An art history of school inspections

School inspections have long been an important subject for artists, and depictions of such inspections have been noted in the hieroglyphs of the Ancient Egyptians as well as the friezes of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. In this post, I would like to retell the story of school inspections through the works of the great artists from the latter half of the last millennium.

Perhaps no other painter has captured the essence of an inspection quite as faithfully as did Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Brueghel the Elder in the 16th century. One of his most famous works is ‘The Staffroom After “The Call”‘ (1550):

'The Staffroom After "The Call"' (1550) by Pieter Brueghel
‘The Staffroom After “The Call”‘ (1550) by Pieter Brueghel

In this painting, we see how some of the younger, less experienced members of staff have to restrain those that remember the school’s last inspection. It is also interesting to note that some of the members of staff take a more practical approach to the inspection by hiding or – more creatively – stripping down, putting their underwear on their head and defecating in the corner in an act of feigned illness.

Pieter Brueghel (1566)
‘Direct Instruction’ (1566) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

This later painting (above) by Brueghel depicts the moment when the lead inspector (far right foreground, light blue smock) informs the headteacher (dark smock, looking perturbed) that John the Baptist’s lesson has had far too much ‘preacher talk’ and not enough group work.

Interestingly, when this work was reproduced (below) by Brueghel’s son some time later, the bearded man – facing away from the preacher, in the centre foreground – was removed. According to documents attributed to Brueghel the Younger, he and other disruptive members of the group were taken to Olde Thorpe Parke for that version of the painting.

Reproduction by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (after 1616)
Reproduction (after 1616) by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

Brueghel the Younger also painted a reproduction of the work below, ‘Grading the Lesson Observation’ (1480) by Heironymus Bosch.

'Grading the Lesson Observation' (1580) by Hieronymus Bosch
‘Grading the Lesson Observation’ (1580) by Hieronymus Bosch

In this image, the inspector is giving feedback to the observed teacher, showing the teacher exactly how the grade is arrived at. Details about the methods of grading are sketchy, but we are led to believe it has something to with the inspector’s skilful legerdemain.

Bosch of course famously painted the classic ‘An Outstanding Three-Part Differentiated Lesson’ (1510), below.

'An Outstanding Three-Part Differentiated Lesson' (1510) by Heironymus Bosch
‘An Outstanding Three-Part Differentiated Lesson’ (1510) by Heironymus Bosch

Again, not much is known about this painting, but art historians largely agree that the number of differentiated tasks that can be seen in the triptych’s main central image total at least 58, and we know from the title that this was enough to warrant a grade of ‘outstanding’. Some experts have argued that the fact that a number of the pupils in the image seem passive would have certainly led to a lower grade, but others suggest that the sense of creativity and fun that the lesson depicts would have been enough to distract the inspector.

Whilst depictions of inspections are most prevalent in the Flemish Renaissance movement, there are certainly many other notable pieces of work from later years that touch on the inspection experiences of teachers and leaders.

One of my favourites is William Holman Hunt’s piece, ‘Boy, Am I Glad It’s You’ (1854), which brings to life the moment, during an inspection, that the classroom door opens mid-lesson and it turns out to be merely a friendly colleague.

'Boy, Am I Glad It's You' (1854) by William Holman Hunt
‘Boy, Am I Glad It’s You’ (1854) by William Holman Hunt

Another more subtle piece is Ramon Casas’ ‘Data Manager: 4am, Day Two’ (1895):

'Data Manager: 4am, Day Two' (1895)
‘Data Manager: 4am, Day Two’ (1895)

This image of the school’s data manager, spreadsheet in hand, exhausted across a seat in the staffroom at 4am is one of the most enduring images of a school inspection. Commentators often note that she isn’t sleeping, in fact her eyes are open and the ‘thousand yard stare’ she holds is one of “whimpering resignation” (Sister Wendy Beckett).

