Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Stress - it's all relative

Stress? Before the outbreak I used to think I was stressed. Rushing around with the kids; marking homework; managing behaviour; completing mindless paperwork; keeping the house - they all contributed to what I thought were high levels of stress. How wrong I was! With the benefit of hindsight I now realise that they were completely stress free. My favourite recurring dream is thinking of us all around the house, trying to get ready for the day: snatching breakfast on the move; fighting over the bathroom; helping with last minute homework; and a quick kiss before we all went on our way. It's after this dream that waking up is such a nightmare.

Stress now takes the form of whether or not we will have enought to eat; will we have power to heat the house; will kids turn up at school tomorrow or die in their homes. The images from yesterday keep flashing back and trigger so many of my own pictures that I've been trying to keep suppressed. So how am I managing - especially when I thought I was near my stress threshold in my past life? It's a recurring question and one which makes me wonder what I might have been able to achieve if I had only known I'd had all this spare capacity within me.

At least in this world there are no trivial complaints - "no one has cleaned my room", "My photocopying is late", "I hate Class 3B". I think we all quietly realise how lucky we are to be here and although it's never spoken we just accept our situation and focus upon making the best of it - come to think of it I've never heard a complaint since we opened the school.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Two lives collide

In the unfolding drama of every day my own loss can sometimes disappear. I enjoy those times, and for all that the challenges that I face every day are distressing, I like the all consuming nature of the activity. It’s only really in the emptiness of my own bed when I wake in the middle of the night – which I do without exception at 2.30am - that my nightmare takes on proportions that I cannot manage.

Yet today these two separate lives came crashing together when we had to deal with the death of a young child.

Our support teams had been making their normal round of visits when they were asked to visit a home that had until then been thought to be unoccupied. Usually they would wait for the police or a social service support person but they tried the door and found it open. The group was made up of seven kids and one adult and they had been delivering food and making social visits to their regulars when one of those people had mentioned that they thought there was still a family in the top flat of the building. Up until that time we had believed it to be empty as another neighbour had said they had seen the family leaving at the beginning of the outbreak.

James Osbourne, the leader of the group had entered the flat and found the mother and the father both dead in their beds. A young child – 4 or 5 yrs of age - was lying in the living room still alive but obviously suffering from severe malnutrition. James had called me and I had rushed round immediately after I had phoned the ambulance service. As I made my way round to the flat part of me kept telling me to take my time – my legs were heavy and reluctant – if only the ambulance could arrive before me.

As I turned the corner my heart sank as I saw no sign of an ambulance – I hadn’t really expected it – the emergency services were still overwhelmed, even though the outbreak was slowing down. I’d dragged myself upstairs and found the kids waiting outside on the landing – at least James had kept them out.

When I entered the flat I was met by the stench of rotting human flesh (it’s a smell I now recognise only too well). James was sitting on the floor trying to get the child to drink some water but it was obvious that there was so little we could do. James passed the boy to me and I sat there stroking his matted blond hair from his forehead as I and lied to him that everything was going o be alright. James was relieved to leave the house and went downstairs to wait for the ambulance. I sat there for nearly two hours speaking and stroking as the boy lay there in my arms. He stopped breathing very peacefully - as if he’d simply forgotten to take another breath. I laid him on the sofa, kissed him on the forehead and went to leave the room only to be drawn back to wait beside him until the ambulance eventually arrived.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Learning how to lead

I don't think I have ever really appreciated what it is to be a leader. As I've said many times before, I've never been one to push myself to the front and take the lead - at any time in my life. But over the last few months I seem to have arrived at a point where there seems to be little alternative.

The last week has been one of the most challenging of my life and if I hadn't actively led I'm convinced it would have been much, much worse.

The death, loss and general dispair has been compounded by the lack of fresh food - but without any doubt the worst thing has been the loss of power. At least with power we had some semblance of civilisation and felt connected to what was going on around the world, but we have had no radio, television or computer access for eight days as the three day power supply never materialised. Such isolation seemed to change how we reacted towards each other in our new community and the assembly idea, which we had depended on since the beginning, just broke down into squabbles and trivial arguments. It came to head on Wednesday when two adults started to fight each other in front of the kids. I stopped the meeting and launched into speech. I don't know wher it all came from but it had been festering inside me for a few weeks.

I tried to remain calm and made a series of points about how we would only survive if we kept together as community and not as a collection of separate individuals. I backed up my speech with stories from history which showed how human beings could do incredible things if they worked together. The key to the success of all of these achievements was that people worked as one - but as one of the group said it was also a feature of such successes that there was strong leadership. This led us into a discussion where it became apparent that the group wanted more explicit leadership - they felt that they trusted me but that I was "paralysed" by always wanting to discuss everything with the group. They wanted me to make decisions and to explain them but to see them through.

And so our commitment to democratic leadership came to an end. Since Wednesday things have changed so much for the better that I can hardly believe it. I now meet with two of the adults and two of the kids every morning for half an hour and we plan out the day. We then meet as a community and we give out the tasks and programme for the day - so much of this has been to support the local community - we've put learning on hold. Our community kitchen is still in operation and we can cook with the gas cookers. Each small group has taken on responsibility for a street and they spend their time in threes going around and visiting those in need.

The arguments have stopped and I've had to steel myself to stand up to individual challenges from one or two oeople who have disagreed with what we have been doing. The greatest challenge came on Friday afternoon when I had to ask two adults to leave the community if they wern't happy. They did leave but came back an hour later apologising and committing themselves to the community. The lesson for me has been important - a leader must be strong - even if inside you are on the verge of crumbling - I was so close to giving way to them during the meeting but the outcome from sticking with the decison has been that we are so much stronger.

The good news is that the electricity supply should now be back to normal.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Black out

I'm sorry I've been away for so long but the situation here has deteriorated rapidly over the last ten days. It started off with a power cut which came without any warning. The power only returned this morning - it's been a combination of a lack of oil and gas, and problem with some of the nuclear plants. I've been following the situation on the radio but it's all been so vague.

We have now been assured that we will get electricity for three days out five and that all power will be cut off between the hours of 10.30pm and

We've tried to keep the school running throughout this time but without power the oil central heating hasn't been working so we've had to make do with a supply of gas heaters. The kids have taken it really badly as they've been cut off from the internet for longer than any other time in their lives. It's caused a lot of frustration and we've even had a couple of fights between kids - which have been very upsetting. We've tried to keep lessons going but our plans had depended to such an extent on on-line learning that we've had to go back to the drawing board.

I've got to go now as we have to get ready for the power going off. There's lots to update you with what's been happening over the last week.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Having all the answers?

Why does everyone expect me to have all the answers? On three occasions today I was confronted - yes, confronted would be the correct word - by people who turned to me and demanded immediate direction. I've been used to kids expecting answers but it's come as something of surprise that adults have a similar expectation of those who have been put into leadership positions - and I didn't even want to be here!

Part of me just wanted to snap back and tell them to work things out for themselves but I just managed to hold myself in check. Reflecting on these incidents it's clear that they just wanted to unburden themselves of responsibility. It's not that they didn't know what to do - it's just that they needed affirmation of their preferred choice of action. Perhaps that's what's leadership is about - affirmation not direction? I've never thought about this before but it's only when you find yourself in that position that you start to see that leaders are not the all powerful decision makers that I've perceived them to be throughout my career. The reality is much closer to the idea of the leader as servant - or at least that how it feels to me.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Family First

It’s been one of those typical Edinburgh February days. A howling gale, pouring rain and a dark foreboding sky. The Castle seemed to hunch over Princes Street and the black, shining, empty streets snaked out in every direction.

On our way to school the weather seemed to set the sombre tone for the rest of the day where everyone focused on our problems. I’ve started to meet first thing with our partners in community support, the police, and health every morning to receive an update of any issues. It appears that the food crisis is starting to extend beyond the bread shortage and there are worries about how long the kitchen can be supplied. The home meals service, which we deliver to our neighbours, has been identified as the priority followed by the school meals. Only if there is a surplus thereafter will the community kitchen be opened to those who need feeding. Meals will also be rationed to once a day for every person. There is hope that the government is ready to implement a national distribution system but it’s been so debilitated by the high absence rate that getting it off the ground has been delayed. What has been a surprise is that the supermarket companies have actually proved to be the most prepared for the pandemic. Their emergency plans have ensured that supplies have kept coming through from their main distribution centres – even if not in the previous scale. The problem has been the step before that with the amount of food getting to these centres – it’s this area that the government are trying to resolve.

One factor, which has not been anticipated – I can’t work out why as it seems so obvious – is that the demand for food is less than what had been expected. The reason being the exceptionally high death rate – there are simply a lot less people to feed.

