Saturday, 3 February 2018

To catch the conscience of the king.

There’s a massive recent increase in the number of families falsely accused of MSbP / FII - methinks “The devil hath power t’assume a pleasing shape.”

The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2 William Shakespeare. 

Having over the past four weeks been gripped by the Chanel 4 TV Series Kiri, starring Sarah Lancashire as Social Worker Miriam Grayson; I thought I’d explore some erroneous Child Protection stories from the angles of the various participants, hoping that seeing the ideas and actions of people portrayed here might catch the conscience of everyone involved in children’s work policy and practice today.

The adoptive mother in Kiri reminded me of someone who I wish I’d never known. I wanted to write this whilst I’d got the characterisation from the Kiri story in my head. The story is basically true, although in some instances time and events have been conflated. Additional characters, all conversations and thoughts are imagined.

The Peripatetic Music Teacher’s Story.

Woman : I was hoping you’d be here, I need somebody to talk to. 

Man : Sorry I’m just going out again. I got off work early and just popped in to get my things to go to the gym.

Woman : Do you have to? 

Man : I’m sure I’ve got time for a cuppa, shall I put the kettle on? 

Woman : I was rather fancying sharing a nice soothing bottle of red wine.  But if you’d rather not..

Man : Oh hang it, I’ll go to the gym in the morning, let’s open the vino and do a bit of catching up.

Woman : Are you sure that’s okay?

Man : Yes, I wouldn’t have said so if it wasn’t.

Woman : Thanks then.

Man : What’s spooked you? 

Woman : It was on the radio in the car. A new piece of organ music, surprisingly good. The organist knows what he’s doing, plays for some big occasions in the Abbey and St Paul’s, but it was who wrote the piece which gave me a shock.

Man : Come on then spill the beans. 

Woman : His name won’t mean anything to you, it was before I knew you.

Man : OK you don’t have to keep reminding me that I’m not your first love, but I know I’m the best.

Woman : Yes of course you’re the best. The music was written by someone who I taught when he was a little boy. 

Man : What’s so surprising about that? You’ve taught some very good young musicians and helped them on their way. Quite a few seem to have got into the Conservatoires or Oxbridge. You deserve recognition for all your work. Maybe he’ll put his thanks in a programme note when his music gets played in the Albert Hall or on the Southbank. Hey, we should be celebrating your success, not drowning our sorrows. 

Woman : That won’t happen. This one wasn’t any good at all and he had an idiotic mother who didn’t like me. I really don’t understand how he’s now writing music as good as that. Maybe someone is helping him. 

Man : Come off it, nobody would allow someone else to pass their work off as their own. If it’s got his name attached, you can bet your last dollar that he wrote it. 

Woman : He must have been seven or eight, but very small and looked younger. Apparently he told the headteacher that he’d been listening to jazz on the seashore at a festival in France. It sounded as if his parents had let him stay up all hours. He wasn’t often enthusiastic about anything but came back dreaming of playing the saxophone. The headteacher didn’t want to be the one who discouraged him, so she said he could have a test to see if he could manage. We didn’t expect anything to come of it as he was asthmatic, the school had to look after his inhalers, he was unlikely to be able to blow hard enough. 

Man : It sounds from what you said earlier, as if he passed the test after all. 

Woman : Yes, it was strange really. He wouldn’t look directly at me and wasn’t very talkative, but to my amazement he could blow well and sustain it and even made quite a nice sound. To the headteacher’s regret I couldn’t refuse him a place. “You’re making trouble for yourself” she warned. 

Man : So what was the problem? 

Woman : Where do I start? The class teacher said “you’re going to have trouble teaching that one. He’s quite bright but he can’t read, so I’ve no idea how he’ll cope with music.”

Man : That sounds difficult, what did you do? 

Woman : Well the first few weeks he was just leaning the notes and got on quite well, if I said G he could play a G and if I asked for a B or a D he could play that too. 

Man : Promising.

Woman : When I asked him how he’d got such big lungs to blow so hard, he told me that he could swim underwater, more than half way down the pool. That struck me as very dangerous for an asthmatic child, I wondered what his mother was thinking of? 

Man : Hang on a minute, you might be wrong there. In 2012 when we had the Olympics, I read about several of the British Olympic Swimmers having been asthmatic children. Apparently those were the ones who’d spent sufficient time in the water to develop the lungs you need for competitive sport. I thought that was fascinating. Some people think that swimming is the best way to overcome childhood asthma.

Woman : Are you questioning my teaching ability ? 

Man : No I’m just wondering if that’s something you’d thought of? He’s probably about the same age as some of our medal winning swimmers and his mum might have heard it somewhere. 