Into the early 20th century, and this wood carving by Eric Gill (below) shows the head and deputy head offering up biscuits to the lead inspector upon his arrival. Note from the insignia on the biscuits that these are premium heather honey and saffron macarons from Fortnum & Mason, not those biscuits that you all get in staff meetings.

'Refreshments for the Lead Inspector' 1915 by Eric Gill
‘Refreshments for the Lead Inspector’ (1915) by Eric Gill

School inspections have long been a motif in art movements that span cultures and eras. I hope that you have enjoyed looking at a few of my favourites.


Have you tried *NEW* Diamond Shreddies? (Life after ‘life after levels’)

ShreddiesI can picture it now: It’s September 2015 and the DfE, under the stewardship of the new Labour government, are preparing to relaunch National Curriculum Levels:

“Here are the suggested slogans for the relaunch material we are sending out to schools, Mr. Hunt. We’ve narrowed it down to one of these and you have final approval.”

“Great, Toby, what have we got? Let’s see… What’s this? ‘THEY’RE GR-R-REAT!’ Hm. I like it, but we’d have to lose the tiger…”

“Righto. ‘Lose the tiger’. Okay, Mr. Hunt. What about this one?”

“Hm. I’m not sure I get it. ‘Snap! Crackle! Pop!’…um, nope. I don’t really see…”

“That’s okay, Mr. Hunt. I didn’t really think… I… er, what about this one? Have you seen this one?”

“That’s it! That’s the one. That says everything we know people think about levels. It’s absolutely the reason why we are bringing them back: people love them; they just don’t realise that they love them. THIS is definitely the slogan we should use: ‘National Curriculum Levels – have you forgotten how good they taste?’ I love it!”

Of course people wouldn’t be silly enough to be resold back something that they didn’t think they wanted on the back of a rebranding. Would they? You’d be surprised.

In January 2008, the breakfast cereal Shreddies launched a new advertising campaign in Canada that resulted in a reportedly significant sales increase, and ensured the product continued to perform well for quite some time afterwards.

The reason for the spike in sales was this advertising campaign:

Brilliant/frightening, isn’t it? This is what Rory Sutherland (Vice-Chairman of international advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, and Spectator columnist) tells us is “intangible added value” in his very entertaining 2009 TED Talk on the subject – a talk in which he refers to the Diamond Shreddies campaign. Sutherland asks:

“How many problems of life can be solved actually by tinkering with perception, rather than that tedious, hardworking and messy business of actually trying to change reality?”

Can't decide? Try the Combo Pack.
Can’t decide? Try the Combo Pack.

That is exactly what the Diamond Shreddies campaign does. It takes something, changes the perception of it, adds intangible value.

And that seems to be what is happening with many of the approaches to replacing curriculum levels that I read and talk to people about. I know people are actually making changes – re-writing descriptors, changing bands, etc., but what this seems to result in – in many cases – is just another version of curriculum levels.

In these cases, I think people’s perceptions of what they are using may have changed and as a result they see value in their model, but this may come purely as a result of the sunk cost fallacy: “we invested lots of time and effort into this, so it must be better than what we had before.” The important thing to do now is to ask ourselves, honestly: Is this better? Have we improved the previous model? And we should continue to rewrite, redefine, remodel until we know what we are doing isn’t just turning the current model on its side and calling it ‘new’.

Part of me wonders whether our reluctance to travel too far from levels is due to the discourse we use. Every model I see discussed is always presented in its relation to levels: the phrase ‘life after levels’ is used in almost every blog and tweet on the topic. Failing that, it’s ‘beyond levels’, ‘post-levels’, etc. Maybe it’s time to stop using the word ‘levels’ in our discourse and start referring to it as ‘assessment’, ‘KS1-3 assessment’ or ‘KS assessment’. As long as we keep using ‘levels’ in our language, everything we do is anchored to the National Curriculum Levels and we will never really sail too far from them.

We should ensure that we aren’t just adding intangible value to a model that already exists, a model that we scorned over for years and jeered at gleefully as it was evicted from the Big Brother house.

