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How are things at home, Casper?

March 20, 2016

I must have been teaching for around thirty years when a colleague brought me news that a former pupil of mine was now on the staff at a local primary school. He had been a smashing pupil and I could well imagine he would have become an excellent teacher. My colleague reported back:

“He said he always enjoyed your English classes and hopes you are well. He said to ask if you are still teaching ‘Kes’”

I burst out laughing – nearly three decades later, I was, indeed, “still teaching ‘Kes’”.

You could question my long term commitment to reading a novel with so many succeeding generations of English classes: surely it would be past its sell by date? Would the pupils understand its references so many years later? Written for a different world, would it still be relevant? Was I just being lazy, teaching the same old, same old? And, anyway, why teach a novel so grittily set in the north of England to pupils in the different landscape of central Scotland?

It is, perhaps, a testament to the writing of Barry Hines, who has died today, that none of the answers to these questions suggest I was wrong to continue reading and discussing this novel with pupils well into the 21st century – half a century after it first appeared.

“A kestrel for a knave” is not “classic literature” in the timeless mode of Dickens, Stevenson or Eliot; its greatness does not lie in imposing language or skilful plotting. But what this novel possesses is insight and impact.

As a pupil myself in the sixties, the literature diet we were fed was not inspiring – I still have memories of RM Ballantye’s “The Coral Island”, – and I was given a love of reading by my own Friday evening visits to the local Carnegie Library, from whence I borrowed armfuls of Enid Blyton, Eric Leyland, and Anthony Buckeridge.

This meant, though I was schooled no more than a hundred miles from Barnsley, where the novel is set, I only came across “Kes” for the first time, in its film version, as part of my teacher training course at Moray House in Edinburgh.

The film left a lasting effect. It demonstrated a side to teaching to which I had not been exposed as a pupil myself – the idea of a teacher who “cared” about his pupils, the link between home background and school achievement, the importance of high expectations and the value of treating each pupil as an individual.

In my reflective book on education (School Ties and Lessons Learned”. (http://www.lulu.com/shop/se%C3%A1n-mcpartlin/school-ties-and-lessons-learned/paperback/product-21810884.html) I spend some time describing the role “Kes” played in forming my approach as a teacher – and, in particular, the impact of Colin Welland as “Mr Farthing”, the prototype “guidance teacher”. It may seem simplistic to credit a film and a book with instilling such a philosophy, but, alongside all I learned from colleagues in my first teaching post, “Kes” was far more influential than anything else I was taught at training college.

Part of the power of the film came from the acting of Colin Welland as Mr Farthing, Bob Bowes, as the headteacher, and Brian Glover, as Sugden the PE teacher. Like Hines, the writer, and Ken Loach, the director – all of these had actually worked as teachers, and many of the child actors and extras came from St Helen’s School in Barnsley In addition, cinematographer, Chris Menges, had graduated from the “World in Action” school, of documentary making. All of this brought a “reality” to the film which gave it authority and verisimilitude.

In a similar fashion, Hines’ writing – not just in “A kestrel for a knave” but in “The Blinder”, “Looks and Smiles” and “The Price of Coal” benefited in that it was based on first hand knowledge of education, football, and the coal mining community which had nurtured him, devoid of sentimentality.

All of this meant I was lucky, and probably privileged, to gain an early understanding of something which is vital about education, but which seems singularly invisible to succeeding generations of politicians: you can’t test or assess a child to success if they come from an impoverished background; you can spend millions on a school, but unless you address the social iniquities which lead to educational inequalities, your efforts will largely be in vain; and, while teachers must teach with the highest of expectations if they wish to ameliorate a vulnerable child’s future options, without role models in the home and in local communities, their quest to level the academic playing field is a very tall order.

In “A kestrel for a knave”, when Farthing is chatting to Billy, all of the above is made clear.
“You’ll be leaving school soon, won’t you”
“Ar.”
“Are you not looking forward to it?”
“I suppose so…”
“I thought you would be dying to leave, I thought you didn’t like school,.”
“I don’t, but that don’t mean I’ll like work, does it?”

I never lost my passion for the book or its message and I suppose it “worked” with so many pupils over the years because classes respond well to a teacher teaching with passion.

In writing “A kestrel for a knave”, and in creating Billy Casper and Mr Farthing and the rest, Hines had an impact on so many pupils and teachers which was far wider than any he could have hoped to have achieved had he stayed as a teacher.

It was education at its widest and most effective, and was written with the sense of community – with all its faults as well as its supports – which sprung from the Yorkshire coal fields. Those communities have been taken apart, but it would be nice to believe that those still teaching are fighting for the values espoused in the book – protection of the vulnerable, promotion of talent, and recognition of the uniqueness of each and every pupil.

I only failed once, I think, with the novel.

A girl arrived in Edinburgh from Texas and was put in my English class. On the day she arrived, we were starting “Kes”. Having lived for ten years in the north of England, I fancied I could read the novel with a fair northern accent. It proved impenetrable to her American ear, and she never returned.

For the rest of us, however, the message still rings out, loud and clear.

Thank you, Barry!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ross Mack permalink
    March 21, 2016 2:25 am

    So “Kes” was ok, but what about he use of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” when introducing a poetry unit. First we listened to it then broke down each line in the song and interpreted what he was saying to finally listen and understand.

    I will never forget that, thank you for being a teacher that cared and understood his students.

    • March 21, 2016 7:40 pm

      Thanks Ross for your kind words – have to say your year group were a treat to teach – and seeing how so many of you have turned out as such fine people is a huge joy to me!

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