The third volume in the best selling "DALES" series
Gervase Phinn, school inspector, begins his third year with a spring in his step for in April he will marry Christine Bentley, head teacher of Winnery Nook School. But before then he has to suffer the wicked repartee of his fellow inspectors on the subjects of love and marriage. The well-named Mrs Savage still attempts to exert her power via incomprehensible memos, and Connie continues to rule the Staff Development Centre with a broom of iron and duster of disapproval at any dirty marks. In the schools themselves Gervase Phinn faces every challenge with humour that is rarely far from the surface.
'Could you tell me how to spell "sex", please?' The speaker was a flaxen-haired, angelic-faced girl of about six with wide innocent eyes and a complexion a model would die for.
'I ... b ... b ... b ... beg your pardon?' I stuttered.
I was sitting in the comer of the infant classroom of Staplemoor County Primary School on a bright September morning, the second week into the new school term, there to observe the first lesson of the day. The children had just settled down to write their stories when the little angel approached me, paper in hand, pencil poised.
'"Sex." Could you spell "sex" for me, please?' she repeated, smiling widely.
I had been a County Inspector of Schools in Yorkshire now for a little over two years and during that time I thought I had become accustomed to the precocious young children I had met. I had been delighted by their humour, intrigued by their responses to my questions and amused by their sharp observations on life. But on a few rare occasions, like this one, I had been completely lost for words. My colleague and immediate superior, Dr Harold Yeats, had warned me early on in my career about such potentially hazardous situations. He had told me, that when faced with an inquisitive child who asks a tricky question or raises an embarrassing topic, to smile widely, nod sagely and be as evasive as possible.
'It's like fishing for trout, Gervase,' he had once confided in me. 'You need to know when to let out the line and when to reel it in. Give it plenty of space, let it tire itself out and then it will stop thrashing. Don't be too quick to explain things to young children - you could get yourself into hot water. Just listen and take your time.'
I took Harold's advice. 'Why do you want me to spell that word for you?' I whispered.
'I need it for my story,' replied the child.
'What is your story about?' I asked gingerly.
'I just want you to spell "sex".'
'Yes, but could you tell me a little about your story?'
This was getting harder. 'Well, I would like you to.'
The child shook her head and breathed out heavily. She answered me in a voice which had an exasperated edge to it. 'If you must know, it's about a little black beetle who lives in a big, big garden and is sad and lonely and nobody loves him. All the other little creatures have friends but he is all by himself. He just sits there all day long on the compost heap feeling really, really sad and wishing he had someone to play with. Then, one day, a lady beetle climbs onto the compost heap -'
'A lady beetle?' I said.
'That's right, a lady beetle.'
I had a glimmering of what was coming next. 'I see,' I sighed, frantically thinking of the best way to get out of what was likely to become a very uncomfortable situation.
'And then,' continued the child brightly, 'she sees the lonely little beetle and asks him who he is. He tells her that he is just a sad and boring little bug and he's ugly as well and nobody loves him. She tells him he's a beautiful beetle, the beautifulest beetle she has ever seen in the whole wide world and she asks him if she can stay with him for ever and ever. They love each other and then they have lots of little baby beetles.'
'I thought they might do,' I said under my breath.
'But all I want is "sex"!' she said, rather too loudly for comfort.
'Just keep your voice down a little,' I told her. 'What about "cuddle up" or "snuggle"? Those might be better words to use.'
'I don't want "cuddle up" or "snuggle",' she replied tartly, clearly irritated by the delay. 'I want "sex".' Her voice was now loud enough to attract the attention of the headteacher who swiftly appeared on the scene.
'My goodness, Mr Phinn,' she said, 'you and Melissa seem to be having a very interesting conversation.'
'It's about "sex", miss,' said the little girl.
Before I could explain, the child, giving another great heaving sigh, announced, 'He won't spell "sex" for me, Mrs McCardle. I've asked him but he won't spell it. I don't think Mr Phinn's too good at spelling.' The teacher arched an eyebrow. 'You see,' continued Melissa, holding up her paper for Mrs McCardle to see, 'I can spell the first bit but it's the "sex" bit I can't do.'
'Tell Mr Phinn what the full word is, Melissa,' the teacher told her, a knowing twinkle in her eye.
'"Insects",' announced the child. 'I want to start my story: "Beetles are insects." I can do the "in" but not the "sects".'
I think it is fair to say that my inspection of Staplemoor Primary School had not got off to a very auspicious start.
'Perhaps you would like to visit the juniors for a short while, Mr Phinn,' suggested Mrs McCardle, 'and then join us again in the infants after morning break. Would that suit?'
'That would suit very well,' I replied, retreating gratefully to the adjoining classroom.
The junior teacher, Mr Spencer-Hall, was a lean, weary-looking individual of indeterminate age with a pained expression, fluffy outcrops of ginger hair and large spectacles which had the habit of slipping down his nose as he talked.
'I've always had a secret dread of school inspectors,' he informed me morosely, pushing up his glasses and producing an expression a child might pull when faced with a plate of cold cabbage. 'I've only met two school inspectors in my whole career and they put the very fear of God in me, they really did. I had sleepless nights for weeks after their visits and I'm sure they brought on my asthma.'
'Well, I hope my visit is going to be less distressing, Mr Spencer-Hall,' I told him cheerily.
'What exactly are you going to be doing, Mr Phinn?' he asked with an even more woeful look on his face.
