Mr Gove was not quite sure about Christmas.
There were some things he loved about Christmas. He liked the services. He liked the singing. More than anything else, though, he loved the Tradition. Mr Gove loved Tradition.
But there were some things he hated about Christmas. All that laziness. All that self-indulgence. And the schools, wasting so much time. Letting the children have too much fun, when they should be working hard. When they should be competing in the Global Race.
Mr Gove was thinking about all these things when he was having his dinner. Tradition, particularly. He enjoyed his dinner very much, though he wondered if he might have eaten too much Stilton afterwards.
When he went to bed, he felt a little strange. When he drifted off to sleep, it was a restless sleep, and he found himself dreaming.
Mr Gove shivered and opened his eyes.
Before him stood a small, grey figure. Mr Gove blinked. It was a child. A boy, wearing old-fashioned school uniform. Short trousers. A slightly shabby blazer. A school cap. Mr Gove noticed that the boy’s knees were dirty.
The strangest thing about the boy, however, was that his face, in fact all of his skin, was also grey. Grey and lifeless, and not in the way that some of Mr Gove’s cabinet colleagues were.
“Who are you?” Mr Gove asked, in a slightly quavering voice.
“Please Sir, Mr Gove Sir,” said the boy, in a grey, lifeless voice, “I am the Ghost of School Child Past.”
Mr Gove did not know what to say. He wasn’t sure he believed in ghosts, but here was one, right before him.
“Please Sir, Mr Gove Sir,” the Ghost went on, “I have something to show you.” He took Mr Gove by the hand. The Ghost’s hand was icy cold, and for a moment Mr Gove wanted to pull away, but the Ghost was insistent.
Mr Gove gulped, blinked, and found himself in a very different place. It was a cavernous room, dark and foreboding. A chill wind whistled through the gaps in the windows. Mr Gove looked around. It was a school room.
Mr Gove almost smiled. It was the kind of school room he liked. Long rows of identical desks. Boys dressed exactly like the Ghost slumped over them, silently scribbling away. At the front of the class stood the teacher, his black gown flapping around his shoulders, his mortar board perfectly straight over his scowling, moustached face. He bent a long, thin cane between his hands, peering over his half-moon glasses, looking from child to child.
“Thank you,” Mr Gove said to the Ghost. The Ghost stared back at him.
“What a nice school,” Mr Gove went on. “You must have learned a lot here.”
“Not really, Mr Gove Sir.” The Ghost replied. “Just how’s not to get beaten more than twice a day. Never learnt nothing else worth learning.”
As the Ghost spoke, the teacher strode purposefully forward, grabbed one of the boys, pulled him out of his chair, and whacked him hard, five times, on the backside. The boy tried hard to hold back the tears, gulped and then sat back down.
“He does that to keep them on their toes,” the Ghost whispered. “For no other reason.”
Good thing too, Mr Gove thought. He looked around, but already the school room, and the Ghost, was fading from Mr Gove’s view. He found himself back in his bed. He turned over, and tried to sleep again.
When he turned over, there was another child staring at him. This time it was a little girl, wearing a nice blue jumper and skirt. There was something a little strange about her – when Mr Gove looked carefully he realised that he could see through her. Oh, thought Mr Gove, another Ghost.
The girl nodded and unaccountably she smiled. “I am the Ghost of Schoolchild Present,” she said in an impudent voice, “and I too have something to show you.”
This time Mr Gove found himself in a well lit, modern-looking classroom. There were brightly-coloured posters on the walls, along with what seemed to be displays of work from some of the children. They were sitting around tables, chattering away. Mr Gove tutted. Where was the discipline?
“How can they learn like this?” Mr Gove spluttered to the Ghost. She looked surprised.
“Look at that table,” she replied, and pointed to one of the tables. Mr Gove looked. One little girl had written out a poem in what even Mr Gove had to admit was excellent handwriting. The boy next to her was reading it aloud, while the others at the table were laughing and smiling.
As Mr Gove stared, the teacher came over. She was a young woman with a nice face, but a few worry lines around her eyes. “Very nice, Hannah and Joe,” she said. “Who wants to go next?”
Hmmph, Mr Gove thought, but even as he thought that, he found the classroom swirling away into the mist, and once more he was in his bed.
This boy was as grey as the first had been, though his clothes were much more modern. Some strange kind of overalls, or a jumpsuit, or something like that. His eyes were wide and staring, his face almost devoid of expression.
“So who are you?” Mr Gove asked, though he had a feeling he knew what the answer would be. He was not disappointed.
“I am the Ghost of Schoolchild Future,” the boy chanted out in a monotone. “And I have something to show you.”
This classroom was square and clean. Its walls were grey, the windows covered with blinds. The desks were in long rows, with individual computer screens set up on each one. The children were sitting bolt upright on stiff-looking chairs, headphones on their heads, staring silently into the screens.
Suddenly, as Mr Gove watched, they all started speaking at once – but this was no cacophony of chattering, it was perfectly harmonious though entirely emotionless chanting. The timing was immaculate, the coordination perfect.
Mr Gove smiled. This was more like it.
“Thank you,” he said to the Ghost. “That is wonderful. I presume we’re back at the top of the League Tables now.”
“Our position in the league tables,” the Ghost said, “is ninety four.”
“Ninety four?” Mr Gove spluttered. “Ninety four? Ninety four?” He turned to the Ghost. “How can that be? And where is the teacher?”
“There are no more teachers,” the Ghost replied, and there seemed to be a little more life in it. “It was decided that teachers were not needed. These Automated Learning Systems were brought in from Korea. Anyway, no-one wanted to be a teacher any more. Your reforms made it very hard to recruit teachers. Your constant tinkering, your restrictions, your controls and budget cuts made teachers’ lives too difficult.”
Mr Gove blinked. He looked at the Classroom of the Future, and realised that it looked very similar to the Classroom of the Past. And the children looked just as miserable. For one brief moment he wondered if teachers might actually make a difference. If good, inspirational teachers should be cherished and supported, and given freedom and respect, rather than constantly derided. Perhaps you need good, positive, imaginative teachers to find your way to the top of the league tables. Perhaps teachers need that support.
It was a very brief moment. When Mr Gove woke up, he shook himself and reminded himself never to eat Stilton so late at night. It can bring terrible dreams.
Art by @kaiserofcrisps and me, words by me (with apologies to Dickens)