Woman : I don’t expect his mother would have known that. She was just interested in making a fuss, not in doing the right thing by her children.

Man : If you say so. This is getting interesting, what happened next.

Woman : I thought that despite everything, it was all going to be alright, so after a few weeks I found a book of easy tunes for saxophone and laboriously wrote out the letters, to make it easy for him.

Man : I don’t understand.

Woman : Pass me that bit of paper and I’ll show you.  


Man : What’s on earth is that supposed to be? 

Woman : Can’t you see? It’s something you know well, everybody knows it and I thought he’d soon pick it up.

Man : Did he?

Woman : No he didn’t. As I said, I’d taught him all the notes, well most of them, he wasn’t ready for the top A. 

Man : Top A, I can’t see a top A. 

Woman : It’s the third one, there where there are three As together. I thought it best for him to play it as another A natural. 

Man : So what happened? 

Woman : Nothing really, he stood there stupefied and then asked me if there was any music with lines? I told him he could progress to music when he’d leaned to read, but that for now I’d help him by writing the letters out. It was time to send him back to class, but I told him to practise at home. He looked really upset.

Man : More wine?

Woman : Yes thanks. The next week he’d got a piece of paper on which his mother had drawn a giant stave with a ruler and she’d marked all the notes I’d given him as crotchets with their tails going up, even if they were right at the top of the stave. There were no bar lines, so when he tried to play it there was no form or rhythm. It was ridiculous. I screwed the piece of paper into a ball and threw it in the direction of the bin. His face puckered as if he was going to cry, so I gave him another tune that I’d carefully written out in letters and sent him back to class. I told him to practice both tunes for next week. 

Man : This is becoming a very long story.

Woman : Sorry, I’ll try to hurry up. He was off school the next week. The headteacher thought he was faking and showed me the note his mum had sent, saying he’d got cold on a school swimming trip and it had made him unwell. I told her that I thought he was supposed to be a good swimmer. When he came back she asked him about swimming and he said his mum takes him to a warm pool, but the school took him to a very cold pool and it upset his asthma and made him feel poorly. 

Man : It was probably private. Some kids are just plain spoiled, when I was at Sherborne we had to play rugger in all weathers. 

Woman : Anyway whilst he was off sick I got an envelope from his mother. It had a poorly printed booklet from the British Dyslexia Association about Music and Dyslexia and a letter from his mum, which she’d printed on her home computer in her attempt to look important.

Man : What did she have to say? 

Woman : She wanted us to read the booklet as it might help us understand why her son could read music when he couldn’t read words. I was furious and dashed off to the headteacher, she’d got the same booklet and a copy of the letter. We were both flabbergasted. Did this boy’s mum think she could teach us our jobs?  The headteacher was a concert standard pianist and an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music. She could have had a glittering career as a musician, but had given it up because of her passion to teach children in school. I’d trained at the Royal College of Music and graduated with distinction. How dare this boy’s mother send us instructions on how to teach music.

Man : But it sounded like she was trying to tell you about her son’s Dyslexia.

Woman : He had no formal diagnosis! He was just lazy and manipulative and had been over indulged by his mother, so he’d never learned to read. She got him books on tape to listen to, instead of making him get on with it. 

Man : Well at least she got him to listen to stories, one of my dyslexic friends says she taught herself to read by playing the same taped story over and over again and following it on the page. Maybe that’s what this boy’s mum was hoping for? 

Woman : I’m beginning to wonder who’s side you are on? Her letter was totally out of order. She said that although her son couldn’t read words on a page, he could read notes on a stave and had been able to do so for some considerable time. She said that when she transcribed my capital letters into a string of crotchets, he wasn’t happy because there were no time signatures or bar lines and because he thought that maybe some of the notes should be quavers or minims. She asked me to supply him with photocopies of the sheet music, or to tell her which book it was from so she could buy it.

Man : I’m on your side of course, but her request seems fairly reasonable to me, I couldn’t understand your AABADCA either. 

Woman : You haven’t even tried to figure the notes out.

Man : Please put me out of my misery.

Woman : DIY! And NO it wasn’t reasonable! It was an over fussy mother trying to interfere with her son’s education. The headteacher said she’d put her foot down and make sure nothing like this ever happened again. We put both of the leaflets about Dyslexia in the bin where they belonged. 

Man : Wasn’t his mother paying for your lessons? 

Woman : Yes, but what’s that got to do with it. 

Man : Well I just wondered if she thought she’d got a right to ask you to do it her way, if she was paying? You know the old English saying “he who pays the piper calls the tune”. 