Alternatively, we could just embrace the idea of intangible added value and apply it to all that we do in education. Back to Rory Sutherland (“Normally, as an advertising man, I actually speak at TED Evil”): 

“So I was discussing this. And I actually went to the Marginal Revolution blog by Tyler Cowen. I don’t know if anybody knows it. Someone was actually suggesting that you can take this concept further, and actually produce placebo education. The point is that education doesn’t actually work by teaching you things. It actually works by giving you the impression that you’ve had a very good education, which gives you an insane sense of unwarranted self-confidence, which then makes you very, very successful in later life. So, welcome to Oxford, ladies and gentlemen.”


How to eat 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes (and why setting targets may hold back progress*)

Mustard Yellow BeltThis month, competitors at the height of their physical prowess came together to contest their sport’s most glittering and sought after prize.

No, I’m not talking about the World Cup in Brazil. And I don’t mean the Championships at Wimbledon. The event to which I refer is Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, New York.

Oh, you don’t think gorging oneself on junk food is a sport? Tell that to the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), the governing body behind Major League Eating (MLE). And tell it to the international (read: mainly American; some Japanese) competitors who regular enter such prestigious circuit events as La Costeña “Feel the Heat” Jalapeño Eating Challenge, the National Buffalo Wing Festival (“wing fest”), and – probably the most perfect corporate partnership ever yoked – the Alka-Seltzer U.S. Open of Competitive Eating. Major League Eating There is an apocryphal tale that tells how Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest was first held in 1916, when four men held the competition to settle an argument over who was the most patriotic amongst them. It turned out that story was just a publicity stunt conceived in recent years, as the earliest records held for the contest begin in 1972, when the winner ate 14 hot dogs in 3½ minutes. The next few contests were held sporadically, but it has been held annually since 1978. In 1979, the competition became a 12 minute competition and the winner ate 19 hot dogs in that time. The winning number eaten each year fluctuated around that number for the next 22 years, and when the 86th Annual (in reality only the 26th – apparently apocryphal tales are enough to re-write history) Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest approached in 2001, the record stood at 25⅛ HDB (hot dogs and buns – yes, the sport even has its own technical initialisms).

So when a 23-year-old, 9 stone Japanese man called Takeru Kobayashi made his debut in the contest that year, nobody could have expected what would happen: Kobayashi ate 50 HDB, nearly doubling the previous record. 28-stone circuit celebrity Eric ‘Badlands’ Booker came second with a measly 26 HDB. Kobayashi went on to win the Mustard Yellow Belt (yup, really) and $10,000 prize for the next 5 years (until Joey Chestnut beat him in 2007, eating 66 HDB. Chestnut has won every year since.)

So how did Kobayashi smash the record? How did he go about eating more than the 25⅛ standard set the previous year?

Simple: he didn’t think about eating 25⅛ hot dogs and buns. He thought about eating one. That is that he thought about how he could eat one quickly. He didn’t care for setting a target – he just set about getting better at what he was doing. Kobayashi felt that the current record was an artificial barrier and disregarded it entirely. With that approach, taking one hot dog at a time, he doubled the previous record – a figure that hadn’t changed by more than a handful of hot dogs in 22 years.

Here is ‘Freakonomist’ Stephen Dubner talking about Kobayashi’s entire approach. The part that I want to think about is the idea of ‘false limits’, which he mentions around 5 minutes in to the video.

Perhaps the fixation that other competitors had with beating the standing record resulted in a form of anchoring? Anchoring is a cognitive bias whereby we tend to rely too heavily on a given starting point when making decisions. So were the other contestants in the hot dog eating contest relying heavily on the previous record and adjusting their limits around this? Were they being held back by anchoring themselves to what they thought was achievable rather than reaching their real potential?

