Sir Toby Belch

[The following chapter is one that didn’t make the final edit for my novel Writing with Hammers. I am posting here because I am still fond of it, for a number of reasons: [1] It is based on a real event – this chapter recounts my school’s first ever Ofsted Inspection and the man who inspected English was about as ludicrous as the caricature presented here. I did in fact have to make a formal complaint half-way through the process because he was ignoring/forgetting details he was given, and in the end the lead Inspector asked that the school did not pursue the matter further as his birthday was imminent and he would also be retiring from Inspections! As my Department had received a reasonable seal of approval, it was decided to let this one go. It never did for me, thus the chapter; [2] This was an early example of using satire – perhaps elements of the absurd – to try and capture the incredulous reality of what actually happened/happens in schools. I have found it difficult to stand back far enough from this to judge if that satiric ruse ever fully worked, and therefore I have not included it in the published novel. Difficult to believe, this wasn’t the worst experience I had at the hands of those who thought they knew better…..]

When the school is Inspected, my department gets dealt the crap hand – not that there’s ever going to be a ‘happy’ deck from which to deal when it comes to these stomach-churning visits. Teachers probably work themselves up into unnecessary frenzies, but the general approach of a fault-finding scrutiny hardly puts us into a party mood.

Our Inspection team is fairly stereotypical: a residential home for the elderly has been picked at random and the occupants trained for the job within a couple of weeks of their selection. The teachers get to meet them all at a pre-Inspection buffet held in the school canteen, a ruse to appease the fear and anxiety we are all feeling. Cheese on sticks and sausage rolls don’t quite do the trick, but I am personally a little comforted to meet my Inspector, a seemingly affable, roly-poly bear of a man who exchanges chit-chat with the ease of a travelling salesman (and for all I know, this may well be his main profession).

He introduces himself as Sir Toby Belch and I am surprised but in no way impressed to hear that he has a royal seal of approval for his Inspection work. He is quite pedantic and cheesily theatrical in his speech, but I put this down to attempts to impress. His rotund bonhomie soothes away my concerns and I decide that there is little to fear in his impending visit.

Some weeks later, and I’m less convinced that I should be quite so relaxed, but I recognise there isn’t much I can do about classroom observations other than have myself and the team prepare thoroughly. However, I know that he and I will have regular one-to-one meetings in my office. Not entirely certain that Sir Toby will be a complete push-over, I decide to secretly record these since the canteen tête-à-tête. I’ve heard all kinds of horror stories about misinformation and misrepresentation coming out of the Inspection of other schools, and I am going to do everything I can to avoid this nightmare. I decide to bug my office by putting a tape recorder in it, concealed in a box just underneath my desk.

During the week of the Inspection I record every conversation and debriefing session we have. Sir Toby and I meet each morning before lessons begin as well as occasionally in my non-contact periods. It is a disturbing experience. I soon work out that there has been a big mistake in Sir Toby being let out of the residential home and imagine that whilst there he is normally restrained in a straightjacket. And a gag. I begin to think that his thespian’s prattle at our first meeting was probably restrained by Prozac or some other tranquilliser he subsequently stopped taking.

Halfway through the week I decide to make a formal complaint to the lead Inspector and the Head. I can’t have this mad man making judgements about my department. I grab the Head in the staffroom at breaktime on Wednesday.

“You’ve got to do something about Sir Toby,” I nearly scream. “The guy is a complete fruitcake and can’t be allowed to continue with his Inspection. I want him reported.”

The Head, already at the edge of a precipice by having to oversee every aspect of the Inspection so far, looks at me like I’ve asked for a million pounds.

“What are you ranting about?” he asks, trying to remove my grip from his arm. “This is so typical and I wondered when you’d start to complain about some aspect of this Inspection. But to actually get rid of Sir Toby! Well, that’s more outrageous than anything I could have imagined.” He tries to move away but I still have his arm in my hand and give it a squeeze that makes him exhale a tiny squeal.

“Come with me,” I demand, pulling him after me like an errant child. I drag him all the way to my office with passing students gawking at us in disbelief. When we get there, I sit the Head down on one of the chairs and finally let go of his arm which he immediately begins to rub.

“I’ll have you for physical assault,” he moans. “You’re the only fruitcake I know in this school at the moment.”

I grab the tape recorder and slam it on my desk. I also pull out some sheets of paper from a file on my desk.

“After you’ve listened to this,” I say, pointing at the tape player, “you can make your final decision on who is and isn’t insane around here. I’ve been taping all of the conversations this Sir Prat and I have been having, and I think you’re in for a shock. And just in case you can’t believe what you do hear, I want you to read those sheets of paper, because I’ve transcribed these tapes just in case anyone wants to claim they can’t hear things properly or don’t want to believe it.”

I give the Head the following transcript and play the recording of one of our absurd exchanges:

Meeting – Wednesday 13th March, 12.15-1.15.

(Sir Toby Belch meets me in my office)

Mike

Hello Sir Toby

Belch

Why, how now, my bawcock! how doest thou, chuck?

Mike

Yes, well, I’m fine Sir Toby. I see you’re in Shakespearean mode again. I don’t suppose there’s a chance of a more normal conversation this morning? (There is a long pause) I’ll take it that’s a ‘no’ then. I also wondered if you had seen Smith’s lesson as we arranged?