I find myself torn in two directions when I hear information like this – the needs of my family and the needs of the school. I’ve always prided myself on my sense of empathy and that I can always see the other side of any argument. One of the changes, however, which I’ve undergone in the last few weeks, is that I now look out to my family’s needs first. I’ve been able to rationalise this by persuading myself that my capacity to lead the school will be compromised if I don’t ensure my family’s welfare. I’m sure countless leaders have worked things out in a similar way over the years but given some of my recent negative experiences when I’ve placed the need of the school – or myself first – I can justify my behaviour.

The whole school met at circle time and I shared the information about the rationing system of one meal a day. There was some unrest but I think people knew it was probably coming. I’ve made it clear that we need to ensure that we all eat – “don’t give your food to others” – which inevitably some of them will do. The other compounding problem is how families at home get enough food. However, we now have nearly 50% of the kids being accompanied by an adult/parent from their own family. They are regarded as part of our school and will also be fed. We are using these adults to support children other than their own and this seems to be working quite well. The adults are also starting to engage in the learning process themselves and the example they set for the kids is very useful. The learning atmosphere in the school is almost palpable with a grim determination that learning will be the way out of many of our problems. I sometimes wonder if that will actually be the case but at the very least this gives our community some hope at a time when hope is in short supply

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Bag Lady

I got out to see mum today and she continues to cling onto to her independence. A bus service has started up again and although it’s very limited, it at least gives me a chance to get out to see her without depending on Jennifer. The community are gradually getting together to ensure that regular contact is kept with the elderly. A community kitchen has opened up in much the same way as our school and she makes her way along there for lunch. She has also volunteered to visit some of the older people who can’t get out of their homes. It seems like there are spontaneous support systems starting up all over the country which are quite defying those who predicted that society could not survive something like this.

We talked about Granny Browning living with us and how she felt about that. As ever mum was able to rationalise the situation and also state quite categorically that she did not want to live in the filthy city!! – mum never was one to mince her words.

On my way home I saw queues of people waiting outside shops with bags. I remember visiting Russia in the 80’s and seeing similar queues of people waiting patiently just on the chance that the shops might have something. Here we are in Scotland 20 years later and it seems exactly the same. Rumours abound of bread deliveries and I’ve taken to carrying a shopping bag with me wherever I go.

Some cities have had rioting and looting in the last few days – which I might have expected earlier in the crisis but not as things have begun to level out. It seems mainly to be young people who have survived the infection but have not reengaged in the sort of community we’ve set up at the school. It does appear that there is a discrepancy between the more middle class areas and the council estates – where death rates have been higher and law and order more difficult to establish.

The army have been taking a higher profile in the city, as they have been elsewhere in the UK, and this does seem to keep things calmer – at least in the centre of the town. Once we get back from school we never go out in the evening and although the days are getting longer we have kept to this rule.

David seems to have settled down again and he is enjoying having his Granny staying with us. I’m not so sure that Libby feels the same and she’s a bit short tempered – especially with me.

I received letter yesterday from the council's undertaking service, which in a quite matter of fact way described Graham’s burial place. They said I can’t go out there yet as it is still under severe pressure. I'd been trying to put all memories of Graham's death a private place but it was cruelly exposed yesterday afternoon and I spent most ot the rest of the day trying to pull myself together. I spent a good hour in the bath with the radio up full and crying my eyes out. It didn't help when one the records which they played had been the music which had been playing when Graham and I first started going out with each other - Lionel Richie's "Hello".

At least the death rate is slowing but many of those who hid away in the first few weeks are now having to come out and as they are exposed to the virus they fall ill. Apparently there are people who have the virus but show no signs of illness and who have been key figures in the spread of the disease.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Our Daily Bread

The last few days have a had a single point of focus - food. For the first time this year we have been having real problems getting enough bread. At the beginning of the outbreak the supermarkets limited what people could buy and although many overseas goods became limited - especially fruit - we managed to get enough. I've also been gradually trying to stock up on items which don't require refrigeration and have built up a supply which would probably last us 3 weeks.

The big problem has been getting bread - I'd always taken that simple commodity for granted throughout my life - but it's only when there's not enough that you realise just how much of a staple it is in our diets. Apparently there were only 9 weeks of grain in store worldwide at the begiining of January and the problems with international transportation and local supply chains have meant that there's not enough flour being produced. Nobody has been able to explain to me why such things weren't thought about before this thing broke out. I can't believe how we seem to have sleepwalked into this!

Supermarkets have moved to ration supplies if they have any, but I haven't seen any bread on the shelves for the last two days.

The local authority have set up a community kitchen in our school and meals are provided throughout the day. We have to try to co-ordinate the meal times in the school with the community and we are really fortunate to have been joined by Tony Arnold - who was a project manager before he retired. Tony has taken on responsibility for all such co-ordination and this has left me free to work with people. One part of the community kitchen, which we've built into the school programme, is the delivery of home meals to the elderly who can't get to the kitchen. We've worked out an area around the school which is "our patch" and each "family" take it's turn to help deliver the meals. The meals themselves are fairly basic - mince and tatties, or a variation of - but at least it's promoting this growing feeling of community identity and mutual support.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

The Unreluctant Leader

I’ve never aspired to a leadership position in my life. As the middle child I was always happiest trying to keep the peace between my sisters. Even my mum used to joke that I should join the Diplomatic Corp when I grew up – “ our own little Henry Kissinger”. Perhaps because I received so much positive reinforcement that this role became my comfort zone. Throughout my schooldays and university everyone seemed to come to me with their problems and I listened and responded – probably making very little difference but at least I had my place in our extended social group.

When I became a teacher I only ever wanted to teach my classes. Despite many offers and even pressure from principal teachers and senior managers to apply for vacant posts I kept my dignity by “staying with the kids”. I watched others begin their climb up the greasy pole of promotion and comforted myself that I was remaining true to my principles by refusing to compromise my beliefs. As time went on and I took a career break for the kids it suited me not to have any additional responsibility. I could arrive for work – concentrate on my own job and leave at the end of the day – with no unnecessary bureaucracy which seemed to so fill the time of those in promoted positions. As I came back into work full time I watched a succession of head teachers lead schools in different ways and once again I wondered why they would want such a job – so distant from the kids and so full to trivia.

The only time I ever considered applying for a job was a couple of years ago when Alison took some time off due to back trouble. My motivation was quite simple – I didn’t want anyone else coming into the department telling me what to do. In the end I didn’t apply – but for six months I had to support the acting principal teacher who everyone said wasn’t really up to the job. Throughout that time people used to come up to me and ask why I kept supporting him – they didn‘t know about my childhood programming.

Yet here I am – to all intents and purposes I am the head teacher of our school – by default, or at least that how it seems. Eve Anderson from the authority was in school again today and wanted to formalise my role – although she said that she wasn’t sure if it would mean anymore money at the moment as the council’s systems have all but shut down – I’m still waiting for my January salary. So why has it happened – why does someone with my peculiar set of skills – which I wouldn’t say are the traditional “leadership skills” - emerged as the leader? It’s certainly something I gave a lot of thought to during my recent expedition up North and I wonder if it might be to do with the need for conciliation, negotiation and mediation which are required to bring a community together. Certainly it seems to be having some effect and by all accounts the school was paralysed when I was away last week. Yet it’s not because I’m dominant- or at least I don’t think I am - it’s just seems that people need someone to give permission- even if it’s permission to do their own thing. I worry a bit that they become dependent upon me – in much the same way as I’ve seen many schools become dependent upon the leader. Perhaps it’s just part of the healing process – it gives stability and some certainty in a world where both are so sadly lacking?

Part of me – the secret part – is exhilarated by the responsibility, the opportunity and the fact that people do seem to defer to my opinion – even when I try so hard to present my ideas as the same as anyone else. I’m ashamed that I’ve reacted like this and I’d much prefer it if I was much more reluctant – but I’m not.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Learning with company

Stephanie led the circle time this morning and what session it was.

I am constantly amazed by the difference in kids’ reaction to being led by an adult or being led by a peer. The fact that we said nothing for the entire session helped and it also meant that the thread which emerged was much purer than it might have been if we had thrown in our tuppence worth.

On reflection the time we’d spent last night talking about the issues and how she might draw out the ideas from the circle had been important and perhaps that’s the role we should be taking here – not leading up front but supporting from behind. I know there might be some of you out there who will see this as adult manipulation – and I could imagine how this could easily be the case – but if we really trust that the end result will always be better if we don’t try to manipulate, then it’s certainly worth not even attempting to interfere with the outcome.

Stephanie had started off describing her own experience of trying to learn on-line. She was honest about sitting in front of the computer and being drawn to her Facebook/Bebo sites – “it calls out to me” – the kids loved this and were all nodding their heads in agreement. The problem seems to be focused on a single simple – yet vitally important question – “why should I bother?” They come to school for company, food, warmth and company – and more company – in fact company is why they come to school. Yet when they enter an on-line learning environment they feel alone – or as one of the kids said – “it’s as if I’ve been sent out of the room”. Is it any wonder then that they respond to the call of their networked friends? As the conversation went on it became obvious that the answer lay in mirroring the social networking world – both physical and virtual when they are going to be learning. One of the kids talked at great length that one of the best things she does on her Bebo site is when she’s sitting beside a friend and they write and comment on other people’s sites. Stephanie remembered what we had been talking about last night towards the end of the morning when she asked each family to come up with ideas about how we could try to create “social learning” worlds – where learning takes place with others or in sight of others.

