The spectre groaned and rubbed its knee. It glared up at me, bald head beaded with perspiration and goatee beard bristling with indignation.
“Well help me up then!” it said in my voice, extending its hand to be hauled up.
I did so in incredulous silence. Finally finding my voice I angrily said, “You’re me! I mean you’re me as I am now! How can that be?”
“I’m not quite you as you are now,” the spectre responded, regaining its composure. It tapped its chest self importantly. “I’m a Lord!” to my chagrin the other me grinned smugly at myself.
“I’m you after the New Years Honours List. Sir Graham Badman CBE. Awarded for services to education.”
“Then why all this…. Christmas Carol stuff?”
“I’m your subconscious! I’m the doubts you have deep down that home education has a valid place in modern society. I’m the devil whispering in your ear, Badders!”
“Don’t call me Badders!”
“Look, just hear me out. Let me finish what I’ve started and meet the Ghost of Education Future. See the ultimate outcome of punitive restriction. Look….”
Suddenly the spectre that was me had vanished and someone else appeared from the murky atmosphere. A pleasant woman in her early thirties approached me. There was something familiar about her smile as she clasped her hands together in delight.
I thrust my chin forward. “Do I know you, young lady?”
“Dark Lord Badman!” she breathed excitedly. “After all these years…”
“M…Miranda Smith? Is that you?”
She nodded happily.
As the mists began to clear, I found we were standing beside a high chain-link fence. Reaching up over ten feet, its top was marked out with razor wire and there was a buzz from a low level electric current passing through it. I jumped back in alarm.
“Good God, what’s this? Are we at Parkhurst?”
“No – the local comprehensive,” Miranda corrected me.
“My goodness! Has society become so dangerous that we have to protect schoolchildren to this extent? Is that what it takes to keep out the drug dealers and gang members?”
Miranda looked at me with an odd expression. “No, it’s what it takes to keep the kids in!”
“I don’t understand. This is only one step removed from guard towers with searchlights around the perimeter,” I gave an embarrassed laugh that died in my throat when Miranda said,
“They’re trying that in Manchester first. They anticipate rolling it out across the rest of the country within 12 months.”
I began to walk around the fence, Miranda trailing me. At the entrance to the school a formidable gate led to an area of scanners and x-ray devices. A large uniformed man stared out from under the brim of his cap. He carried a riot stick which he tapped against his leg.
“School security,” Miranda explained. “Come on, Dark Lord Badman, let’s eavesdrop on lessons.”
When I turned to reply, I found we were no longer outside, but within a classroom. The walls bristled with CCTV cameras monitoring every move that was made.
Youngsters of 14 years old were grouped around tables covered in graffiti while a frantic middle aged woman tried to maintain control. I did a quick head count and was alarmed to note that there were more than 40 children.
“Why are there so many in this class?”
Miranda shrugged. “A government report in 2015 stated that 42 was a perfectly acceptable number for class size. Of course it was just one effect of home-ed being outlawed. You can’t suddenly put twenty to forty thousand children back into state education and expect the infrastructure to be there to cope. Since then you have to allow for all the additional children who would also have been home educated, but were now denied the opportunity.”
“The teacher’s desk looks very hi-tech. What do all those buttons do?”
Miranda didn’t answer me but pointed to one youngster’s leg. “What do you think of the ankle bracelets?”
“Yes I noticed that. They’re all wearing them. Some trend is it? Like those silly friendship bracelets, I imagine.”
Miranda shook her head. “Tagging!” She exclaimed.
“All the kids are tagged. Not just at this school, but all schools. They have to wear the tag so that the local authority can make sure they are correctly contained during school hours. The hours were extended, by the way. School now start at 8.30am and finishes at 5.30pm. The school day was manipulated to achieve government targets ensuring all parents are in full-time employment. School holidays were adjusted in the same way. Oh…and school age begins at 3 years old. The leaving age was extended too. It is now 20 with pupils strongly encouraged to then go on to further education. It’s very clever really. On paper it makes it look as if the government has dramatically reduced the unemployment figures and they’re paying out much less in benefits.”