The slippery concept of potential is something that schools hold a lot of stock in and Tom Bennett has written about it eloquently (as ever, the bloody talented sod) here. Tom’s approach to school targets is similar to many teachers I know: “to hell with them: I expect them all to get an A”. I agree wholeheartedly, but I also think that, despite this, the pupils and I also fall foul of the bias of anchoring. I am certain that I teach to the top end and aim for the A, but I am also aware that there are certain things that I do that anchor me to that target grade.

One of these behaviours of mine is obvious when I mark the work: I have the expectation that it is going to be around the target grade, and automatically look at that band in the assessment criteria. If I think it is a higher mark, I question my marking and offer it up for instant moderation from a plethora of colleagues (knowing they won’t be anchored by the target grade).

I wonder if many pupils also anchor themselves to the target grade, not realising that their potential stretches further than what the FFT  or suchlike says is probable? Thinking through Kobayashi’s approach to realising potential, I wonder whether we might try a different approach to target setting. Rather than setting targets for what they might achieve by the end of the key stage, could we set targets as to what they need to achieve next? And when they achieve that target, they move on to the next target. So if you are working at a D grade, your target is to work at a C grade. When you break through that C grade target, your target then becomes a B. Would pupils work harder knowing their next target is actually within reach? Would the momentum of achievement carry pupils to realise potential beyond the targets which would normally be set for them? Perhaps. It may be worth trying.

Certainly in the case of competitive eaters, setting end targets was detrimental to realising true potential. Once the contestants in the hot dog eating contests began adopting Kobayashi’s approach of taking the challenge one step at a time, they began setting new records too. The current record is 69 HDB in 10 minutes. As Kobayashi says:

“I think the thing about human beings is that they make a limit in their mind of what their potential is. They decide I’ve been told this, or this is what society tells me, or they’ve been made to believe something. If every human being actually threw away those thoughts and they actually did use [my] method of thinking to everything, the potential of human beings is great, it’s huge, compared to what they actually think of themselves.”

So is setting a target actually accepting a limit? Can we learn a lesson from Kobayashi,  a lesson that is about refusing to accept limits and to see targets as false barriers?

I’d be interested to see if anyone has any different approaches to target setting. Or competitive hot dog eating, for that matter. $10,000 would be a nice summer bonus.

*obviously I am not against target-setting per se, this is more about looking at different approaches to it.

For more on anchoring and adjustment, see: ‘Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases’ by Tversky and Kahneman (1974) For more on Takeru Kobayashi, see ‘Think Like a Freak: How to Think Smarter about Almost Everything’ by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (2014) Think Like a Freak

Towards a confusion of tongues (why a common language isn’t always helpful)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Tower of Babel (1563)
Pieter Bruegel the Elder – The Tower of Babel (1563)

There sometimes exists in schools a cognitive dissonance that appears to hold these three theories as truth:

  1. Learning other languages is beneficial to pupils.
  2. Developing a wide English vocabulary is beneficial to pupils.
  3. Creating a common language across subjects is beneficial to pupils.

The reason I think this represents cognitive dissonance is because the third theory seems to want to reduce the language pupils use in school, whereas the first two seek to increase it.

It would be very hard to argue against the first two ideas. Learning a second language (or more) has obvious benefits in terms of communication in an increasingly global community, but there have also been neurological benefits identified too. And the importance of developing a wide vocabulary within English is uncontested (unless we count some pupils’ protestations: “I know all the English I need. I speak it already. This is pointless.”)

Despite this understanding that increasing the language of our pupils is a good thing, the idea does seem to exist, if not pervade, that we should create or rely on a reduced, common language to use across the various subject domains.

Most recently with the removal of National Curriculum levels, I have seen numerous people suggest that the levels and language of SOLO taxonomy could be a suitable replacement. This was notable during last Thursday’s #UKEdChat.

This is quite bizarre: one of the complaints about NC levels was that they were vague. I find it odd that some feel that moving to an even more equivocal set of levels and descriptors is the answer. Like Bloom’s taxonomy, SOLO uses descriptors which are open to a wide range of interpretations, even within a single subject area.