When they returned in the afternoon – the problem seemed to be overwhelmed by the flow of creative solutions. The common feature was that on-line learning should be seen as a group activity – where the learner works with others and shares their ideas, problems and thoughts – “in just the same way as we did this morning”. Partner working – sitting, either physically or virtually, beside a learning partner – was seen to be a crucial element – and also that they could have different learning partners for different things was a recurring theme.

They also wanted to have access to “rooms” where they could learn as part of a group – where audio and video linked them – rather than just always contacting each other through text. But the really important thing, which came out again and again, was that they wanted to see how they would be tested. I had to sit on my hands at this point as I’ve always fought against “teaching to the test” – yet here were the kids demanding – there’s that word again – that they needed to know the tests and understand what they had to know to pass. They then wanted to able to sit tests as groups – and through trial and error get to the point where they could pass on their own. The other point here was about passing – not being the best – not getting an “A”, just passing. I think it’s got something to do with the utilitarian approach which is overtaking everything at this time – “if I need to know this then help me to know it” – how they get to know it doesn’t seem to generate the degree of hand-wringing that it used to do amongst teachers.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

On-Line (but not) Learning

Libby and Stephanie brought us up to date with what had been going on school during the days we'd been away. What was apparent was that our thoughts that on-line learning was going to be our saviour have been badly misplaced. It seems that Malik's enthusiasm is not matched by the kids willingness to actually spend time on-line going through the content - they are too used to dipping in and out and "chatting" on Bebo that they can't actually use the materials effectively. In fact Libby said that she had to disconnect her computer from the internet because she wasn't getting any work done.

Such a discovery shouldn't really take us by surprise - we know that most kids left to their own devices won't choose to "study" - especially if competing with the opportunity to "chat" with other teenagers. I wonder why/how we deceived ourselves that this wouldn't be the case?

Stephanie wants to lead a circle tommorrow to try to find a solution to this problem. If we can't get this to work we will need to go back to teachers/adults leading the children through content in much the same way as we have always done - the problem being that we don't have enough teachers/adults who have expertise in particular subjects. For example - I can teach RME and could probably get away with basic level English, and one or two other subjects but I wouldn't know where to begin if it was physics or languages.

The irony of all this is that when we have discussed this before the kids have been enthusiastic and apparently committed - yet when we try to put this into action the reality appears to be quite different. Any ideas out there?


Today I have something to confess. It’s not going to be easy but I have to tell someone.

I’m not a good mother. There - I've said it - I’d never been that sure that I was cut out for motherhood, it was something that just happened, that you were expected to do, but the experience of the last week has only confirmed that I’m far too selfish to have been allowed to be a mother. Who else would have spent so much time thinking about themselves and their work and left their children at home less than a week after the death of their father? How will my children ever forgive me?

Yet David has been remarkable since we got back home - it’s as if his journey up North was much more than just a physical achievement. He seems some much more at peace with himself than he has been at any time since his father’s death. More surprisingly he appears to hold no grudge against me despite my fears that it was my behaviour that triggered his desire to leave home. We spent all day at home yesterday settling Granny Browning into her room. The need for family seems to be such a strong reaction to this crisis. If I had been asked to guess how people might have responded to such an event I would have thought that it might have had the opposite effect – with people driven into themselves – breaking their ties and concentrating upon their own welfare. The reality has – almost without exception – been the reverse. Humanity has come to the surface – despite my feelings that society was on the verge of breakdown prior to the outbreak it has pulled together. Watching the news from across the world there are countless stories of self-sacrifice, communities supporting each other, and acts of tremendous courage.

One of the things that I’ve learned from the last week is that my family comes first, second and always – regardless of what might be going on anywhere else in my life – no matter how many other people might be benefiting.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Together again

The roller coaster we've been experiencing since the beginning of the year continued this week when we woke up on Wednesday morning and found that David had gone.

He'd left no note but had taken his rucksack, some food and his sleeping bag. Neither Libby nor Stephanie had any idea where he might have gone and they went through his Bebo site to see if there might be any clues. He had been communicating with lots of people his own age and older, both locally and from across the world. He seemed to have a particularly frequent contact with Bethany, a girl from San Francisco, who had gone through many of the same experiences as David, although she had lost both her parents and was caring for her six year old sister. We discounted any possibility that he might be trying to get there as air travel had been suspended very early in the crisis.

We heard nothing for the rest of that day – I’d decided to wait at home in case he came back but the girls went into school. That night I got a phone call from David in Fife. He had decided to walk to Stonehaven to see his granny. In that instant it all became clear – he didn’t say as much – but I could hear in his voice that he just wanted some normality – his granny had always been very special to him, ever since we used to go and stay with them on their farm outside Stonehaven. David loved going up and staying on with them after we came home: whether it be collecting eggs, picking strawberries, or sitting beside his grandfather as he drove the tractor – he just loved it. He’d never been able to adjust to the death of his grandad, or even worse when the farm was sold and granny had to move into the home in Stonehaven.

It was as if he felt it his duty to look after her. With Graham no longer here he had taken it upon himself to set out and walk to Stonehaven. He’d phoned me from near Perth – and had found an old barn to sleep in for the night. He tried not to show it but he was obviously very scared. He told me his phone was running out of a power but that he would phone me the next day.

I spent all that night trying to find someone who could give me a lift up to Stonehaven but no-one had any petrol. The public transport system was still shut down to prevent spread of infection – a bit late! – and Jennifer couldn’t get access to a police car for a journey of that length. Early on Thursday morning I set off for on foot, leaving Libby and Stephanie to look after each other.

The next two days were like living in some futuristic film. Although the city was a dangerous place, at least the police and army ensured some degree of safety and control. The city was also a very quiet place with so many having left in the early stages of the outbreak and so many others just holed up at home. As soon as you left the city it became a different world. There were campsites everywhere, and burnt out homes seemed to be around every corner. I tried to skirt away from any groups of people but that added miles to my journey. I can’t bring myself to go into the details here but I didn’t get to Stonehaven until Friday afternoon. In the course of my journey which I did without really stopping or eating properly I was nearly raped by a man who said he wanted to help me – he broke my nose (I think) – and had my sleeping bag and mobile phone stolen.

I can’t describe the feeling when I eventually got to granny’s new home and was welcomed by David. I didn’t blame him – it had been my fault – I’d been so focused on myself, the school and how I was getting over Graham and Kristy’s deaths that I’d quite ignored David and Libby just because everything seemed to be alright on the outside.

I’d phoned home last night and Libby explained how Jennifer had been trying to get in touch with me. Superintendent Mike Harper had been in touch with her and explained that I was to be regarded as “key personnel” in my role at the school. She arranged for a police car to take us back to Edinburgh this morning. David said he wouldn't leave his granny and that she had to come home with us or he would be staying with her. It was quite obvious that this was not a matter for discussion - Granny Browning agreed to come with us - she had been separated from her friends when the home had been split up so hadn't anything to leave behind. My only pang of guilt was the fact that we were taking her home and I'd left my own mother alone - on reflection I knew this wasn't really the case as mum would never have left her own home.

We all got back an hour ago and the relief and joy of being home and having the kids with me is wonderful. I’ll not make that mistake again! Sorry.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

"I'm not a bloody social worker!"

“I’m not a bloody social worker!”

I’ll never forget it when a teacher I used to work with once screamed this out at a staff meeting to discuss a child who was having real problems at home. This comment unleashed a torrent of agreement from colleagues who all believed that they had come into the profession to teach their subject – he went on “If he doesn’t want to learn then don’t stick him in my room, where he just disrupts everyone who does want to learn." I'm ashamed to admit it that I sat in silence throughout.

That was a few years ago now but I think there was still (until January) a significant implicit sympathy for that perspective – although it wasn’t quite expressed in these extreme terms anymore.

The reason for mentioning this today is that being a “social worker” is exactly what we are – and what we must be first and foremost before any teaching can take place. This was hammered home this morning when I had to work with one of our younger kids – Mikey – who brought his mum (Sharon) into school with him. Sharon was a poor creature who had – in common with most of us – seen her family die in front of her. She had experienced some sort of breakdown and – in much the same way as I had felt at the end of last week - had folded in on herself. Mikey was now the carer and he didn’t want to leave her at home – Mikey is 10!

We had touched upon this aspect of our work at the meeting on Sunday where our community hub was going to help people exactly like Sharon. It had been easy to agree to such things at the meeting but to actually be faced with it in the flesh was quite different. As with most things we decided to take it to the circle and try to work out how we were going to help people like Sharon. Out of our 12 adults we already had 4 parents but they all had some oblique background in education or social care – here was someone who needed to be cared for.

