Exit Stage Left Part Four
If you have not read the other posts in this series from the beginning, please go back to this post first::
(N.B. Before you begin to read this post, I would like to make the following clear: assessment under accommodating circumstances is a pretty common occurrence in education. Most exam boards, schools, colleges and universities have a clear procedure in place. I've never actually encountered an institution before which prefers to make it up as they go along. For many reasons, this is unwise.)
The Three Insults
Following the highly inappropriate and potentially abusive declaration of love from his ballet teacher in front of the entire class, our son is made to endure another tutorial - this time with the assistant ballet principal / timetable manager. He reports this tutorial to be especially vicious. She plays a dangerous game - she assures him that no decisions about his future have been made; but also reassures him that there is life after ballet. Just to remind you - he hasn't actually danced properly for ten weeks at this point. She also tells him about the telephone conversation, and she apologises to him for the way she has spoken to me on the phone. She says that she is sorry for shouting at me. This is bizarre behaviour by any standards. If the apology had been that sincere, she might have thought of calling me back and apologising in person rather than using a thirteen year old as a go-between. Why burden the child? No mention is made of him being sick for five weeks, and still not dancing a full ballet class.
Just for a moment, let's look at this from the perspective of our son:
He’s been sick. He has returned to school, but still not fully recovered. His official report says that no assessment is possible, but he has been given a full tutorial as if he were healthy in which he is told he is rubbish, and made to write down just how terrible his dancing is. His ballet teacher has gone into class and revealed details of an email written to me by our son, and told the child that he loves him. He then receives a second tutorial in which he is again made to feel woefully inadequate. Could they make the situation any more bewildering for a child recovering from glandular fever?
And this is just the beginning. The real damage done to the pupils at the school is about to become abundantly clear to us.
We know nothing of the comments in class or the second tutorial at this point in time. We are still struggling to understand what has happened with this assessment and tutorial: what are the protocols and procedures behind giving a sick child a full tutorial based on an assessment that either has or has not happened?
On the same afternoon as the phone call, I manage to contact the member of management whom I have been told will be able to answer my question about accommodated assessment. She can't. I am disarmed by how brazen she is about not knowing how a recovering child is assessed. However she assures me that a document exists which will answer my question. She just needs to find it. I make it clear to her that I have read all the process documents that I can find online, and there is no guidance to be found. I am told that she will investigate and send me the answer I am looking for.
I am unable to make the parent teacher conference a couple of days later. I have work commitments. But, as I have already reported, we have been ordered to go despite receiving a letter saying no assessment of our son is possible. His mum dutifully attends. She describes the encounter as ‘horrendous’. Unable to talk about our son’s dancing, the ballet teacher lectures her on the muscle groups required for ballet. He doesn't know what she does for a living, so his attempts to blind her with science result in him appearing somewhat foolish. There is no dancer in the world who is more accomplished because they can name muscle groups. He then talks about what a lovely smile our son has. (Our son hasn't told us about the ‘I love you’ incident at this stage). And he concludes the meeting by showing them pictures of his own child on his phone. Son and mother see unamused by this encounter and squirm with embarrassment at the teacher’s incompetence and inability to assess the situation or show any degree of professionalism. It would appear that in accordance with the letter we have received, no assessment of our son's ballet has been possible. The journey to the school and the meeting with the teacher has been in vain.
The following week at school, the teacher greets our son in front of the whole class with the words: ‘So, is your mother happy, now?’ - Another attempt at humiliation, and another incident of indiscretion from a man who, in my view, should not be working with children.
My attempts to find out how our son was assessed when no assessment was possible have run aground. After several days of emails pinging back and forth between me and the person who assures me that they can answer my question, if only they can find the document. Then they adopt a different approach. They decide that insulting my intelligence is probably the best strategy. The following happens:
(Punctuation is provided by the Ballet School - left unedited by me)
I'm feeling frustrated. I also fear that I am going slightly insane. The person who could not originally answer my question and tells me to speak to someone else is suddenly able to write this pitiful and patronising email. For five days they have been completely wasting my time. As they know, I've read the Reporting and Assessment Policy, and there is nothing in it to suggest why a child who cannot be formally assessed owing to illness should then be subjected to a highly critical tutorial. I'm not being taken for a fool, so I write one last email to the member of staff who was supposed to be able to answer my question - the second person I have been dealing with, not the one who shouts on the phone. I explain how dissatisfied I am with the way this simple concern has been dealt with, but that I do not wish to turn it into a formal complaint. I ask what she suggests in order to prevent the concern escalating into something more formal. I click send. I wait.