Woman : I’m getting fed up of your siding with the mother. 

Man : Sorry I’ll try to keep quiet, here have a top up.

Woman : Thanks, it’s quite a nice wine. The headteacher wouldn’t have parents interfering in her school. Anyway we struggled on for another few weeks, getting nowhere. Then one day, before his lesson, I was in the cloakroom and through the window I overheard him in the playground. He was telling one of the lunchtime supervisors that someone had come to his house and taught him to play the “Pink Panther” on the saxophone. She said that she was a fan of Peter Sellers and asked if he’d play it for her. He asked her to hold the book for him and launched into it. I could hear other children singing along bedum, bedum, bedum bedum bedum...bedum..beduuuuum... they were probably dancing about, 

Man : (Laughing) That must have been quite a shock. What did you do?

Woman : Stop! It wasn’t funny at all! When he came in for his lesson I asked if he’d got a book of saxophone music? He said it was in the classroom, so I sent him to fetch it. I opened it at the “Pink Panther” and asked him to play. He looked a bit startled, but as soon as he started up his confidence came and he played it. I closed the book and put it in his bag and said there would be no more saxophone lessons in school. This was goodbye.

Man : How did he react? 

Woman : He just scurried away as quickly as he could. 

Man : This is the last dregs of the wine.

Woman : His mum wrote to the headteacher saying that learning the “Pink Panther” had been to boost his confidence and to show that, if he was given sheet music rather than a string of letters, he could actually play the saxophone. She asked if he could continue with school based lessons, so he could play in school concerts, as she was sure that he was now good enough and it would boost his confidence. (Getting cross) That was all she wanted, attention attention attention, “please let my son play in your school concert”. As if!  The headteacher showed me the letter and then it followed the sheet of crotchets and the Dyslexia booklets into the bin. 

Man : So that was the end of that?

Woman : Not really. A year or two later I heard he was in hospital with pneumonia. I ask you what mother doesn’t take her child to get antibiotics before an infection develops into pneumonia? She said she’d tried but the doctors wouldn’t listen to her, who’d believe that?  After the pneumonia his school attendance was even poorer and his mother said he’d developed ME / CFS, but of course we didn’t believe her.

Man : Poor kid. 

Woman : What for having such a ridiculous mother? Anyway, we were due an OFSTED inspection and the headteacher was concerned about his poor attendance.  It might affect our statistics and our place in the league table. We were a small school, so it wasn’t possible to hide anyone in the returns. She was worried and sent the Education Welfare Officer to try to counsel him back to school, but his mum blocked that by insisting that he was ill. The EWO found that he’d got a little sister, hiding away in a different school. He contacted the other headteacher, the GP and Social Services and they had a full blown Child Protection Conference. 

Man : That sounds like a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Woman : You are so predictable. I knew you’d say that. 

Man : So I’ve obliged.

Woman : In her evidence our headteacher said how difficult the boy’s mother was and how she’d upset me by questioning my professional judgement and sending me information about how to teach music to students with dyslexia. This had been insulting and attention seeking and there were big questions to be asked about the mother’s parenting style and ability. 

Man : So what happened? 

Woman : They couidnt find any evidence of wrongdoing but they put both children on the Child Protection register.  They thought that the mother was likely to inflict future emotional harm to them.

Man : Wow! Did you ever see him and his mother again? 

Woman : As a matter of fact I did. One of my colleagues in the music service started up a small saxophone ensemble. They sometimes did a couple of numbers before a concert by our flagship Wind Orchestra. They actually got quite good and played some gigs at places like the Garden Museum during the London Jazz Festival. One day I realised, to my great amazement, that this same boy was one of their most important members. He could play not only the alto that I’d taught him, but also the soprano and the baritone. He ended up playing baritone sax in the Wind Orchestra. Quite amazing. 

Man : Was his mother at any of the concerts.

Woman : Yes, but she always pointedly avoided me.

Man : This boy sounds intriguing. Give me his name and let’s Google him. 

Woman : (Name given)

Man : Oh my goodness, he’s got his own website. Not only has he had his stuff played on the radio, but also in lots of Cathedrals and important churches. 

Woman : Really?

Man : Yes and I just looked at his CV. I thought you said he had learning difficulties?

Woman : His mum said he was dyslexic, but some dyslexic people can be quite clever. 

Man : He must be one of those. He got a First class degree and the Dean’s prize for an outstanding contribution to the performance arts. So I guess he must have learned to read and write words as well as music. 

Woman : Yes I guess so. Pass me the newspaper, lets see what’s on the television.

(C) Jan Loxley Blount 04/02/18

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