Once again the kids rose to the challenge and demanded - yes "demanded" would be the right word – that we see our responsibilities as being much more than just educating them. They suggested that it would be the responsibility of one of the family groups to provide care for such people on a daily basis. They would work out what was required but it was to be a priority over any other part of the programme we were devising.

In the afternoon Malik sat down with four kids at a time and started to work out personal programmes – it’s very apparent that although they are very conversant with technology they haven’t really used it for productive learning – this is definitely something we are going to have to work on.

When we got home this evening I received the best news I’ve had all year – Graham’s mum is alive. They had shipped out the elderly to smaller homes at the outset of the outbreak and she had suffered a small turn – the place where she was staying didn’t have our number and had only just been informed of our contact address. We talked for ages on the phone and spent so much of our time talking about Kirsty and Graham. I found it good to talk openly about them for really the first time and although we cried and snuffled our way through the conversation I came off feeling a lot better than had been when we’d got home.

Libby and David also spoke to her and I think they also found it to be a cathartic experience.

I’m just a bit worried about David at the moment – his natural exhuberance has gone and he spends a lot of his time in his room on the internet or playing his computer games.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Frankly my dear I don't give damn!!

The city seems to be getting quieter and quieter. On our walk to school this morning we only saw a few cars and most of these belonged to police or other emergency services. The mist which hung over the city today made it damp and miserable and the journey seemed to take much longer than normal.

KathyFL asked me yesterday if we had been having any power cuts or other utility disruptions. I’ve been surprised that there have been no power outages – although we have had warnings. The water supply has never been cut but we have been warned to boil any water for drinking. Our plans for using on-line learning would certainly be disrupted if we were to lose power.

Malik came to today’s circle meeting and held the kids spellbound for nearly two hours. He showed how they could use their Bebo/Facebook spaces to set up links to other learning sites available in the UK. The Government have brought a special group together to pull together resources on a UK basis and although Scotland has always done its own thing as far as qualifications and courses have gone it seems sensible to tap into what’s most easily available. Anyway it’s not so much the resources which are going to prove the problem it’s going to be helping kids to use them in a useful and productive way. One of the points, which emerged at yesterday’s meeting, had been the need to look for courses that would be more utilitarian than we might have been looking for just a few weeks ago. The old imperative that kids did courses to gain entry to university or college has disappeared – it’s much more about what do we need to get by and "how do I make contribution to society?"

But all that’s still way down the line as our focus is still on how we get through the current crisis. With only a 50% infection rate there are still many people who have yet to be exposed to the infection – especially as so many are still locked in their own homes. It appears that many loaded up with provisions in the first few days and haven’t ventured out since. That certainly placed a real burden on shops but it explains why so few people have been turning up at work.

We now have 105 kids and 15 adults at our newly named Sunlight Community Hub – the kids spent most of today designing leaflets to be posted around local homes explaining the services we can offer and looking for additional support. The local health centre has taken over a university hostel and is still tending for those who call in with symptoms. The Penicuik Barracks have been supplemented with a number of other emergency hospitals who take the worst cases – although most of the severe cases never make it out of their homes due to lack of transport. The local authority is concentrating on managing the death toll and I heard yesterday that there are mass graves sites on the outskirt of the city.

Malik has agreed to join our team and will be helping us to set up our on-line learning systems by keeping the equipment going and providing advice. One of the key things which is definitely happening is that most of kids formal learning is happening out of school – our focus when they’re here is on lifting their spirits and on social contact and mutual support. It seems such a powerful way of structuring our time. The one thing which has taken off is our reading club where we all spend an hour each afternoon reading a book of our own choice. Each family spends some time discussing a couple of the books. We are using the school library but kids and adults are also bringing in their own books. I think one of the reasons that this is so successful is that TV, newspapers and the internet are all submerged in the crisis – at least for an hour and half each day we can escape. I’m reading “Gone with The Wind” by Margaret Mitchell, which I last read as a fourteen year old – complete escapism! “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn!!”

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Community Hubs

I was invited to attend a meeting this afternoon at the Council Offices beside Waverly Station. There were representatives of the police, health, education, social work and other services. The Emergency Team are trying to co-ordinate the various schools and community support centres which have sprung up across the city. Almost without exception these have been established in a very ad hoc manner where people - very much like myself - have felt duty bound to do something in the face of the destructive force of the outbreak. Superintendent Mike Harper and Eve Anderson seem to be very much at the heart of bringing us all together and, as I mentioned on Friday, it's good to be part of something bigger.

Very few of the people there had held senior positions before the virus struck but rank or position no longer seemed to be as important as it had been before. There were nine of us there who were working in a school setting and we talked about some of the challenges we were facing - I was surprised how we had all responded in a similar ways by focusing upon care and welfare in the first instance and had moved away from the familiar way of organising schools so quickly.

One of the survivors from the council who joined us was Malik Ahmed, who was an ICT technician in the corporate IT division. He wanted to work with us to use the web to support children's learning. He has some really good ideas about how we can use on-line courses and resources in an interactive way. I'd never really heard of web 2.0 (e.g. hadn't realised that this blog was part of Web 2.0) but he seemed so enthusiastic about how we could use it to overcome so many of the obstacles facing us that I really do think it might be the answer to many of our educational problems. He's going to come out to school tomorrow to speak to our circle and the other schools are going to send someone along to take part.

A lot of the meeting was focused on how we could all provide support for the surrounding community as opposed to only being a school, a community centre, a library, or a health centre. They want to create teams of people who work in these places - I think they're going to call them "Community Hubs" where health care, education, community support, food and all the other services can be provided. It seems to sensible I can't think why we didn't have something like this before the outbreak. The one thing which I really find so rewarding about all this is how we come together in such a positive manner - there's no points scoring or self-importance about anyone or anything we do - it's as if we've been stripped down to the bare essentials and we can see clearly for the first time in our lives. As I write this I know it might sound like I think that this "thing" has been good for us - it hasn't - but, as Mike Harper said this afternoon - we need to turn everything to our advantage.

Thursday, 7 February 2008


I had to really force myself to go to school this morning - but I thought that if I didn't make it today I would probably never be able to face it again.

It made a huge difference as I came though the door that so many people came up and hugged me. It's funny how the traditional formality of school has been put to one side by what's happened - the feeling of mutual support and - if it's not too strong a word - "love" which exists between us all is something to be relished.

Since I'd been way we had been contacted by the local authority. Eve Anderson from the Emergency Team had first phoned and then arranged to visit today. I met with her and a couple of the other adults over lunch. She wanted to help us set up the school in a more organised manner as a place which could provide support to the local community in the form of food and medical care, whilst still educating the kids. Eve was so understanding about what we had been through and didn't push anything upon us but the ideas were so close to what we had already agreed that there was no objection.

Eve then spoke to the circle and explained to everyone how they all had a role to play in helping eachother anf their community. The kids wanted to talk with here for ages and were so excited that what we had set up by ourselves could now make difference to so many more people.

Eve's coming back tomorrow with some people from Health and Social Services to help us set up our Centre. In many ways her intervention has come at just the right time - the burden on me has lifted just be feeling that there's something else out there to which we are connected. I think I'd been kidding myself that we could do everything by ourselves - despite the attractiveness of doing our own thing.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008


I woke up yesterday morning and couldn't move. My legs were heavy, I could hardly lift my head off the pillow and I seemed detached from my body. I was so bad that I wondered if "it" had returned again - but this was different. I knew what I wanted to do but my body woudn't respond. I stayed in bed all day, which meant that the kids had to stay at home with me.

Lying in my room staring at the ceiling I started to realise what had happened - it was as if I'd fallen into a black hole. Kirsty's death, my own illness, Graham, the kids and my blind desire to return to work had all combined to overwhelm me. Looking back I began to see just how selfish I'd really been. The problem stemmed from the fact that I read my blog from start to finish for the first time last night. It was like living through it all again but remaining conscious throughout. I think I've been sleepwalking for the last month - acting but not thinking. How could I have left the kids and gone back to work? How did I think a chat the evening Graham died would have possibly seen the kids through the trauma. I'd kept excusing myself that everyone was going through the same thing but I was wrong - we all confronting our own unique experience - the fact that lots of people were having similar experiences did not make it the same.

I'd phoned Alison in a panic and she had managed to calm me down - we spoke about the school split and how I had acted in such a manic way, I'd never even considered how frightened the rest of the teachers were - I had only looked at everything from my own point of view. Thank God for friends. I feel so ashamed - me - the counsellor, the conciliator, the mediator - the person who could be relied upon to find a solution ,to have empathy, to care, to love - all a sham, a fake, a falsehood.

