but the children loved it and were showing it off very proudly. They revelled in their ability to use another language.
They’d also learnt Spanish, which they demonstrated. When Mum said she was impressed at their Spanish as she could only count up to ten, one little girl very earnestly and supportively started explaining what 20 was, and how Mum could then make 21 and so on. What really touched me about this part of the story was the way a child, faced with an adult confessing their lesser language skills, earnestly set about trying to teach the grown up. Isn’t it fantastic that instead of always being the bottom of the heap, a child can feel they are helping someone?
Mum says they are now planning to make this a regular event. When I told Shane about it (he’s also a school governor) he immediately started thinking about doing the same at his school. I love the way it’s such a simple idea, yet clearly had such great value: for the governors, in terms of learning about the children’s experience of the school, and for the pupils, in terms of taking them seriously, allowing them to show what they know and have a pride in their school and their accomplishments.
And (no criticism of the teachers, because they are fantastic) but I think it just goes to show how the simplest attempt to actually listen to the end-users (in this case, children) can tell you all sorts of things you would never have known from talking to the professionals. Go my Mum!