If ever I want a cheap laugh in the staffroom, there’s a feeble joke I tell.
Chances are I have used it before in this column. But I’m assuming that the only people who keep a back catalogue of what I write here are those with incontinent pets urgently in need of another page of newsprint to stuff beneath a poorly parrot or grim-faced guinea-pig.
To get the joke you have to know about collective nouns. So, pulling on my English teacher hat, here goes. Collective nouns are those odd labels we give to groups of things – a ‘pack’ of wolves, a ‘flock’ of birds, a ‘murder’ of crows, a ‘crash’ of rhinoceroses.
So, joke time: what’s the collective noun for a group of headteachers? The answer – stand by for hilarity – is a ‘lack’ of principals.
There, I said it was feeble.
But I mention it because there’s a fierce and turbulent argument playing out at the moment, often through articles and within the letters page of the Bury Free Press.
Reading about the County Council’s proposals to complete its Suffolk-wide move to two-tier education, readers of this paper might think that Bury St Edmunds and its surrounding villages is a community at war.
From the tone of some of the correspondence, you’d think that all educational principles had been chucked out and that headteachers of schools across the town were locked in hostile competition one with another. You might imagine that barricades were about to go up between zones of the town.
The reality is rather different – and provides a salutary lesson to those not taking GCSE media studies that we shouldn’t always believe everything we read in the papers.
There’s no doubt that there’s educational uncertainty. The various freedoms granted by Michael Gove when he became Education Secretary in 2010 mean that some schools can take on more freedom over their admissions.
These reforms make it harder for local authorities to implement their plans – even where these have been considered, debated and voted on by elected representatives.
There’s no doubt also that there’s disagreement in Bury St Edmunds about the future direction of education, and this means that two systems are likely to be in existence in 2016 – the two-tier model supported by the Bury Schools Partnership and the Catholic pyramid, and the three-tier structure of the Academy Trust and its partner schools.
And to many onlookers this will all seem bewildering and incoherent.
It’s one of the reasons we have seen such a flurry of edgy correspondence in this newspaper and (I gather) some hostile posts on social media websites.
But what’s worth noting is this. None of the criticism of people’s values or questioning of motives has come from any of the headteachers in any of our schools. We may disagree on aspects of education policy. We may disagree strongly, in fact.
But we also know that each of us – every head in every school in and around the town – is committed to making sure our young people, whether aged four or 18, gets the best possible deal in their schooling. It’s why we’re in the job.
We all knew that this period in our educational history wouldn’t be easy. We knew too that leadership in any walk of life – education, local government, the public services – will always attract critics.
But we realise that education is about values and principles, and that sometimes – even though it might seem easier simply to retain the status quo – change is necessary.
That change is playing out in and around our town, as Bury grows and as Suffolk’s need to raise its game continues. The turbulence isn’t yet over. The letters pages won’t fall quiet for a while.
Meanwhile, day in and day out, teachers and headteachers are doing all we can to keep improving opportunities for all children, irrespective of their background, their social class, their postcodes. It’s what our jobs are all about.