I couldn't go in again today but at least the kids went in with Jennifer. She's just left the house after having brought them home. She brought the best wishes from everyone at the school and told me there was no rush to come back.

Can I go back?

Monday, 4 February 2008

An end to passivity

Most of today has been taken up with a discussion about our school. It started off at our circle meeting - which is becoming quite big circle, when Johnnie - one of the older kids asked if he would be sitting his Highers in May. It was a strange request - none of us have really given this any thought as we have been too busy focussing on the welfare of the kids and ourselves. Yet even the younger ones started to ask about the various subjects they had been taking and wanted to take in the future.

This led us into a long discussion about the need for qualifications. It was Johnnie himself who asked, "I needed four "Bs" to get into university - but do I still need them? Will there be universities? Will there be enough of us to go to university?" Everyone - even some of the youngest - wanted to chip in. It was on the verge of breaking down when I suggested we take this to our families and consider three questions:

1. How do we deliver subjects without teachers?

2. What will learners need to know and be able to do by the time they leave school?

3. Will we need qualifications if there are so few of us? - and if we do are they the same qualifications that we have always had?

As has become the routine one family was given responsibility for making lunch while the others went off to consider the questions. We gathered together in the afternoon and each family took it in turn to respond.

As we had guessed a lot of the groups went for using the internet to deliver subjects - with the kids being able to access learning at home as much as at school. They wanted their Family leader to take an interest in their learning and to guide them but they also wanted people to buddy up with a partner from another group for specific subjects. The big theme which emerged was the use of "experts" who weren't necessarily teachers but who tracked their progress or could give specific guidance on a subject of they got stuck. They also liked the idea of being able to use the skills thy've developed usaing Bebo etc to share their knowledge about learning - I was surprised (I know I shouldn't have been) that they were able to differentiate that they used Bebo for one reason but that they could switch - if necessary - to using it in quite a differerent format.

They were also insistent that they could teach each other - if they were helped by us to become teachers. They wanted to "pass on knowledge" - "just like a relay race" said Johnnie - who is rapidly becoming one of the stars of the school.

In response to the second question they thought there would still be a need for qualifications - "We need to know what people can do" but the qualifications they wanted were ones that would be recognised around the world. They had been corresponding with their peers from many coutries over the last few weeks and they now saw themselves to be part of much wider community than their city or their country - this awareness had quite passed me by in the maelstrom that had been my life.

They wanted access to a range of qualifications and courses - some of which might be Scottish but might just as easily come from India, Brazil or Australia. They wanted to pick what they did from a menu - and they wanted to choose the menu. One of the girls - Becky - launched into a full scale attack on the "menu" we had offered in our schools before. "So narrow!!" "So small minded!!" - we adults were almost enbarassed to admit our complicity in the system.

Our homework - and I stress our homework will be to come up with some suggestions and possible things that peple can do - regardless of age. There was also a strong feeling that we could set up our own courses or at least form partnerships with other schools who had started to set up in the city along similar lines.

The final point to emerge from our discussion was that they wanted school to be so much more than courses or subjects - there doesn't appear to be any going back on that now. They want to learn how to do things - to fix things - to make things -to work out how things work for themselves. They are living in chaos and they want to make it better - they will never be passive ever again!

Sunday, 3 February 2008


There is a growing anger amongst the general public about the lack of any proper planning for this disaster. I bought a selection of newspapers this morning and although they were all limited editions the common feature was an attack on the Government and local authorities.

At the beginning of the outbreak the media were supportive and in what on reflection seemed akin to the WW2 propaganda they appealed for people to go to work and follow the public service announcements .

Yet as the weeks have passed it has become obvious that whatever plans were in place were totally inadequate. There seems to have been an assumption that the infection rate would be between 25-30% of the population over a six month period. In reality the infection rate has hit 50% in some areas. However, the most significant underestimates have been in relation to the mortality rates which were thought to be 30% at the worst - when it is currently hitting between 75-80% of those who fall ill.

It's this fearful mortality rate that is keeping people at home and bringing the country to its knees. In Edinburgh alone, out of a population of nearly 450,000, there have been nearly 200,000 reported cases (probably severely under-reported) with 145,000 deaths. The death toll in Scotland is approaching 1.75 million and the absence rate from work is running at 75% which includes those who have died; those who are ill; those who are caring for the sick, young or elderly; and those who are simply too scared to go to work.

A powerful example came from Edinburgh City Council where they bravely tried to maintain services - unfortunately the office conditions merely served to provide a breeding ground for the virus, which led to nearly 90% of staff who came into work falling ill. Learning about these figures it's no surprise that I haven't heard anything from the Education office.

There has been talk from the outset about two waves of "it" coming over a 16 week period. Almost all scenarios had been based on this assumption which would have spread out the impact on services, whereas it appears that it's hit us in an enormous wave - I think back to the image of the Tsunami I wrote about four weeks ago.

In effect that is exactly what we have been hit with, yet the Government continue to reject such a picture - they are issuing bulletin after bulletin proclaiming that we are gradually starting to manage the outbreak - LIES!! - and everyone knows it. Gordon Brown was on the News at lunchtime today saying that they could not have predicted the severity of the outbreak and that no scenarios took account of what we are experiencing - I did feel sorry for him (he's lost one of his sons who had cystic fibrosis) and his wife is in hospital - which in itself is aggravating many of the public who can't get such care for their family. He relied upon telling us that we were tackling this "shoulder-to-shoulder" with every other country and human being on the planet......I'm afraid I switched it off at that point. There comes a time when you only care for those you know - the fact that nearly a billion people have died already means nothing to me in comparison to losing Graham and Kirsty .... is that selfish?

Saturday, 2 February 2008


Jennifer called around today with a police car. She had offered to take me out to Balerno to visit my mum who I hadn't seen since this thing started, although I've phoned her at least twice a day.

Libby came with us and to say it was an emotional trip would be an understatement. Mum has never been over her doorstep since New Year. She has a fabulous neighbour who brings her shopping once a week and leaves it at her door. We were her first visitors but we kept our masks on and didn't touch her - which was remarkably difficult for us all (you realise in circumstances like this that physical contact can be so much more powerful than any words - particularly when that contact is prevented).

We talked for nearly three hours - about Kirsty and Graham and what we were doing at school. Mum had been a primary teacher in her time and had always loved to hear about what was happening at work. I was so pleased that she agreed with what we were doing and that she suppported me going back so early after Graham had died.

Mum is a stalwart of her local church and her faith had certainly helped to get her through this to date. She also had a large circle of friends but fear of visiting or going out had shut them off from each other. She had kept in touch via the phone but she described it being like "a tree losing it's leaves", as first one, and then another fell ill and died. Many of them had depended upon home visits and "Meals on Wheels" and these had stopped almost the moment "it" had broken out. The minister and some parishioners had tried to keep it going but he had died in the first fortnight and most of the others had either fallen ill or decided to lock themselves in their houses. Her circle had gradually declined until she was only really in contact with myself, one other friend and her neighbour - who never actually came into the house.

Eventually Jennifer knocked on the door and said she had to get the car back ot the station. To leave my Mum in that house without being able to hold or kiss her was one the hardest things I've ever had to do in my life.

When I got home I tried Graham's mum's residential home for what must have been the 100th time - my heart stopped when the phone was answered but it was only a recorded message telling me to phone a number at the local council. I tried this number but the reply said the office was closed and would be open on Monday. I think I know what's happened.

Friday, 1 February 2008

We step back - they step forward

David and Libby led this morning's circle. We welcomed 6 new family members - all children. The imbalance between children and adults is starting to give me some concern, yet it doesn't seem to make any difference to the kids. I've been trying to work out why that might be? The actual answer came as Libby said "We choose to be here" - it just screamed out at me. It's this choice that children are making that makes what we do now so different from what we were doing four weeks ago. This place has value, it has meaning, and they - the kids - believe in it.

If I imagine how we might have handled such a situation with a full complement of teachers and no-change to our system I think it would have been to call for even more help, more resources, more "things" - whereas the answer appears to be much more about finding the answer from within ourselves. This is not some philosphical debating point - it's what is actually happening. Because there so few of us we cannot smother, or control - we can only guide and provide some shape to what we all decide to do. The response from the children has been phenomenal - they appear to have grown in direct proportion to the space being provided - the more we have had to step back the more they have stepped forward.

It's this realisation that gives me confidence that we can build successfully upon our growing family - families within families - the secret is to listen - no, it's more than listening - it's remaining silent. It's the adult silence that provides the space.

Thursday, 31 January 2008

Education comes in second place

I think when I set out to come back to work I had it in mind that I would be able to continue the education of children. What I realise now is that education comes a distant second place to feeling secure and loved. Perhaps it's because I've never directly experienced any form of deprivation myself - except through my vicarious connection with such children I came into contact with during my career. I came from a secure and loving background - in common with most teachers from an aspirational and middle class background. I had always been expected to go to university and I obliged. We brought our own kids up with the same security and expectations.