And this is the other problem with assuming that a common language is helpful to pupils: words have different (usually polysemous, but sometimes homonymous) meanings in different contexts. Surely when words can shift in meaning depending on context, the language is no longer a common one? As each subject area presents a different context, the ‘common language’ gets taken in different directions by its different speakers. It’s analogous to the dialects of England and America and George Bernard Shaw’s observation that the two countries are “separated by a common language”: both England and America use the same words, they just don’t always mean the same thing.

But we don’t have to look at different dialects to see how meaning shifts. Standard English is a minefield of ambiguity. For example, the word ‘bank’ has a number of meanings. Ignoring the many definitions of the verb form, here are just a few definitions of the word as a noun (but by no means all of them):

  1. A financial establishment
  2. A stock of something available for use when required
  3. A receptacle where something may be deposited for recycling: ‘a bottle bank’
  4. The land alongside or sloping down to a river or a lake
  5. A set of similar things, especially electrical devices: ‘a bank of monitors’
  6. The cushion of a pool or snooker table

So if I said, “I took off my trousers by the bank”, the context in which I said this would certainly change the meaning of the word bank. You’d hope that I was stood by the side of the lake, replete with a bathing suit and not lining up a shot in the final frame of the World Championship at the Crucible.

It is therefore much more efficient for me to use a more domain-specific word (or words) other than bank to ensure the meaning I wish to convey is clear and precise: “I took off my trousers by the embankment,” or “I took off my trousers by the Abbey National.”

Likewise, if we have to rely on the vocabulary of a school’s common language, we are avoiding the more domain-specific vocabulary that would make meaning more precise.

So when I ask my pupils to analyse a text in English, it is a fundamentally different thing to when they are asked to analyse a chemical compound in Chemistry. Just look at this enormous list of applicants of the term analysis across a large number of disciplines. And even within disciplines, there are different meanings to the word. If analysis had one fixed meaning, there would be no need for the numerous collocations (‘aura analysis’, anyone?) in that list.

This means that if we try to establish a common language across schools, the words we use will have no meaning until they are applied to each subject. At this point the language is vague, at best. And as they have different meanings within each domain, the language isn’t a common one. It becomes more confusing and less helpful for pupils. Put simply:

I would always argue the case for schools to allow subject areas to establish their own,  domain-specific language for practice and assessment. Why assume that our students need a reduced, catch-all vocabulary in order to make sense of their learning across subjects when it is more likely that such a vocabulary will obscure the understanding process.

When it comes to world globalisation, we are always reminded of the importance of the plurality of languages and heed warnings to protect them. Are we as defensive of our domain-specific language when it comes to ‘globalising’ schools and blurring the boundaries between subjects?

As Mark Liberman, professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, says of globalisation and language:

“If you’re going to combine many countries with different national languages — and do it by political compromise rather than by military conquest — then you can’t impose any single national language on the result.”

Likewise, if we are going to combine many subjects with very different vocabularies, we shouldn’t impose any single language across all of them.

How riding the herd mentality may have helped my GCSE classes

Petrified wood - ArizonaMany weeks ago, I grew concerned with the lack of independent preparation that my GCSE classes were doing for their English exams. Held up by the scaffold of intervention around them, I sensed that they’d become too comfortable to break out from it and stand up on their own. But then maybe that is our doing – should we be dismantling their scaffolding piece by piece as they approach the exam, allowing them to become freestanding in good time? Do we do the opposite and add more scaffolding then take it all away at once in the exam hall?

Anyway, they weren’t doing the one thing that I wanted them to do off their own steam: practising exam responses.

As far as I’m concerned, practising exam responses is the most useful thing they can do before the English exam. It’s not just about technique – it’s about engaging with ideas in order to remember them and build on them, as well as preparing language analysis that is flexible and portable: I always tell pupils that their responses in their exam will be replications and adaptations of things they’ve written already if they are well-prepared. ‘Do the work now rather than in the exam’ is a mantra I often repeat to them.