'Well, I thought I might observe a bit of your teaching,' I replied, 'and then —'
'Oh dear,' he moaned, 'you mean watch me?' There was a stiffening of the shoulders then a sharp intake of breath. 'I don't like the sound of that. I don't like being watched, I really don't. I'm never at my best when I'm being observed.'
'Then I would like to hear the children read,' I continued, deciding to ignore these last comments, 'look at their written work, test their spellings and talk to them a little.'
'It all sounds terribly daunting to me,' he groaned, biting his bottom lip, 'but I suppose you have a job to do and I'll just have to grin and bear it.' He smiled like an undertaker. 'Won't I?'
'I'm afraid you will, Mr Spencer-Hall,' I said. 'That is my job, watching teachers teach.'
'And I suppose there will be a report?'
'Yes, there will,' I replied, 'which, of course, I would be happy to discuss with you.'
'Oh dear,' he moaned again. 'I don't like the sound of that either.'
'The point behind my observing your lesson, Mr Spencer-Hall, is to give you an objective view of your teaching, help you improve and also offer some advice and support. I think you will find it quite painless.'
'Well, Mr Phinn,' he said sadly, 'those two school inspectors who visited me before, the ones who put the fear of God in me and kept me awake at night and brought on my asthma, had the very opposite effect. It was about as painless as having a boil lanced. They made me ill. One had the manner of a police-cell interrogator and the other looked as if he'd been dug up. Seeing them scribbling away in their little black books put me off my stroke and no mistake. I just went to pieces.'
'Well, I hope you will not find me quite as frightening,' I told him. 'Just imagine that I am not there, Mr Spencer-Hall.'
'Easier said than done,' he groaned.
I prepared myself for what I imagined would be an endlessly dull lesson. As it turned out, Mr Spencer-Hall's teaching was not that bad. As soon as he faced the children he became more confident and animated. The children listened attentively as he explained how they might make their writing more vibrant by strengthening their verbs. The idea was that they should produce alternatives to a chosen word.
'What about "looked"?' the teacher asked.
Back came 'glanced', 'peered', 'watched', 'glimpsed', 'gaped', 'eyed', 'peeped', 'stared' and many others.
'And what about "walked"?' he asked next.
Again there was a lively response: 'limped', 'staggered', 'trotted', 'swayed', 'reeled', 'tottered' and a host more.
The words were listed neatly on the blackboard in a careful cursive script and then the children were set the task of including some of them in a piece of writing.
Mr Spencer-Hall was not the most dynamic and enthusiastic teacher in the world but the lesson was well planned and the children were keen. When the teacher glanced nervously in my direction, I gave him a reassuring smile and made sure I was not 'scribbling away in my little black book'. He sighed, put on a martyred expression, slid his spectacles up his nose and continued.
The first child I heard read that morning was William, a moon-faced boy of about ten or eleven, with apple-red cheeks, a thatch of black hair and a ready smile. He presented himself to me armed with an extremely thick and ancient-looking reading book, a folder of his written work and a bizarre construction made of cardboard, matchboxes, lavatory rolls, lollipop sticks and tissue paper. The cardboard creation resembled the sort of building which might have survived a nuclear holocaust.
'Shall we mek a start, then?' he asked me bluntly, shuffling onto the chair next to me and rubbing his hands together like someone about to embark on an adventure. 'What's tha want to talk to me abaat fust, then, Mester Phinn, mi readin', mi writing or mi design technology?'
'You're a bright and confident lad and no mistake,' I told him.
'Aye, well, mi granddad says not to be backwards in comin' for'ards. "Allus speak tha mind. Say what thas got to say and then shun-up." That's what he says.'
'Very true. Shall we start with that incredible construction of yours, then, William? It certainly is unusual. Is it a factory of some sort?'
'Nay, nay, Mester Phinn, it's an oil refinery. I like doin' models. I'll show you mi abattoir later on, if tha likes. It's got caging pens, holding area, slaughter chamber -'
'Yes, I'd like that,' I replied, trying to sound enthusiastic.
William then explained to me, in some detail, the workings of an oil refinery, asking me finally if I had understood.
When we got to the reading, the boy shuffled again on his chair and opened the heavy tome, sliding his second finger along the top of the page and running it behind like a seasoned reader.
'Who taught you to turn pages like that, William?' I asked.
'Granddad. He's a gret reader is mi granddad. Can't get enough books. When we goes to ('library, he gets reight cross when he oppens a book and sees all them grubby thumb marks on t'bottom o' pages. He reckons you 'ave to 'ave respect for books. That's how yer turn the pages of a book, tha knaas, from t'top. '
'Yes, that's right,' I agreed.
' 'Old a book in your 'and and you're a pilgrim at t'gates of a new city.'
I was stunned into silence. 'What was that you said?'
'Hebrew proverb,' said the boy, scratching the thick thatch of black hair. 'Leamt it off mi granddad. He's a gret one for proverbs and psalms, is mi granddad. He's a preacher, tha knaas.'
'Nay, a preacher.'
'Methodist. He reads his bible every neet. He showed me how to turn t'pages wi'out damaging t'book. He reckons that John Wesley leamt to read upside down, tha knaas. 'As thy 'eard o'John Wesley?'
'I have indeed, ' I told him.
'Amazin' man was John Wesley. He was one o' nineteen children, tha knaas.'
'Really, I didn't know that.'
'They say he travelled near on a quarter of a million miles on his 'orse bringing t'word of God to folks. Spent a lot o'time in Yorkshire did John Wesley.'
‘Uproarious and touching by turns, Gervase Phinn writes with enormous warmth and wit about his romantic adventures, career struggles and the children in the schools he visits’