But in what seems just like a matter of days this has been over-turned and I see from the children that I/we care for that education - in terms of learning subjects, skills etc - actually doesn't matter a damn if some of the basic building blocks aren't in place. When kids are going home by themselves to empty homes. When they have seen their parents die in front of their eyes; when they see violence on the streets; when bodies are left outside houses for collection; when a friend who they saw one day is dead the next. Children shouldn't see this - when I think back to watching news throughout my life from Africa, or Bangladesh, or any third world country I would reach for my purse and send in money - in fact we even sponsored a child in a village in Africa - how ironic is THAT! Third world has arrived - it's here in Edinburgh - but where are the relief agencies, the helicopters, the news teams? Just where the hell are they?!

So when someone said today that they were worried that children might not be able to read properly unless we kept them going with English I'm afraid I snapped (just a bit) and told them to take a look outside! Yet for all my outburst they were right - we have responsibility not to fail these children. For all that we are facing extremes we must remember that they are the future - not us - and that the skills, and normality which we took so much for granted - is also a basic right of every child.

Nevertheless, we must try to keep a perspective in this (hopefully) initial stage that the priority must be love and security. To that end we are trying to arrange foster care for those kids who have no one left at home. We only have one police officer left with us - the other became ill. Jennifer is a quite remarkable young woman - single handedly she has swept the houses in our immediate area and found four adults who she judged (completely by intuition) to be capable and safe to give some children a home. The rest have started to go home with members of their "family" - it's working already.

Our days are currently based around play; chatting; and more play. It just doesn't seem right to try to push learning at the moment - we have agreed to wait for the kids to decide.

Oh - the Deputy Head arrived - I'm sorry but I did defer to him (conditioning I suppose). He called everyone to a meeting in the Assembly Hall and set the chairs out in rows. He launched into a 30 minute sermon - most of which was about his experience and how he was going to save us - at the end he said that he would be setting up classes and a timetable because he believed that's what young people needed to provide security. Just as he started to give instructions to the kids they seemed to rise as one and left the Hall in their familes. Not a word was spoken - he screamed at them to sit down. He told me to tell them to sit down - I remained silent. He started swearing at me and the other adults telling us that we were a disgrace and that we had managed to brainwash them already. He stormed out telling us that he would take his expertise to a place where it would be valued - it was quite a performance.

The event was actually important for our community - for it proved one thing - we could work collectively and that we believed in each other. Libby and David told me later that they've never felt so powerful in all their lives. I almost wanted to thank him.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008


Crossing the Meadows this morning I noticed some orange crocuses pushing up beneath the trees. In the past this has always been sign that we are just about to enter Spring and escape from Winter. It's little memories like this that remind me that things will never be the same again.

We were joined by another 12 children this morning and one other adult, in addition to the 8 who had arrived yesterday we now have 60 kids. One other adult had joined us - another secondary teacher from a different school who had read about us on the emergency website. The morning get together proved even more important as we needed to share again our "rules". The families are still coming up with ideas about what we are going to do but we did agree that it still wasn't safe enough to go and visit local people's homes (as had been suggested). It's great to see the kids looking out - not in.

One thing which did emerge in the course of the day was that they wanted to see learning as something which wasn't just something they did in school and socialising something they just did out of school. They were very adamant that we need to "blur" (my word) the edges so that they "mixed up" (their word) the two to the point where you couldn't really tell the difference. I have to admit to being a little unclear how we might achieve this but at least we have an idea where we want to go.

It looks as if we have lots of IT expertise amongst the kids - they see this world as an extension of reality. They don't talk about on-line learning they just switch quite naturally from one enviroment to another. I suppose we need to let them take the lead on this but how do we decide upon what they learn - or am I trapped in my thinking from the past?

My worry is that I am starting to get stuck with lots of organisational details - who will make lunch?; when do we finish?; what do we do tomorrow?. I know that people will fall into that expectation that others will decide for them but I do so much want to try to avoid that old thinking. The one thing we do have is time. We need to use ot tpo get things right but above all else we need to do it "together".

My one concern is that I've just had a phone call from Deputy Head from another school. He has read about us and wants to come and lend his "leadership experience". I feel guilty that I'm even feeling like this but I'm worried that he will want to take over. Is that a bad thing - especially if he is experienced? It might be for the best.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008


I said last night that I would try to update on some of the key ideas which we came up with yesterday when trying to plan how our school will operate

I suppose the main part, which links with the "Space Rules", was the idea of families being at the core of what we will be trying to do. We had a fairly traumatic experience when one of the children said that they wanted the school to replace his family - he'd lost his mum and dad and two sisters (he was being looked after by a neighbour). This seemed to release a pent up reservoir of emotion as children and adults recounted their own personal stories. I was managing to hold myself together until David and Libby told their own story. Despite us having talked a lot about Graham and Kirsty it was only when they put everything into a chronological order and then added their feelings that I realised the depth of their loss. They had been so brave over the last two weeks and I had been so absorbed by my determination to take positive action that I think I had lost sight of what they had been going through.

The process wasn't just cathartic it bound us together in the realisation that we had all undergone a similar experience. The word which people kept using was family.

It was Toby an 11 year old who perhaps summed it up most powerfully: "I want to belong to a family again. I want people to care about me and what I do. I want to care about other people".

As we tried to answer Toby (in fact it was the kids, not the adults who answered) the ideas of setting up our school around families became clearer and clearer. They wanted to create families, made up of kids of different ages, with an adult as a family member - not a leader. It would be the responsibility of everyone in the family to look after everyone else.

It seemed such a powerfully simple idea I couldn't understand why schools hadn't come up with the idea before (maybe they have but I'd never heard it). We didn't get much beyond that core idea but the family group would not grow beyond twelve people.

Most of today has been spent trying to shape this idea and identify the families and their make up. When we met at the end of the afternoon you could almost feel the warmth coming off the kids as at last they belonged - once again - to a family.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Our School

Having never slept for a third night in a row my walk to work seemed more like a nightmare than dream. As we walked up to George Street the gale whipped the litter into a tornado. The rubbish hadn’t been collected for nearly three weeks – bags which had been tossed from windows lay burst open and Libby let out a scream when we saw a rat run across the pavement as we passed the National Gallery. In the Meadows there were tents and wigwams as people tried to separate themselves from the rest of the city.

We stayed in our tight group until we got to school but the sight that greeted us immediately lifted my spirits. Nearly forty children were waiting at the gate together with six adults – none of whom I’d ever met. The two police officers had keys to the school and led us into the assembly hall. After a moment’s awkward silence I stood up and asked everyone to introduce themselves – children and adults. The children ranged from 9-17 – only four of the new children had gone to this school. Two of them had walked from Portobello through Holyrood Park to get here –nearly six miles. Of the adults three were teachers, one secondary and two primary, together with a retired social worker, and two parents who had come along with their children.

I explained that we would be trying to help continue the children’s education but also provide care and support for them and their families. I repeated my point about this being a new reality and that we must think about our new school in a very different way from how we had known schools in the past. It maybe seemed a bit “new age” but we sat in a circle for nearly two hours trying to work out how we could organise ourselves. I was amazed with the ideas which streamed from the kids – it was as if a cork had been released as idea after idea flowed and was picked up and added to by others in the group. We adults realised what was happening by remaining silent – something I’d never experienced before. I won’t try to capture here all the incredible ideas that we recorded but we wrote them up on a whiteboard. Perhaps the most important part were what the kids called “space rules” it was as if we were creating a virtual world within our new reality.

There were six “Space Rules”:

We all have an equal say in how the school runs
Our health and safety are the most important things in our school
There are to be no classes
Individuals design their own timetable
Adults help but don’t direct
We care for each other

I couldn’t believe how quickly they adapted to the new reality – it was almost as if they had been preparing for this moment all their lives. It’s not as if they tried to cut us adults out – merely that they wanted to use us in a very different way.

The only difficulty I had with the discussion was when they described the sanctions for not following the “space rules”. If it had been adults we might have been a bit softer but the group were unanimous that if health and safety were to be protected that any breaking of the rules would result in that person being asked to leave – adult or child. Their logic was impeccable – “We are choosing to come here, no one is being forced, if we choose to belong we must follow the rules”.

For the rest of the day we split up into groups to develop some of the ideas further and to explore the school. One group took responsibility to make lunch and made a wonderful pasta dish.

It seemed that everyone looked to me for leadership but I took my lead from them by making sure that we acted democratically. I remember reading A.S Neill’s book when I’d been student and although I’d thought it to be a bit laissez faire it provided me with useful template with which to shape my behaviour.

Mike Harper was true to his word and visited us in the late afternoon. He thanked us all for getting it started and suggested we could have even more people turning up tomorrow.

I phoned Alison to let her know how we were doing but she refused to speak to me.