I wait and I wait. Several days pass. There is no response.
I have no option. I write a formal letter of complaint to the director of the school.
Next time: The meeting with the director, and the treatment of our son becomes even more sinister.
Exit Stage Left Part Three
Please go back to the first of these blog posts, if you are new to Exit Stage Left:
One Simple Line
Why are you scared of me? I love you … I love you.
Someone else had been in the room, and we had been on speaker phone. This was not declared to me at the time, and it was denied during the call. So, there is every chance that the teachers are making faces, exchanging glances and gesturing - all without my knowledge. I am trying to find out why our child has been sending me distress signals via email, and why he has had to endure quite a brutal tutorial despite having been unable to dance properly for over ten weeks; meanwhile they have been exchanging secret signals, and when they think that they have hung up the phone, they unwittingly reveal their contempt for me with their laughter, and their comment that they think I am angry. I hadn't been angry. However, with this disregard for my privacy (please see the school’s complaint procedure), I am pretty mystified. Where I grew up, there was a much repeated phrase to express astonishment, I can imagine my dad saying it in with his own particular accent: Well, I don't know, it beggars belief. At this point in the story, my belief is beggared.
It is several weeks before I actually get the admission from the school that I have been overheard by another teacher who was also in the room, and I was indeed on speakerphone. But if I had been in any doubt about this fact, the actions of the teacher who was permitted to eavesdrop, confirm my suspicion. What happens next is extraordinary. Why would an adult man behave in this way? Stupidity? Complacency? Arrogance? A combination of all three? My theory: is that by eavesdropping on our conversation, the ballet teacher had his pride dented. He made a discovery that he couldn't cope with, and he took extreme action. This is my only explanation of what happens, because the next event is like something from a cheap, incredulously plotted bit of television drama.
After hearing that my son has been distressed by the unfair treatment of him, the ballet teacher goes into class and repeats details of what he has heard on the phone in front of all the boys and then says the line:
Why are you scared of me? I love you … I love you.
This line was said. It is a fact. In the subsequent meetings, reports and enquiries, it has been agreed by all parties that the phrase was indeed uttered. The Ballet School think it is all right for an adult man to say this to a child. The local safeguarding authority have described it as ‘deeply concerning’. And I think that it reveals a pernicious, controlling and dangerous mind-set for any adult to have, especially when they are working with children.
This is my first point: as a parent I have a real problem with an adult, who is not that child’s parent or relative, telling the child in public that he loves him. I consider it to be abusive. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Here is my real point: I have an further problem with this being said to a child as it indicates an unhealthy need to rewrite the past in the child’s mind and tell them what to think. The teacher has heard that the child is upset by something that he has done; his idealised view of himself is disrupted, and so he imposes his own belief on the child in a public context where the child’s sense of shame is heightened. He has heard that he is not adored, and that the child is scared of him, and he has to correct what the child believes with the other children providing witness and reinforcement. As an adult, he has to impose his will on that of a child. It is the sign of a desperate man trying to dominate the world view of his student. It has no place in the dialogue which is essential between teacher and pupil. It is like something out of a George Orwell novel. It is thought-control at its most pernicious. In my view, this is not healthy behaviour.
Imagine the confusion of our son. At this point in time our son has no idea that a telephone conversation has occurred, or that I have ‘leaked’ contents from his email believing myself to be speaking in privacy. He just gets accosted by his teacher in class.
You might think that I am being too harsh, but I think that any adult who behaves like this should not be working with children, and more importantly, I think that any organisation which tolerates this, or makes excuses for it, or says that it is acceptable, needs to be shut down. Look, I don't want to tell you what to think. If you feel that I am overreacting, or if you feel that under these circumstances you would have been happy for an adult man to say this one simple line to your child, just let me know. I am eager to listen.