I told them that they should be bringing in – or emailing me – exam responses regularly (over and above scheduled homework responses). The return was underwhelming.

So I started to nag them about the lack of exam responses and how concerning it was: “I am getting very few exam responses. I’m disappointed that only a small minority are working hard enough. The work you put in now is vital to your success!” Still very little. Why weren’t they responding to my genuine concern that they weren’t doing enough as a group? They are very good at responding to me in the classroom. What was different here?

Then, around this same time, I stumbled across a study by psychologist Robert B. Cialdini about creating social norms through the way we communicate. The study, Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment, was particularly interesting in its suggestion about how, when we are trying to establish behavioural norms in groups of people, it can often “backfire to produce the opposite of what a communicator intends.”

The study summarised that:

There is an understandable, but misguided, tendency to try to mobilize action against a problem by depicting it as regrettably frequent. Information campaigns emphasize that alcohol and drug use is intolerably high, that adolescent suicide rates are alarming, and—most relevant to this article—that rampant polluters are spoiling the environment. Although these claims may be both true and well intentioned, the campaigns’ creators have missed something critically important: Within the statement “Many people are doing this undesirable thing” lurks the powerful and undercutting normative message “Many people are doing this.”

The study goes on to detail an experiment at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, which at the time was suffering from the theft of around a ton a month of wood. They had signs up that read: “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time. “

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Cialdini and his colleagues felt that this was creating the impression in visitors that stealing wood was normative behaviour. The signs perpetuated the thinking: everyone else is doing it, so there’s no harm in me doing so too.

In order to test their hypothesis, Cialdini and his colleagues replaced the signage and measured the amount of wood stolen when this new signage was displayed.

When they displayed the sign, “Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the Park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest” alongside an image of three visitors taking wood, the percentage of wood stolen over a 5 week period was 7.92%. In contrast, when the sign they displayed read, “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the Park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest” (accompanied by an image of a lone visitor stealing wood with a red circle and bar superimposed over the top), only 1.67% of the wood was stolen.

Similar studies have been completed in order to promote other societally beneficial conduct such as reducing energy consumption in whole neighbourhoods. Below is an example of the messages given in that energy consumption study (again by Cialdini) in San Diego:


And here is how those messages converted to changes in energy consumption.

Change in average daily energy use

The message is clear, as Cialdini concludes, we “should avoid the tendency to send the normatively muddled message that a targeted activity is socially disapproved but widespread.”

So, by stating my concern that the majority weren’t doing the work, was I convincing them that it was okay not to do the work?

I think so. With this in mind, I immediately started using language that didn’t imply this. I focused my language on emphasising  those that were. And responses began to get more frequent. Now, the rise in frequency may very well correlate with the imminence of the exam: the closer we get, the more we prepare. But I think that by emphasising inductive norms  (what people typically approve or disapprove) over descriptive norms (what people typically do), it has helped a great deal.

A useful reminder of how important our language is in the classroom.

I think I have had practise exam responses emailed to me at almost hourly intervals this weekend. Yes, the exam is in just a few days. But I’m not sure I recall having so many in previous years.

POSTSCRIPT: I’ve just checked my email and I’ve received 3 more exam responses whilst I’ve been typing this.

The seven miffs of education (first sequence)

Time for a blog digest. These are the things that have gotten me miffed (read: concerned) enough to write about them recently:

1. Misplaced accusations of elitism

2. Edu-myths and lack of engagement in research

3. Truthiness

4. Grok

5. Rushing in to things

6. The dangers of sunk costs (and opportunity costs)

7. Mumpsimuses

Now that I’ve shared these bugbears, I’ll try and blog some of my thoughts on overcoming them in the coming weeks.