It’s the evening now and David, Libby and Stephanie are all sleeping in front of the fire. I can’t describe how good it feels to have them round me in the knowledge that we have done something today for other people.

I’ll update tomorrow with more of our arrangements – particularly how we intend to start to help people in our communities, which was a key part of what the kids wanted.

Sunday, 27 January 2008


Over the course of today I've become more prepared for tomorrow. Mike Harper phoned at tea time to tell me that they had had some contact from the public about the school opening. He wasn't sure how many people might turn up but he was sending two officers and would try to get there himself later in the day. It's just struck me - has he recovered from "it" or is he just doing his job? It's come to this that we start to judge somebody to be brave just for turning up to work.

Part of me is excited about tomorrow and the other 80% is racked with fear. Last week I was just looking after my own kids and a couple of others. Who knows how many will turn up? Will I be able to control them? No - that's old thinking! I mustn't think about control. Whatever else I'm going to do tomorrow it's not going to be a diluted version of how we did things before. As I've said before reality has changed and so must how we educate and nurture our children. I must keep this to the front of my mind and not fall back on old habits.

I just hope I can get a good night's sleep.

An invitation

We had a visit after lunch from a Police Superintendent. Mike Harper explained that he had received a report from his officers about yesterday's incident at the school. Given the circumstances they would be carrying out an investigation but only once this crisis has passed. He explained that a number of officers had been armed to counter the growing breakdown in law and order - particularly amongst groups of young people who have been less affected by "it".

It is apparently a recurring pattern across the world and a decision was taken at national level to arm police for the duration. Mike explained that the council's emergency group - which has been badly hit by absences and illness - were trying to put support services together for young people specifically. They were interested in what I had been trying to do in school by setting up something for children who had recovered from "it". He asked me of I would be willing to work with the police and what remained of the education and social work services to provide a day centre for education and support in our area. He had authority to move us into the main school building and to provide a secure environment for learning and care. If it worked we would be used as a model for other areas. If I was willing to help the "school" would start tomorrow and would be publicised on the web and local radio and TV, with an open invitation to other (post-viral) teachers, social workers and adults to come and help.

I tried to clarify who would be leading this and he made it clear that this was a partnership activity where we would have to work together. I didn't really have to give it any thought and accepted immediately.

When he left the house half an hour ago I completely broke down - it's this roller coaster from one day to the next which I'm finding so difficult to come to terms with.

Having settled down a bit the next emotion I'm having to deal with is a crisis of confidence - can I make this work?

When you're down....

I can't sleep. Things seem to be piling up. Yesterday seemed to take my feet away from me and the fact that the kids experienced the same thing means that I can't just pretend it didn't happen.

Another body blow has been that I haven't received my January pay. As it happens it won't cause us a problem this month but I can't help thinking of some of my colleagues for whom this could be the last straw.

The other factor has been the overwhelming negativity I experienced as a result of my phone calls to staff. I would say 10% were quite happy to hear from me but where I got a response from the rest it centred around guidance from unions and the fact that McCrone (Scottish conditions of service agreement) suggest that they can work from home. They still don't get it - things will never be the same again. There won't even be such a thing as conditions of service!

I had two phone calls to my house which have been quite abusive from colleagues who wanted to let me know how much their calls had offended them.

But above all else I can't get Sandy Robertson out of my head - if I hadn't called he would still be alive. I know some of you think I should stop interfering. The reality is that reality has changed and we need to dramatically come to terms with that - and I include myself in that!

Friday, 25 January 2008

Sandy Robertson

The five of us arrived at school this morning to find another two pupils wanting to join us. What took me even more by surprise was the fact that one of my colleagues was also waiting at the door. Sandy, was a Biology teacher who I had called earlier in the week at home. He said that my call had been the first contact he'd had with the outside world since this thing had started and he had become ill. The fact that I had called had been a deciding factor in getting him to come in today. I have to admit to feeling immensely pleased that at least one of my calls had paid off - we were even using his room!

As had been the case yesterday we started off by just making tea and chatting. Just before 10.30am there was immense crash as one of the windows caved in. Outside a group of about six boys were gathered. I knew some of them by sight although at least a couple were strangers. Aged between 13 and 17 they were almost feral in their appearance and behaviour. They were only interested in getting the girls to come down. I couldn't believe it, after all the tragedy that people were experiencing and which had no doubt impacted upon them that all they could think about was girls. But this wasn't the friendly cat-calling and chatting-up that might have been the case a few weeks ago - this was much more menacing. They were battering on the door and pulled a metal fence post out of the ground to try to lever it open. I phoned the police not expecting any answer so was surprised when someone replied after three rings. I gave our address and explained the situation - they were on their way. Sandy made his way downstairs and told us to barricade the door.

As we watched from the window we saw Sandy trying to push them back through the broken door with a table leg. It seemed to hold them at bay for a few minutes but then one of them got a hold of his arm and he was pulled through the window. I've never witnessed such violence but couldn't bring myself to look away as they kicked and jumped on his head. Was this all my fault?

We heard the siren before we saw the car but the boys didn't seem to pay any attention. It was quite obvious that Sandy was no longer conscious yet they continued to kick and stamp- taking turns as they got tired. A solitary policeman jumped out of his car and shouted a warning but the group ignored him and carried on with their frenzied attack. I was suprised when he drew a gun from his holster, he shouted another warning then fired a shot over the boys' heads but still no effect. The oldest and biggest of the boys started to walk towards him with the table leg he had taken from Sandy. The policeman, who didn't seem to look much older than the boy, fired another shot over his head - the boy just laughed - then, in what seemed like slow motion, I saw the boy drop to the ground almost before I heard the second shot. What the hell was happening? In three weeks we had been reduced to this?!

I'm afraid that as I write this up tonight I'm completely broken. My hopes of yesterday have vanished and I wonder if we shouldn't just lock our flat door and wait at home like everyone else.

Perhaps "it" will win after all,

Thursday, 24 January 2008

"Let us learn"

When we got to school this morning we were joined by Julie, who Stephanie had called the night before. I don’t know why but I had given no thought to what the kids were going to do for the day – there had been such excitement the night before that it had never occurred to me that it was up to me. The first couple of hours passed quickly as the kids spent the time getting to know each other. Julie was 16 and David was obviously smitten at first sight.

I spent this time completing my last phone calls to staff and then started to enter my handwritten notes onto a database. In the middle of the morning Libby came to me and said they wanted to learn something. They felt that if they were coming to school they should be learning. It was strange request and not one that I had ever encountered in my 24 years of teaching. It wasn’t that they were asking to be taught, just allowed to learn. They all gathered round me expecting me to come up with something inspirational. Imagination has never been a strength so I immediately threw it back to them. They argued for while and then Julie came up with something quite brilliant. “I’d like to turn salt water into drinking water”. She didn’t take science and thought it would be fun to work out how to do it. I was so proud of David when he described the process of water distillation – I didn’t have clue how to do it so simply joined in as one of the group.

They scavenged round the lab and collected the necessary equipment: tubing; stands, clamps, bottles, etc. Having never done this before I tried to stay out of it but I was of some use by asking questions when we seemed to get stuck. It took us nearly three hours to get it right but the sense of achievement we all felt later that afternoon as we drank the distilled water was something I’ll never forget.

Perhaps we can get through this?

Wednesday, 23 January 2008


Last night had been the first time I’d heard laughter in the house since the New Year. Just having the chance to speak to another teenager face-to-face seemed to lift the twins. I came under real pressure from both David and Libby to let them come to school with me this morning – they go to another school (that sounds so ridiculous). I didn’t think I could push this at the moment given my bust up with Bob and Colin over Stephanie. I agreed that Stephanie could stay at home with the twins for the day while she tried to contact her aunts and uncle who live in England.

I’m definitely getting better, the dull headache that I’ve had since the weekend has lifted and I felt much more like myself – at least physically.

I’d spoken to my mum last night and she is still managing for herself – some woman! I told her that once I get some petrol I’ll be out to see her. I tried again to contact Graham’s mum’s residential home but it just rang out. I phoned her local council this morning but once again got no reply.

Once I got into school we all met up in the staffroom to make some decisions. Bob wasn’t there. He wasn’t answering his phone. Had I passed something on?

No-one felt comfortable to take the lead. Despite there being two Principal Teachers it was left to me to start things off – delegated roles don’t seem to mean as much in this world. I wanted to speak about Stephanie and what we should do for her. Colin was much more subdued than he had been yesterday and but he just repeated and repeated the guidance from the news and the local authority that all schools were closed to pupils to prevent infection. I’ve read all the guidance and I understand the reason for closing schools but what about children who have had the virus and recovered? Do we have to shut them out. I was accused of being totally self-centred just because I’d had “it” whereas none of the others had been infected. There was deep undercurrent of accusation running through the whole debate – I was a risk!

Once again from somewhere deep within I refused to back down – twice in two days! But even Alison who had been remarkably supportive of me up to this point thought we should keep kids out of school and that if I wasn’t happy with that that I should stay at home. Bob’s absence must have really unsettled her.

