You want lunch?!

I’ve heard about it, of course, but so far I’ve been lucky enough to escape experiencing it. Until today, at least.

Being booked for a day’s cover in an academy isn’t new to me, one school I used to work at regularly was one of the first to convert to academy status. At that time, were it not for the words above the door, you wouldn’t know it was different from any other school in the area. Today though, I experienced the true ‘academy way’.

Pulling up in the car park I noticed the sheer imposing size of the school. I was frankly astonished at how huge it was – the scale of both the buildings, and and car park must have cost a fortune to build, never mind the price of that much land in the first place (a £35 milion PFI deal, apparently). To be that big it must attract students from many miles around, not just those from the industrial city in which it is located. I found out later that it has a 300 pupil intake each year,

Due to the sheer size of the structure, the building is divided into four ‘parts’, each with a corresponding colour. When I arrived, I was told that I would be based in the Red Section. Any thoughts I may have had, in coming to an unfortunate association with that phrase and a communist dictatorship, were soon reinforced as the day passed.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t given a map of the building, and no-one had the time to spare to show me where to go. I was pointed in the general vague direction, with the instruction “see that corridor over there? You want to go to one that looks like that, but instead it’s red.” Not exactly helpful, as my ‘guide’ the disappeared into a back office behind the glass screen protecting the admin staff from the visitors.

I headed into the unknown and was instantly struck by just how large the site was. The centre of the building is home to a huge atrium, much like the one in the British Museum, which may be where the inspiration for the winding central staircase came from. I wouldn’t be surprised, from what I’ve read about the school, it seems to have delusions of grandeur.

Eventually, due to a combination of asking hurrying teaching staff, unhelpful pupils and sheer guesswork, I found the right room. A note about the work for the various classes had been left on the teacher’s table, along with a stack of A4 lined paper.

The rest of the room was bare.

The tables were arranged in a horse-shoe shape, along with colour co-ordinated red chairs, presumably to be a constant reminder of which Section one is in. There was also one double-sized cupboard at the back of the room, and a stack of text books balanced precariously on the window ledge.

Other than that, the room was bare.

No posters on the walls, no examples of work, no whiteboard pens, nothing at all to suggest what subject might be taught there, nor that it was home during daylight hours to a living breathing human being – a teacher.

I moved the books from the windowsill and wondered just how inspiring this environment is to the pupils – I was beginning to feel tired of it, simply due to the blandness, and I’d only just arrived.

This tiredness became reinforced as the morning wore on, and so at break time I decided that I really needed a hot drink to wake me up. I trawled along endless corridors in search of the staff-room, only to find myself going in a large loop and ending up back where I had started. The drink would have to wait.

The lesson before lunch had a SEN pupil in it who had one-to-0ne support. Not wanting to spend my precious 30 minute lunch break in a repetition of the earlier fruitless search for the staffroom, I asked the TA where it was.

“There isn’t one.” she replied.

My shock must have registered on my face, as she sympathetically continued, “You can buy lunch in the dining room, but you have to eat with the pupils. It’s about £4.50 for a full lunch for adults.”

Now, supply work is neither regular nor reliable, so I usually take lunch with me to save money. But when I mentioned that I only needed a microwave to heat up last night’s curry, she shook her head and said, “You can’t. The kitchen won’t heat up things you bring in, and there’s no staff room to do it yourself. You’re not really meant to bring in sandwiches either, but some people do – they don’t mind the kids doing it, but not really the staff.”

When I asked how on earth teachers could regularly afford to spend that much on lunch, she said that they were all given a £4.80 daily food allowance, but, obviously that didn’t help supply teachers much. However, I was reassured that tea and coffee were only 60p a cup.  I decided to get a cup of coffee, and then return to the classroom for some peace and quiet and 15 minutes with my feet up, reading my Kindle.

But even that wasn’t to be.

Apparently food is banned throughout the school, apart from in the dining room. And that includes coffee. The dining room was (naturally) also at the opposite end of the school from where I was. And it’s a very big school to be the wrong end of.

The thought of spending 15 – 20 minutes sitting in a school canteen was pretty unappealing, and mentally I weighed up how long it would take me to find it, how long I’d have to queue up for, and the simple fact that the coffee was unlikely to be as good as Costa, and decided to give it a miss.

I spent my lunch break sitting in the car with a bottle of Coke and a packet of crisps I’d bought in the garage at the end of the road, wondering how people could work there. The restrictions on not heating up your own food, and only being able to drink whatever coffee they were serving in the canteen, means that the school are imposing dietary restrictions on their employees.

I for one, couldn’t stand that.

The food they serve may be lovely, I really don’t know as I didn’t get to see any of it, much less eat it. But to be told that this is your ONLY option seems very wrong. Likewise with the coffee (and tea for that matter) – we all have our own preferences, and as adults, being told that you may only have whatever they happen to have in the canteen seems very wrong.

I know that most employers no longer have a staff canteen, but those that do probably don’t insist that only food bought on the premises is consumed there, particularly when there is nowhere else that food is allowed to be consumed.

It seems that this is ‘The Academy Way’. A worryingly totalitarian method of controlling the employees. The lack of staff room means that teachers can’t get together and start a revolution. Or indeed discuss pupils they teach.

The 30 minute lunch break means that the staff will be forced to spend a large percentage of their break time in the same room as the pupils, and the lack of privacy will mean that a private conversation cannot take place. How would one teacher pass onto another that Billy was having a bad day, and so warn them that he might kick off? It’s not the sort of thing you can discuss with Billy’s mates in the same room.

But perhaps this is what the management of the school want? If teachers cannot discuss issues amongst themselves, then perhaps those issues can be quietly swept under the carpet? If you can’t talk about it, it didn’t happen.

When you factor in a quick dash to the loo, that 30 minute lunch break is beginning to look more like 23. Add in queuing for food, finding a seat and cutlery, and the time for eating and conversation drops down to 18. But of course, you have to lock up your classroom and get things ready for the next lesson too, so that time shrinks to about 9 minutes. And don’t forget you need to get to the canteen in the first place, so assume a brisk walk of two minutes each way, trying to get past pupils who are blocking your path, and the 30 minute lunch break is now a glorious five minutes of hurried eating. Of Course, if you’re in the Red Section, you’re a good four minutes away from the canteen, so you’d better forget lunch altogether.

I asked the TA how the staff could stand having such a hurried and dictatorial lunch. Her response?

“Most don’t bother having lunch, they haven’t got time….”

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