The Mumpsimus in the Room (a short story)

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No EvilTimothy watched as his mother walked out of the school gates. He tried to keep his eyes on her as she disappeared into the crowd but it was like one of those tricks where they put a ball under a cup and then move it around, constantly swapping and switching places with two other cups. Soon it was just her head he could see moving through the crowd, then the head switched directions and became someone else’s head and then that was that: she was gone.

He turned and looked at the imposing building in front of him. This was it. First day at Dunn Park School. This wasn’t the first time he’d been the new kid – the last few years of moving around because of mum’s job meant that he’d already experienced this ordeal twice before.

Timothy looked up and read the words over the double doors: Pluris est Imaginatio quam Scientia. He tried to roll the words around in his mouth but got stuck on the first one, unsure whether it was a long or a short u. “It’s no use,” he thought, “I don’t even know how to speak French.”

“Who are you, then?” came a voice to his left. He turned to see a boy, slightly shorter than him, in thick-lensed glasses looking at him with a knotted brow.

“Er… um… my name’s Timothy. I’m new here today. We just moved into the village at the weekend.” Timothy replied.

“We?” asked the shorter boy, his voice pitched a little higher than Timothy’s own.

“My mum and I. We moved into Robinson Gardens, just near the playground.” Timothy waited for the boy to respond, looking to see if his mention of something familiar would unknot the boy’s brow and hopefully end the inquisition.

“Yeh, I know it. Whose class are you in?” Timothy resigned himself to the interrogation. “Um, my mum spoke to the school last week. I think the teacher’s name is Miss Mummyford?” Timothy’s eyes squinted as an inquisitive tone, in imitation of his scrutiniser, tried to wrap itself around the name as he uttered it.

“Miss Honeyford!” The boy’s round face finally ventured forth a smile. Timothy reflected the smile back as the boy became, in that very moment, animated. It was as if a different boy had suddenly replaced the surly one who had been questioning him. “She’s my teacher! You’ll be in my class!”

“Oh… good. I mean, great. What’s she like?” The ‘great’ may have been a stretch on Timothy’s part, but the question was meaningful. He’d had quite the range of teachers over the past few years and he really could do with someone normal, particularly after that bearded old duffer he’d had at the last school. What was her name again? Timothy actually felt a warming pleasure that he’d forgotten it already.

“She’s alright. Quite nice really. She’s good at teaching sums and she does a funny American accent when she tells stories sometimes. Oh, by the way, I’m Kelvin.” This last bit was accompanied by an outstretched hand, palm to the inside. This was the first time Timothy had seen another kid want to shake hands with him. Sometimes adults did it – men mostly – but he knew they were just being playful or doing it to show off to his mum. Timothy took Kelvin’s hand and the boy grasped it firmly and gave it a tug upwards and then swung it back down again just once before letting go.

“Miss Honeyford is better than most of the teachers I’ve had here. Geography is always fun – we made cliff dioramas last week. Yeh, she’s alright, except…” Kelvin paused as a flash of recollection came over him.

“Except what?” Timothy asked.

“Except… well… except for the mumpsimus in the room.”

“Mumpsimus?” Timothy repeated. Timothy wondered whether he’d heard that right. What on earth was a mumpsimus? At his last school, the teacher had kept a stick insect in the room. And he remembered his first teacher at that school in Wales had kept a guinea pig – all the kids got to take turns taking the guinea pig home for the weekend to look after. He remembers it because it was due to be his turn in the coming weeks and then he found out that they were going to move house before he’d get the chance. He remembers the teacher saying that he could even swap with the person who was due that week but Mum wouldn’t let him because they had “so much to do and having a guinea pig in the house would be a bloody hinderance.” Whilst Timothy would have loved to have taken that guinea pig home, he wasn’t sure he’d want to get too close to a mumpsimus, whatever that was. It sounded huge. Kelvin had said that it was in the room. “What is a mumpsimus? Is it in Miss Honeyford’s classroom?” asked Timothy, the sound of the word making him more nervous with every articulation of it.