But I just kept thinking about Stephanie and all the other kids who might be out there just like her. Compromise – my greatest suit – came to my rescue when I suggested that we divide the school into two sections, the main school and a post-infection area for those kids and staff who had recovered from the virus. I immediately regretted suggesting the idea as soon as the words left my lips. Images of Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies flashed across my mind – we should be staying together not dividing ourselves. Too late to pull them back, as Alison particularly jumped at the idea. Before we could discuss anything else it was decided that I should take over the annexe area and that we could keep in contact via the phone. “It” had won again.

I moved out straight away – no hand shakes, no farewells.

In the annexe – which was absolutely freezing - I set up my base in a science room. I put on every Bunsen burner and for the rest of the day continued making my phone calls to staff.

Back home this evening we have all decided that we will go to school tomorrow. Stephanie has been in touch with a friend from school whose parents and sister had died. She had a mild infection at the same time and was now alone. I phoned her and invited her to join us tomorrow.

I can’t believe how excited the kids are – there is hope.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Child protection

We all talked last night about my need to go to work. I knew the twins were supportive of me going back but I was surprised by how adamant they were about my returning. I think part of it has to do with their own frustration about having been locked inside the house for nearly three weeks. They crave some sense of normality, some reconnection with their world. The web has been some help but they have both come to realise the need for company and semblance of structure to their day. David in particular has never been that keen on school but he needs some other outlet other than his Bebo site, his sister and his mum.

These thoughts were still on my mind when I got to school. The walk hadn’t been any easier but I was surprised when I met Stephanie, one of my favourite 4T class waiting at the school gates. She had seen me come in the day before from her flat across the street and had been planning all night to intercept me this morning. Without thinking I invited her into school and took her up to my room. As I shut the door behind us she broke down completely. Her mum, dad and granny had all died in the last few days. She was the only one of the family who had survived “it” and had called 999. I shivered when she described how the army had arrived and removed the bodies. They had taken her name and said that someone would be in touch but she hadn’t heard from anyone in since they were taken away last Friday.

I held her in my arms (this was child protection) until she began to calm down. I went to get her a cup of tea and a biscuit from the staffroom when I bumped into Bob. He had seen her come into school with me and completely lost it with me. “What is she doing in school- you know the school is closed to kids!” Colin came in and joined in. I don’t know how or why but for one of the few times in my life I didn’t concede or try to find a middle way. I told them both to “f**k off and take a look at what was happening to the world” and they wanted to stop an innocent and abandoned child from accessing one of the few things in her life to which she had any remaining ties.

Stephanie waited the rest of the day in my room while I continued to make the phone calls to staff.

We had another meeting at the end of the afternoon and both Bob and Colin apologised. I didn’t reply. We shared our information and agreed that we would meet again tomorrow morning to decide upon our next steps. Stephanie was never mentioned.

I know I shouldn’t have done this but I brought Stephanie home with me. She’s asleep in Kirsty’s room.

Graham I miss you!!

Monday, 21 January 2008


I feel guilty, I’m exhausted and the exhilaration that I felt when I got home has evaporated.

I had a bath after tea and sat and cried for the best part of an hour. It had been the same when my dad had died, during the day I would be brave but simply by stripping off I seemed to expose myself and it would really hit home.

The kids have been chatting with their pals on Bebo and Facebook – it’s by far the best way of gaining a picture about what’s happening. Many of the official websites aren’t being properly updated – absences I suppose – and I can’t help but feel that the news is censored in some way. They are exhorting people to go to work but everyone knows that no-one is – "so why should I?" - seems to be the attitude.

I’m not sure of I can go in tomorrow but it’s the only way that I can overcome this terrible sense of helplessness.

Going back

Having made sure the twins were going to be well enough to look after themselves I set off to walk to school. I had thought the three-mile walk wouldn’t be too bad but I badly miscalculated how weak I had become. I stopped on a number of occasions and almost thought about turning back but I wasn’t going to let “it” win again. The streets were nearly empty and I seemed to be one of the few who was making their way to work.

The school seemed closed when I got there but I saw Alison waving at me from her classroom. She came down and let me in (apparently someone had broken into the school last week and ransacked the kitchen). There were six other members of staff, including Alison and myself at work. We gathered in the staffroom still wearing our coats as the heating had been off for nearly a week - everyone wore masks. Our Group included Alison, Principal Teacher of Religious and Moral Education; Bob, a Craft and Design Teacher; Colin, a physics teacher; Russell, a Maths teacher; Rosemary, a Learning Support assistant; Cathie, a Principal Teacher of Home Economics; and myself, a teacher of Religious and Moral Education, there was one other teacher in the school, but Veronica, a Chemistry teacher refused to come out of her classroom. Bob the senior janitor was at school but the other two had refused to come into work. Of all the staff who were there I was the only one who had kids – and the only one who had had “it”.

The Council’s e-mail system had crashed two weeks ago and there had been no contact since that time. We sat there in silence – no one wanting to take charge. Eventually I suggested we try to find a way of communicating with our pupils and teachers at home and find some way of putting them in touch with each other. It was a basic admin’ task and it gave us something to do.

I volunteered to phone every teacher and member of staff and try to find out how they were and to tell them what we were doing. We had decided that we shouldn’t try to pressurise anyone to return to work but that we would keep them up to speed with what we were doing and give them a chance to help from home.

Alison kept trying to phone the education department but couldn’t get anyone to answer the phone. Colin was asked to call of our primary schools and Cathie to call our neighbouring secondary schools.

By the end of the day we had made contact with some of the schools – but most did not answer. My phone calls to staff had not been a success. Of those who did answer many were ill, or caring for ill relatives. I kept a list and it seemed that 15 teachers and other staff had died so far, including Mr Docherty. Quite a few of my colleagues had taken exception to being contacted at home and told me to leave them alone. People want nothing to do with the outside world.

At least we had made a start and at our meeting at the end of the day it was left to me to sum up and set out our plans for the next day. Alison still had petrol in her car and she gave me a lift back to the house. It felt good to have done something to fight back.

Sunday, 20 January 2008


David and Libby are getting better. Their fevers are reducing and they even managed to eat some toast this morning. The feeling of togetherness against a common enemy has been a powerful source of strength.

We spoke late into the night about Dad and Kirsty. David was incredibly close to his father. They both shared a passion for football and he wanted to talk about Graham, while Libby was content just to listen. Despite their illness they seemed to be taking charge and keeping me going.

We've always loved living in the New Town yet earlier in our lives had often talked about moving out to somewhere like Barnton or Trinity to get a house with a garden but neither of us could ever bring ourselves to leave the city centre. Everything is on your doorstep - galleries, restaurants, theatres, shops - so we just stayed, even after the twins were born. Yet this wonderful house, this home, has become a prison. Wherever I look I see Graham. The photographs, the paintings, the clutter he left in his wake. There's even a pile of his discarded clothes lying beside our bed - I used to nag him about never tidying up. I keep expecting him to appear in the doorway or to be in a room when I enter. I even thought I heard his voice this morning from the kitchen but when I rushed through it was just the radio. This thing has stolen him. Poisoned our home. Infected our lives. Stolen our memories.

Expected to work

I received a letter from my teachers' union national office. It had been posted nearly two weeks ago just when the outbreak was starting. It referred to the Planning for Human Flu Pandemic - Guidance for Schools and made specific mention of section 2.9. about the closure of schools:

2.9 ..........In this context, 'closure' means closure to pupils; staff who are not ill would still be expected to come to work. Agreed arrangements whereby staff may be temporarily transferred to other schools or services to aid or maintain operational capacity should also be considered.

The union (of which I'm our school rep') were strongly urging staff not to go work. If the schools are closed to pupils they should be closed to everyone to prevent the spread of infection and to protect the health of teachers. The union was offering to support any member who was threatened with disciplinary action for not going to work during these exceptional circumstances. It went on to argue that as the Government had not put any plans in place to support remote learning (BBC Jam had folded in March '07) and that teachers could not be held responsible for any significant disruption to children's learning.

Reading this two weeks later with the knowledge of what's happening I can't help thinking that this advice was written in another time, almost another dimension. Why shouldn't we go to work? What if the petrol tanker drivers, the doctors, the shopkeepers, the electricity workers.....the undertakers all decided that they should stay at home to protect their own health? We've gone so far past the old lines of contracts and conditions of service that we need to re-think how we behave.

I phoned Alison and she had received the same letter a couple of days ago. There were only six teachers in the school on Friday and three of them said they weren't coming in on Monday. No-one is checking who's in or absent and the link with the authority is non-existent.

In the past, the old me, would probably have gone along with all this, but I've changed. I'm angry that this thing, this tiny virus, has reduced us to quivering wrecks who simply retreat to our homes and submit to its will.

We can't let it win.