In the autumn of 2003, I was lucky enough to visit Durban in South Africa with a group of Sheffield schoolteachers. One of my lasting memories is of the five days I spent at the Ogwini Technical School in the vast Umlazi shanty town on the southern edge of the city.
One day I had to teach a class of sixty Zulu pupils aged thirteen to twenty. The windowless room was chock-a-block. I asked them to write a letter to schoolchildren in England, telling them all about their lives. As they grafted away, you could have heard a pin drop. These were impoverished children from tin shacks. Most were barefoot. And you know what - every single one of them had a pen to write with!
And now here in Bangkok, I am teaching some of the sons and daughters of Thailand's aspirational and wealthy upper class. Once again every single child has a pen to write with. In fact here every child has pencils, crayons, highlighters, sticky tape, glue, erasing pens, scissors etc.. The idea of requesting a pen from a teacher is utterly unheard of.
Wind back to my working class Sheffield comprehensive school or "technology college" as they preferred to call it. There wasn't ever a lesson that began without a bunch of "students" requesting pens to write with. Often they would fail to hand these pens back. In other words they stole them. In my English department we tried letters home, detentions, fines, pen monitors, lists -whatever we could think of - but still a hard core never brought pens or even carried schoolbags. There were 870 children in the school and in my last year I had to order some five thousand cheap black ballpoint pens
You had the mentally certifiable headmistress claiming it didn't matter - we had bigger things to deal with - oh, and by the way, could we ensure that homework was set each week and where's your action plan for next term? All those computers, those career lessons, all those highly paid teachers and ancillary staff and yet sometimes I felt that my English colleagues and I were the only ones who understood that having a pen was a symbol of intent as much as anything. Without a pen, children were simply sticking two fingers up at the system, declaring they didn't really give a damn. It was a contagious disease.
The children of Ogwini, like the children of St Stephens Bangkok, prove that I wasn't mad or unreasonable to expect pupils to be responsible enough to bring pens to school. This is something that will never make newspaper headlines but it demonstrates that the pompous, conference visiting, expenses-claiming, back-slapping gobs-on-legs who preside over England's education system will frequently fail to see the trees and the bushes that make the wood.