“It’s… it’s… oh, it’s awful, Timothy. Just awful. It’s this… this… thing. And Miss Honeyford… she just… she just can’t help bringing it out in the classroom. It’s like it’s got some sort of hold on her. All the kids in the classroom know that it is terrible, but Miss Honeyford, she just… she just loves that horrid thing.”

Timothy actively felt a chill bolt down his spine. He thought that just happened in books. What sort of a creature is a mumpsimus? I don’t like animals that are bigger than me. And I really don’t like reptiles. That chill spilled down him again, began to subside and then expanded at the shrill sound of the school bell ringing.

“Come on! We’d best get in.” Kelvin said, grabbing Timothy’s coat sleeve and giving it a tug. Timothy dutifully followed Kelvin as they made their way though the double doors – under those strange foreign words – and into the building. Kelvin led them through the corridors and into Mrs. Honeyford’s room where the mumpsimus awaited them.

The morning went by quickly, and there was no sign of the mumpsimus. Timothy spent most of the time scanning the room for this creature, but it was well hidden. At least it couldn’t be as big as he’d originally thought it was, which was a relief. They’d done some subtraction, learned some spellings and read some passages from a book about a badger. Timothy was really pleased that Miss Honeyford hadn’t made him stand up and introduce himself like some of his previous teachers had. Lunch was some unexceptional pasta bathed in a rather wan and feeble tomato sauce, served with some over-boiled, greying carrots. After they’d eaten lunch, Timothy had sat on the steps outside the gym and chatted to Kelvin, who told him all about the village and shared his repertoire of stories about other kids at the school. Timothy wanted to ask Kelvin about the mumpsimus but Kelvin was directing the conversation and he seemed to be enjoying delivering the potted history of his new classmates.

When they returned to their classroom after lunch, they took their seats and Miss Honeyford announced that she had some puzzles for the pupils to solve.

She handed worksheets out to each of the pupils but when she got to Timothy, she paused and withheld the paper from him. “Not for you, Timothy. I have something different for you.” Miss Honeyford said, seeming very pleased with herself. “I’ll just get it for you.” She walked to the filing cabinet next to her desk, opened the second drawer and her hand began flicking through the suspension files, her fingers dancing with a verve Timothy hadn’t noticed in her before. It sounded like she was humming a song too.

Kelvin leaned in to Timothy. “The mumpsimus!” he whispered. “She’s getting the mumpsimus out! Oh God! Poor you!

Timothy felt a pang of horror. Oh my goodness. It was in that filing cabinet all this time! The mumpsimus. And now she’s going to set it upon him. He looked around the room at everyone else. They were all busying themselves with their puzzles. Weren’t they going to help him? Miss Honeyford started walking towards him with some paper carefully held out in front of her. It must be an insect of some sort, thought Timothy. It must be sat on that paper. He looked at Kelvin, who deliberately averted his eyes from Timothy’s and pretended – for Miss Honeyford’s benefit, thought Timothy – that he was completing his puzzle. Isn’t Kelvin going to help me? Isn’t anyone going to help me? Does this mumpsimus bite? Does it sting? What should I do?

But the more he let these thoughts dart through his mind, the closer Miss Honeyford had gotten to him. As she reached him she lowered the paper and placed it in front of him. Nothing. There was no insect on it. No creature at all. Just some writing.

“I’d like you to complete this quiz, Timothy. It just asks you some questions about how you usually learn things. It’ll help me work out how to teach you best. We all have what we call our ‘preferred learning style’. I’m a kinaesthetic learner. Kelvin here is a visual learner.” Timothy looked at Kelvin and saw him roll his eyes. “Some people say that learning styles don’t really exist but, even if they don’t, I think they are quite useful in helping me plan my lessons for you children. It doesn’t hurt to do things like this. I don’t care if everyone thinks it’s a load of old rubbish. We all have our little mumpsimuses, eh, Timothy? That reminds me, we forgot to do our Brain Gym before lunch.”

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