Written by Ron Noon at 12:56 on Tuesday, September 22nd 2009
It’s day two of SUGAR week at Hillside and there is so much activity going on everywhere in the school, not just in the science labs where rumours of unexploded sugar bombs persist. The forensic and chemical analysis of the disaccharide sucrose is going on a treat but those of a less scientific disposition will be pleased to know that this industriousness is allied to so many other experiments conducted in the Maths, Drama, History, English, IT, Art and Geography classrooms. Walking around the school today I’ve been very impressed not just by the preparations that the teachers have painstakingly made to ensure the success of specialist week, but by the all pervasive buzz of interest and curiosity in a commodity that was hitherto far too much taken for granted because for most people the only thing that mattered about it was that it was sweet!.
“What have you learned today children about sugar?” was the question that Wendy invariably asked of all the classes we walked in on this morning. The sea of raised hands and clamour of questioning pupils was a reminder to me as a University teacher of how vital it is to continue to nurture curiosity and interest in knowledge, for its own sake and not just for exams and accreditation purposes.
Earlier on in the morning I was invited into the school Hall to introduce “George’s last ride”, the last episode of Alan Bleasdale’s “magisterially bleak” Boys from the Blackstuff series. History is a “discipline” of context but the scene setting in terms of Liverpool’s economic history in the 1970s and early 1980s is also for these youngsters an “imaginative” exercise, especially given that Suzanne’s English team wanted the students to reflect on a period when arguably even the four letter word HOPE seemed to have disappeared, from people’s vocabulary.
How do you explain that community blight and lack of hope to bright young children, albeit older year 10 and 11, with everything in their lives to look forward to? With some difficulty but the plight caused by mass unemployment was symbolised for them by the last scene in the film where Henry Tate’s mother plant, Love Lane Refinery was bulldozed into oblivion. The Vauxhall community just north of the city centre and not far from Hillside school was devastated by that closure but fortunately it proved to be much more resilient than the bricks and mortar that Alan Bleasdale used as stage props in 1982.
That was the lively discussion in Suzanna’s English classroom and I should have chipped in at the end of the session, on the threshold of lunchtime, to proudly announce that the school had received a great letter of encouragement and support from Liverpool’s “scouse Dickens” who was also speaking on behalf of his pal Willy Russell. What an obvious and upbeat postscript that would have been, but I forgot to mention it! When I remembered all the kids were satiated with food for thought and sugar and were galloping ahead in the direction of the school canteen!
I have had the pleasure of knowing Alan Bleasdale ever since his lovely wife Julie became a student of mine at the then Liverpool Polytechnic. (Perhaps because he heard over the grapevine that I was an Evertonian he felt he had to check me out!) I asked him for support on my Love Lane Lives project a couple of years back, (using some clips “from the Blackstuff for the Whitestuff”), and it was generously delivered. He supported our work at Trinity Catholic Primary School, Vauxhall and more recently I updated Alan about Hillside’s outstanding GCSE results and Wendy Daley’s plans for Sugar Week. Clearly our website and the resources placed on it have been helpful to the school and hopefully after this week will provide a template for public history projects in the wider community. It is fantastic however when all the hard work and effort of the teachers and pupils at Hillside is acknowledged by a man of Bleasdale’s reputation and standing. Here’s a brief extract from his three page hand written letter:
“This is just a small note of great congratulations. Hillside High School’s resounding turnaround in academic results does not come about by accident or legislation. Equally, that often elusive ingredient, spirit, cannot be found in textbooks on how to teach. Yours…is a team effort and that is the greatest achievement particularly as I cannot recall harder times in the last twenty five years to be a schoolteacher or a student.”
WITH ALL BEST WISHES
And Finally some kind thoughts from Roger McGough:
A couple of lines for Wendy and the kids. Sorry it’s brief, I am weighed down…
‘The sugar your mum and dad sprinkled on their breakfast cereal, or spooned into their tea, may well have been cleaned and bagged by me, who worked as a student at Tate & Lyles during the summer holidays. Even though the hours were long, the work back-breaking, and the pay lousy, it felt good to sweeten people’s lives.’