Belch

He’s as tall a man as any’s in Illyria

Mike

Yes he is, but I don’t see – look, I really just need to know if you saw the actual lesson we talked about?

Belch

Pourquoi, my dear knight?

Mike

Well, because you were adamant that you needed to see some ICT use in lessons and you claimed you hadn’t seen this in the other ICT type lessons I’d arranged for you to observe.

Belch

Wherefore are these things hid? Wherefore have these gifts a curtain before ‘em?

Mike

There’s nothing hidden about the ICT work Sir Toby. The lessons I’ve arranged for you to see use computers as a part of the whole lesson. We don’t teach ICT – it’s an aspect of the work we do and that’s what you wanted to see. I have to say, I think I have every right to be annoyed if you missed this again.

Belch

What dost thou mean? Is it a world to hide virtues in?

Mike

Would you please stop talking like that! As I’ve said, there’s nothing ‘hidden’ and, yes, we’re actually proud of what we do with ICT in English. Why do you assume we wouldn’t be open about this?

Belch

A false conclusion: I hate it as an unfilled can.

Mike

Hang on, hang on Sir Toby. This is getting bloody ridiculous! If this session carries on like this I’m going to have to take this matter further and complain about these silly conversations we keep having.

Belch

It comes to pass oft that a terrible oath, with a swaggering accent sharply twanged off, gives manhood more approbation than ever proof itself would have earned him.

Mike

Look Sir Toby, I don’t know what you’re trying to do – push me as far as you can to test me or something – but this has got to stop. I’m doing everything I can to organise things properly for you and you seem to be doing everything you can to make a mess of it. We’re all trying to take this Inspection seriously, you know.

Belch

Thou’rt a scholar; let us therefore eat and drink

(At this point Sir Toby gets up from his seat and turns towards the door. It is obvious that he wants to go to lunch because this has been his main concern at about this same time for the past two days)

Mike

Sir Toby, I really don’t think you’re listening to me! You just seem to want to get out of here as quickly as possible and have another bloody school dinner.

Belch

Thou’rt I’ the right. Go, sir, rub your chain with crumbs

Mike

Look, the last thing I want to do now is go to lunch with you.

Belch

Taste your legs, sir; put them to motion.

Mike

I’m staying here until we sort this out. This is just crazy behaviour by someone in your position.

(At this point, Sir Toby is half-way out of the door, beckoning me to accompany him, and he clearly intends to leave with or without me)

Belch

These clothes are good enough to drink in; and so be these boots too: an they be not, let them hang themselves in their own straps.

(With this, Sir Toby leaves the office, and the meeting we are having finishes)

I turn the tape off and look at the Head who is still rubbing his arm in nervous, spasmodic movements. He flicks through the pages of the transcript again, but I can tell he isn’t actually reading anything. After some minutes of this genuinely stunned but annoying procrastination, I interrupt the silence.

“We either take this to the lead Inspector,” I tell him bluntly, “or I’m going to send this stuff to the local or maybe even a national newspaper.”

It’s the next day when we have an official meeting with the lead Inspector, Mrs Morey, a rather large and malodorous woman, who fills the room with her considerable presence. I play the tape and let her read the transcripts. It is a long meeting and there are many knowing nods and looks of stern concern. Eventually, Mrs Morey speaks, looking directly at me.

“This is obviously totally unacceptable behaviour and I can assure you that I will not allow this to ever happen again.”

I’m immediately put on my guard by this response, even before she gives a knowing glance to the Head. I’m not in the least bit concerned about what happens in the future, not that I’d wish this experience on anyone else, but I want something done now about what’s happened to me and my team.

“I would like you to consider,” she continues, now looking at me again, “that Sir Toby has given very good service in the past and this does seem to be an aberration, as upsetting as I’m sure it has been for you. I’d like you to know that this Friday is his birthday and he will be 87 years old!” she tells me smiling and with the kind of jolly encouragement you’d expect from someone arranging a collection for a birthday gift. “This is, in fact, Sir Toby’s final Inspection and I’m sure you’d agree that it would be a terrible thing to blot his record with what I think is just some rather silly behaviour. After this he will no longer be involved directly in Inspections, apart from an advisory capacity, and I’m more than happy to make a report of your complaint to put on file for future reference.”

What amazes the most is that the Head readily endorses this whitewash. I suspect a part of this is his petty way of getting back at me for hurting his arm. I also sense that I have met a brick wall, as immovable as Mrs Morey and taller than I can climb alone, and very quickly give in to their conspiratorial urgings just to get away from the cynicism and increasing stink of the office.

Ironically, although by no means undeservedly, the department gets a glowing report from Sir Toby at the end of all of this nonsense. I do not learn anything I don’t already know and Sir Toby doesn’t criticise any of those areas that need improving. I still contemplate making an official complaint to someone outside of the school but the Head’s view is that I shouldn’t ‘rock the boat’ as we have all come through the process relatively well.

I have no idea what Sir Toby goes on to do after this unbelievable example of his work with us. I half expect him to become Education Secretary, and whilst he hasn’t yet achieved this, I would think that a man of his age and attributes still stands a very good chance.

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