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Notes from a small workshop - anecdotes & musings from the workbench
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A sound lesson



Of all the memories I have of my schooldays the one that sticks out clearest in my mind is that of walking away from school on my very last day.
A mere 16 years old, I walked down the drive, stopped at the gate, turned around and looked at the pile of bricks and mortar that was the institution that had occupied the last 11 years of my life - and I remember thinking, with some considerable relief, "That's the last I'll ever see of a school".

Oh, not that I didn't enjoy my schooldays - far from it, I have very fond memories of my years as a schoolboy - but I felt I was ready to move on, to be treated as an adult, to make my own way in the world.
It's therefore entirely ironic that I should, some three months later, find myself back in school - although this time they called it a college. It's even more ironic that after leaving college some two years later I found that my life was to be inextricably tied to schools via the nature of my work.
Sometimes it feels like I've spent more time in schools since leaving than I ever did as a pupil!

And so it was, some six years ago, that the wheel turned full circle and I had to study the options for my own son's education.
Choosing a school for your children has to be one of the most important choices you'll ever make, and when you find the establishment that best meets your criteria you can be forgiven for being over-enthusiastic to the point of making rash promises in order to ensure your offspring secure a place.
I can't recall precisely what I said to the head teacher at my son's school, but I can bet it was along the lines of "I'm not one of those 'leave it up to the teachers' kind of parents - I want to get involved".

So I shouldn't really have been that surprised that I was taken at my word when, a few months later, the head called me up and 'informed' me that they wanted to vote me onto the board of governors.
Ah, what a peculiarly piquant feeling - the realisation that one's carefully crafted rock and roll image lies in ruins, coupled with a rather agreeable notion of having achieved respectability. This must surely be how people like Sting and Sir Bob Geldolf must have felt...only without the money.

As part of my duties as a parent-governor I have to sit in on lessons and evaluate the staff's performance. The drawback to this is that as soon as you set foot inside the school you're seen as a potential 'resource' - and you don't get to be a good teacher without knowing where and what your resources are, so it wasn't long before I was asked to 'consider' sharing some of my expertise with the pupils in the form of an informal lesson.
Why the 'quotes'? Well, when you're on the receiving end of the head's Basilisk-like stare it tends to transport you right back to those days when you were but a mere whippersnapper, and teachers were something to be feared. Of course, I'm all grown up now (allegedly), and I know I can't be given detention or made to write lines... but I can certainly find my committee meeting biscuit ration withheld, or worse still, being given the job of writing a school policy on politics in the workplace.

So, naturally, I agreed.
The pupils were building their own musical instruments, and it was felt that I could add to their understanding by explaining exactly what 'sound' was.
It all seemed so easy - as a musician I have an innate understanding of what sound is, and I'm here to tell you that it's...er...well, it's sound, isn't it. I'd never really had to consider the matter before - and certainly not in the context of a bunch of children who wouldn't have any truck with such terms as 'resonance' and 'acoustics' - I had to find a way to simplify a complicated topic that I'd never really thought about.

And so it was that I turned up at school with my box of bits and pieces and my heavily edited notes....most of which comprised lengthy technical explanations drawn out deep into the night, crossed out the next morning and replaced with 'bang wood with mallet...makes noise... this is sound!'
I figured it wouldn't be so hard really, but then I'd never faced a class of 15 eight year old children and tried to maintain their interest whilst commanding all the due respect my age and status afforded me.
I tell you, teachers live on a knife-edge. It's not that the kids are actively looking for cracks and flaws, it's just that if you display any they seem to naturally home in on them. And it's not that they're malicious either (or am I being naive here?), they just have a knack of asking the most atrociously awkward questions.
I quite fancy myself as an Orator - I can quite comfortably picture myself at the Old Bailey, giving forth to the jury with such classic phrases as "..and I put it to you, learned members of the jury.." and ".. are we SERIOUSLY expected to believe..." - and yet in front of a class of little children you simply don't have that option. If you dare to try it you'll be met with blank stares, muffled giggles, and always, always one cheeky little sod who'll say "Wot you talking about, mister?"...or the incredibly disarming "You're so-and-so's dad, ain't you?".

So I banged on my bits of wood, scraped bits of string, blew into various pipes and tubes in an effort to show the children what sound was - and all the time thinking how much better I'd be with a pint of beer at my side and a ciggy on the go.
I found that I had to constantly re-evaluate my lecture on the fly. You can start off with the best intentions of talking about how vibrations pass through the air and get translated into sound in the ear, and end up splashing about with jugs of water (which was, I admit, lots of fun).
I think they got the gist of it though - they certainly seemed happy enough, but then this might have been simply down to the fact that watching so-and-so's dad make a fool of himself was much more fun than listening to their teacher - who had it all wrapped up years ago, and had more snappy comebacks than a good stand-up comedian on a bad night.
It comes to something though when the teacher gets up after your half hour of waffling, thanks you for the lecture, and then neatly and succinctly summarises all the relevant points in two sentences. I had to resist the temptation to pipe up with "Ah yes, that's what I meant to say, of course".

But I'm proud to be associated with the school - and proud that other people would consider my opinions as to how such a place should be run to be valuable.
The school itself, West Meon Primary, is a charming rural church school set in the heart of the West Meon Valley. By any standards it's a small school, with a mere 70 or so pupils - and yet this belies the standard of education that it achieves. I'm not being flippant when I say that it's one of the very best schools in Hampshire - if not the UK... and that's a hefty statement backed up Ofsted, the government's own benchmark for educational standards. That's a simply incredible feat, and one that reflects the dedication and hard work that both the staff and the governors put into it.

It shows too in the atmosphere at the school - it's something you can feel when you walk into the school. There's a sense of pride there, a quiet (well, OK, not always quiet) dignity, a feeling of mutual trust and respect - and a benevolent, vibrant energy that's built around nurture and encouragement.
If there's a drawback to the school it's that it's somewhat cramped. Indeed, at the school's last Ofsted report this was the only area in which the inspectors felt matters could be improved - and that's a quite an achievement given the fact that the school was built over 150 years ago to service a fraction of the pupils it manages now.

As a governor it falls to me, and the rest of the governing body, to take on board the responsibility of improving the school - which means raising a substantial sum of money to build a small extension onto the school. This will be no mean feat, considering the structure of the school with its flint-built walls, and the relatively small parent base to pump for donations. But we're committed to try - and with two children at the school and another joining in four years time I have an awful lot of incentive, coupled with a firm belief that establishments such as these have to be preserved for the future of all our children.
You'd think that, considering the achievements of the school, the government would be jumping over itself to wholly fund such an improvement - but it doesn't appear to be the case, unfortunately.


Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015