With 600 pupils, Pottermill was by far the county's largest primary school. It served the main city's most affluent and sought-after suburb in which there were just three council houses. Over the years, there had been several attempts to adjust Pottermill's catchment so as to broaden its intake. But these had always failed, such was the outcry from the area's influential and outspoken parents.
Pottermill's latest inspection report had rated it as outstanding in all respects. While it might seem easier to be outstanding in Pottermill's circumstances, it is just as easy for a school to be freewheeling on the strength of its catchment. But Pottermill was not freewheeling. It really was a good school. However, where schools were judged to be outstanding on all the usual measures, inspectors were inclined to seek out something to criticise if only for the sake of their own credibility. After all, education is not perfectible.
Unusually, no such tactical shortcomings had been identified for Pottermill. At least not publically. In fact though, it turned out that in a confidential discussion the lead inspector had revealed to Mr Vogels, the head teacher, his opinion that the skirt of one of the teachers was too short. Perhaps, the inspector advised, Mr Vogels would like to take any necessary steps to correct the matter. 'I'll have a look,' Mr Vogels is reputed to have promised. It was a confidentiality that went no further, or rather, no further than all around the education department.
Pottermill's parents were pleased by the inspection report not least because it confirmed, for them, the rightness of their opposition to any proposed changes in the school's catchment area. These were what is generally called 'pushy parents'. This is often put forward as an insult. But whatever way it is examined, all it can ever reveal is parents who are concerned about their children's education. It is hard to imagine what could be bad about that. We could do with more pushy parents in Scotland now, in much the same way as we could do with a more equal education system.
But not all of Pottermill's pushy parents were worthy of such esteem. It was through such a parent that I acquired the appellation of 'Scottish nit'. The occasion was the school's infant sports day. I had arrived in the early afternoon on a routine visit. Immediately on stepping into the reception area, it was apparent that some kind of turmoil was in process. Children were milling around with dinner ladies and the janitor trying to shepherd them into order under the direction of Mrs Birtwhistle who fulfilled the dual role of deputy head and head of infants.
'Ah!' exclaimed Mrs Birtwhistle on seeing me. She let go her half-moon spectacles to hang on their lanyard and grabbed my arm. 'You'll have to do!' she said. There being a bug going around, she explained as she hauled me along a corridor, two teachers had called in sick that morning and a further three had fallen ill in school and gone home. Consequently, the infant sports event that afternoon was under threat due to a shortage of supervisory capacity. My sudden appearance, Mrs Birtwhistle said, was just the ticket.
'But I have to...' I began to protest. 'Oh, never mind all that nonsense!' Mrs Birtwhistle broke in. 'This is much more important!'
Shortly afterwards, I was installed at the finishing line of a racetrack that had been chalked into the school's playing field. Hoards of excited parents lined the sides of the track while dinner ladies at the starting line marshalled the infants into readiness for their races. My job was to hand out different coloured cards to the children who came first, second and third. They would then take these cards to a nearby table where Mrs Birtwhistle would record the results so that prizes could be given out later at a ceremonial gathering in the hall.
The first event was an egg-and-spoon race. A roar like that of a football crowd erupted as soon as the janitor shouted 'Go'. (The only member of staff who had been on the council's training course for starting-guns was one of those off ill.) As the infants tottered down the lanes, the roaring crowd folded-in to run behind them. At the finish line, it was easy to identify the three victors since all the competitors wore numbered tabards.
As I handed out the card for first place, a parent approached. It was, she told me, impossible for anyone to have run that fast in an egg-and-spoon race. She knew this because she had been coaching her own child for weeks and so knew the terminal velocity for such a race. Therefore, she asserted, the winner must have cheated. In the small group of parents around us, there were mutterings of support for this view.
My instinct was to be reasonable and investigate the matter. With the little group of dissenters around me like foraging bees, I made to set off in search of the winner with the intention of examining their spoon, perhaps to find evidence of adhesive.
Just then, Mrs Birtwhistle, appeared. 'Shoo! Shoo!' she said flapping the backs of her hands at the parents before pulling me aside. You cannot debate these matters, she instructed. I was the final arbiter. There was to be no discussion. Otherwise we would be there all week. Besides, she added, the school was well aware of the lengths some parents would go to in order to ensure victory for their offspring. That was why the janitor checked all the spoons for chewing gum before starting the race.
In one form or another, such parental challenges occurred in all of the subsequent races. But Mrs Birtwhistle's instructions proved to be highly effective and complainers were quick to give up when it became clear to them that their protestations would not be entertained.
Things proceeded in this way until the final race, a straightforward dash along the track for seven-year-olds. Again, the three victors were easy to identify. But as I handed a red card to the winner, a man approached. His child had been second, but, he insisted, my selection was wrong. It was obvious to anyone that his child had crossed the line first. Either I was mistaken, he said, or I was cheating.
Somewhat stung by this accusation, I temporarily forgot Mrs Birtwhistle's instructions and set about debating the matter with the man. The pointlessness of this was soon evident as the discussion became evermore nonsensical. Belatedly recalling Mrs Birtwhistle instructions, I cut it short: 'That's it,' I told him bluntly. 'The decision is final.' He stared at me for a moment during which I thought he might lash out physically. But he didn't. 'Scottish nit!' he hissed instead, before turning and stomping away.
As I watched him go, hoping he would slip and fall face-down in the now churned up and muddy ground, Mrs Birtwhistle appeared at my side. 'I didn't know you were Scottish,' she said.