But, this is only the beginning. In terms of the psycho-terror that our son is made to endure, this is just the start. I'm afraid that you are going to have to wait until the next post to find out the horrors that are awaiting him.
Next time: The phone conversation has further consequences; it becomes clear that if you don't pledge total obedience, their behaviour plunges to shocking depths.
This is part of a series of blog posts to be read in order. If you have not started at the beginning, please start with this post first:
Our son had been unable to attend school for five weeks. We watched him day after day sit immobile and unable to even hold a book or an iPad. He was permanently pale green and had thick black circles under his eyes. He simply had no strength. The doctors diagnosed glandular fever, and we settled in to the long haul of the recovery. Of course, we worried; his daily progress was imperceptible, and his disinterest in everything around him was something we had never encountered from him. This child who loved to move: play, dance, climb, run, had become inert. Even a short walk would render him even more exhausted. Great Ormond Street Hospital explains on their website the care needed during recovery - a percentage of children never recover; the glandular fever becomes a permanent viral fatigue. The trigger for this seems to be doing too much exercise too early. So his return to ballet would need to be handled with real care.
Eventually he went back. He started to dance but on a reduced timetable, using the time when he wasn't dancing to watch the classes of other years. He was struggling, and often tired, but he seemed to be enjoying himself - especially watching the older children dance. We were also assured that he would have a meeting with the nutritionist, a meeting with the head of academics, and regular additional sessions with the physiotherapists. The meetings with the nutritionist never materialised, neither did the meeting with the head of academics, and the sessions with the physiotherapists were infrequent and shared with other children each suffering from their own diverse injuries. However, his confidence was returning, and he seemed to be getting very slowly stronger. After several weeks back at school, he was still unable to dance a full class, and would alternate between barre and centre work each day.
Towards the end of the term we were sent a report which announced owing to his illness, no assessment for that term had been possible. We were in agreement with this - a lack of report seemed self-explanatory under the circumstances; and we assumed that any summative assessment would be postponed until the following term when he was dancing fully again.
This is now the point where things start to unravel. The parallel universe begins to open up, and we are all pushed into a reality which follows a crazy logic which only Ballet School staff seem able to follow.
We receive an email from our son. He is distraught. Despite an assessment not being possible and no report about him being prepared, he has had to endure a full tutorial with his ballet teacher. Despite not having danced a full class for over ten weeks, his ballet technique and his confidence is unpicked, and he is left to feel like a complete failure. We also receive an email to say that we are to attend the parent teacher conference for ballet, even though no assessment has been made about our son. We politely question the decision that we have to rock up to the parents’ consultation and we are told by the administrator that she has checked with the Ballet staff and we absolutely have to be there. We receive another email from our son written in BLOCK CAPITALS exclaiming that we have to be there on Saturday, and no alternative meeting will be scheduled the following term.
I write a very polite and cautious email to the person responsible for these decisions. Her role is actually quite a confusing one - depending on which online biography you read online, she is either the ‘Assistant Ballet Principal’ (!) or the ‘Time-Table Manager’. I fully expect that this has all been a mistake that can be cleared up swiftly, so I write asking for an explanation and perhaps even a copy of the procedural document that they are following which might suggest how a child who has been off sick, or injured, is assessed artistically. By sending this email, I am about to open a Pandora’s box; and as we know once all the diseases from the box have flown out into the world, something far more damaging is left behind … Hope.
The morning after sending the email, I receive a phone call. It's the ‘Assistant Ballet Principal’ or the ‘Timetable Manager’ - wearing whichever hat is in fashion that day. I’m out walking the dog, so I have plenty of time to talk. The member of staff wants to talk about a lot of things, but wasn't able to answer my questions. I didn't want to talk about the things that she wanted to talk about, but I did want to keep returning to my questions, and ask them again. I want to know two simple things:
1. How can a tutorial be given when no assessment is possible?
2. What procedures are being followed for assessment under mitigating circumstances?
These are two straight-forward questions which I would expect any school to be able to answer. Here are some gems from the conversation. The content makes it clear who is speaking:
On everyone being treated in the same way, or 'parity of experience' as I call it in my email:
- Everyone has been treated the same, I can assure you.
