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.