When we have experienced something we rather hadn’t we describe it as ‘forgettable’. Odd that. The nasty, the regrettable, the unwished-for – these are the experiences that tend to stick in the memory, regardless of our preference to forget. 2016 was replete with such unforgettables. But, for all the bad, bad was not what the year was all about.
In May, my school was Ofsteded and was judged as Requires Improvement. ‘RI’ can sometimes feel like ‘Rather Indigestible’, as we felt that the inspectors missed what we truly are as a school. It has been hard to adjust to our new ranking: we simultaneously lost our lead school status for School Direct; we faced tougher questions from prospective parents at our open evening; some staff have chosen this moment to move on and recruitment in certain areas has been hard to achieve. We haven’t stood still. We have rebooted our approach to ensuring high quality teaching, while remaining firm with our principles that it is about Improving, not just proving. Undeniably, however, it’s been tough.
I’ve had a few great headteachers in my time, and none that I did not admire, but this year saw the retirement of one truly inspirational head: Sue Warrington. She would not want me to recount her life’s work here, so I won’t, short of remarking that this Yorkshirewoman devoted her entire teaching career to the young people and teachers of London. I would invite her to speak to every fresh cohort of student teachers (so that would have been 16 batches) and, although I knew her spiel well, I never tired of hearing it again. She was the greatest advocate of inclusive, comprehensive education I ever met, believing that every young person deserved the same high quality experience of learning as any found in the selective or independent sectors. She devoted her life to achieving this and, in the end, Ofsted told her she had failed. She didn’t fail.
My Dad died this year. In a year such as this one, to report a death seems humdrum. You have not heard of my Dad. He didn’t write a book, or release albums, or appear in films. Mainly he did what dads are meant to do, as in he worked every day and provided for his wife and sons. He didn’t get the education his intelligence warranted, so his pride would have been tinged with a little envy the day this photo was taken in 1990.
My graduation from Queen’s University Belfast, with Dad.
He had wanted me to study law, not history. He thought I should follow a profession (believing that teaching was not one.) We never quite found a language we could communicate comfortably together in. It took me to this year to work out that that struggle was the thing itself: he wanted to show me he loved me, and I wanted to do the same for him. And, if we could not quite say it, wanting to say it is still something.
Struggling to say the right thing, trying but failing to report accurately the way things actually were: these are the themes of my novel that continue to resonate with me and my family in the weeks following its publication. Those who knew its subject, Dan, the best have liked it the least. They have not enjoyed how I chose to fictionalise his life, and I understand why. I am sorry about that, because I wanted to honour the man and that part of my family. It has been a failure of my writing, and perhaps also of my character: I thought I could meld the factual and the fictional and achieve a new truth. I thought I could do that! But, ‘wanting to say it is still something.’ I have been wanting to ‘say’ this book for nearly two decades, and I am not ashamed of my pride in having it published. I received my author copy and it went on online sale on the day that would have been my Dad’s birthday. 2016 was not all goodbyes.
2017 may contain a few, but I look forward to it positively. My son will sit his GCSEs and, whatever happens, he will do us proud. I will approach the end of my 22nd year teaching in schools, knowing that I am just beginning to know what I am doing. I will write more, some of it fiction and some more stuff like this. And, all being well, 2017 will be more memorable than forgettable.