- Well, we haven't. We have got to come to a meeting without seeing an assessment document.
- There will be many parents who have received their report who haven't had the time to read it. Some of these people are so busy.
- That's supposition. You don't know that for a fact.
- I know this is the case. I assure you.
- Yes but that's their choice. They have chosen to not read the report before coming to the meeting.
- Well we haven't been able to make that choice, because we haven't received a report, but we still have to come to the meeting.
- Well, yes, that's true.
- So not everyone has been treated in the same way.
- Okay. Now I begin to see your point.
Then there is this on whether we had to come to the meeting or not:
- To be honest, I think the school is being really inflexible by insisting that we come to these meetings when we've not actually had a report.
- No one has said you have to come to these meetings.
- Yes they have. We've received an email from your administration saying that we have to be at there on Saturday.
- I never said that to her. She must have misunderstood me.
- Someone said it to our son, too.
- How do you know?
- He sent me an email. In block capitals, saying that we had to be there, and there was no possibility of a meeting in January.
- Well I don't know why he said that.
- Well someone has said it to him otherwise he wouldn't have sent us an email ... writing in block capitals.
This was one of my favourites. This is about whether assessment has happened or not:
- So what is the tutorial (with our son) and the assessment meeting (with us) going to be based on bearing in mind no assessment has taken place?
- I don't know why you keep referring to an assessment meeting. It's not an assessment meeting.
- What would you like me to call it then?
- It's a 'chat' it's just a 'chat'.
- Okay, so what is the chat going to be based on bearing in mind no assessment has taken place.
- It's just a chat. That's all it is. It. Is. Just. A. Chat.
- Based on what?
- How he has been in ballet over the last few classes.
- So you've made an assessment?
- No. We have not made an assessment!!!! [At this point, I am being shouted at]
Then something strange happens. Our conversation ends, but the Timetable Manager / Assistant Ballet Principal fails to hang up the phone, and I am fumbling with mine because I am trying to talk, walk, and manage the dog. So I hear the sound of laughter, and the TTM / ABP saying, ‘He’s angry. Yep. He’s really angry.’
Our conversation resumes:
- Have I been on speaker phone?
- Has someone else been in the room with you all this time?
- Has … [name of our son’s ballet teacher] been in the room?
- But I just heard you saying I was angry. Who were you speaking to?
- Oh, just someone who called into the office?
- Just a member of staff.
This becomes an important plot point for later on. Our member of staff with her two hats denied that I had been on speaker phone, and denied that there had been anyone else in the room for the duration of the conversation. Also, just to clarify: the conversation had mystified me, but I wasn't angry, and throughout the entire conversation I had not raised my voice once - unlike the staff member who had been shouting down the phone at me throughout.
Our conversation continues:
- I've just heard you say to a colleague that I'm angry. I'm not angry. I'm very precise in the information that I need. But I'm really not angry. What makes you think that?
- Oh. You shouldn't have heard me say that. Well it's a very angry email.
- It's not an angry email.
- It's an angry email.
- Can you read me the bits that you think are angry?
- Well, what's all this about 'parity of experience'?
- I'm just asking how you can be sure that the treatment of our son is fair?
- (Long pause) ... I don't actually know what 'parity of experience' really means
The conversation concludes with the agreement that I would talk to another member of staff because the Timetable Manager / Assistant Ballet Principal wasn't actually qualified to talk about how injured children are treated during an assessment.
Later that day, another member of staff did get back to me. We had a more honest, but equally embarrassing exchange. She admitted that she didn't know the procedures for assessment under mitigating circumstances, but looked them up. She conceded though that these were not the procedures for ballet. She couldn't find the ballet procedure but imagined it to be that each case was discussed on its own merit.
So there is a policy of sorts - but no transparency and no accountability. If this had been one of my procedures when I was working in higher education, I guarantee two things would have happened: the course would have failed its QAA audit and been shut down; a student would have sued me.
I probably would have been happy to let the matter rest here, but what happens next is truly astonishing. Had I known what the consequences of this phone call were to have, I would have just got in the car and collected him and all his stuff - never to return. But at this point in the story I believe that we are all going to still behave like adults and regrettably I still have hope.
Next time: The sins of the father are visited on the son.