“Sit down!” the teacher shouted for the fifth time. “Now!”
“Remember CRB testing?” Miranda asked me. “Now the authorities store DNA of everyone who comes into contact with children.”
“SIT DOWN!” the teacher shouted again. Her fingers hovered over the buttons on her desk. “Right! I warned you!” Her hands played over the console like a concert pianist. There were buzzing noises everywhere and various children jerked like broken puppets. I turned uncomprehending eyes to Miranda who pointed once more at the ankle bracelets.
“Low level shock delivered through the tag. The authorities assure us that it doesn’t hurt at all.”
“But this is awful! How can anyone learn in this environment? This isn’t what I wanted at all.” A sudden thought occurred to me. “How am I remembered?”
“Yes – Statues, blue plaques, that kind of thing? Memorial somewhere…?”
“But…. But you’re not dead, Dark Lord Badman!”
“Oh… but I thought…. I must be very old then.”
Miranda looked at her watch then caught hold of my hand. “Come on. At this time of day you’ll be in the park. If we hurry we might just get there before you leave.”
Twenty minutes later we rounded the lower path that encircles the local pond and approached a stooped, wizened figure sitting on a bench with a bag of bread crusts. He threw a crust to the ducks every now and then and appeared to be muttering.
“You there! Sit up straight in the water! Have you laid your egg? Hmmm? Where is it? On my desk by the end of break, boy! You! Yes you, beaky, I’m talking to you! Your feathers are crooked! Listen to me – I am an expert you know!”
I stood over the pathetic little figure in shock. Eventually he turned rheumy eyes towards me without interest. His little goatee was decidedly sparse, but still distinguished.
“Why aren’t you in school?” he demanded. “Not one of those ridiculous home-ed brigade I hope?”
Miranda tapped the side of her head and smiled at me sadly.
“I stopped them!” the old me suddenly shouted. “I made them register, I got autonomous education outlawed. I had them working to targets and objectives. I brought in testing and regulation! Then we shut them down altogether. All back to school! I win! I’m in control! Me!”
I didn’t know what to say. I suddenly felt weak to the point that my legs might give way. I dropped heavily onto the bench beside myself in all senses of the phrase. The old me threw bread and muttered at the ducks again. After a while he paused. He slowly held out a crust and put it gently in my hand nodding at the ducks. He smiled encouragingly and mimed throwing.
I turned the crust over and over in my hands.
“Go on!” he said. “…Badders….”
“Badders!” laughed Miranda.
“Badders…..Badders! Badders! What’s all the noise outside.”
I jumped up off the sofa.
“They’re ducks! They’re only ducks!” I shouted.
“What? What did you say? Badders, are you all right?”
I shook my head and looked around wildly searching for Miranda and my older self. I saw only the familiar sitting room and ran a trembling hand over my fevered brow. My wife was looking at me with concern.
“I’m worried about you,” she said softly.
“I’m fine,” I shook off her arm in irritation. “What were you saying about noise outside?”
“It’s next door. It looks like they’re off on some sort of march or demo. Is it to do with this home-ed thing?”
“What? Oh they are, are they? Right!”
I stormed out of the house and strode menacingly to the fence separating my drive from Smith’s. There was a large group of people brandishing banners and placards on Smith’s front lawn.
“What’s all this, Smith?” I demanded.
Smith separated himself from the crowd and approached the fence. He was holding a banner that read; Hands off Home Ed.
“We’re off on a demonstration. These are all members from one of the home-ed groups the children attend.”
I grunted. My head was throbbing – I had jumped up too quickly from being asleep and still felt a little disoriented. “No-one is suggesting prison schools!”
“40 to a class. Shock treatment. Tagging.”
“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about, but I’ll tell you this. You won’t win, you know. Look at these people and their commitment but you can’t even understand why, can you? All of you in positions of so-called authority bring in these rules and regulations and just expect the rest of us to fall in with your dictate, because that’s what you’ve decided is in our own best interests. But you’ve overlooked something this time.
“You’re attacking our right to decide what is best for our children. In doing so you’re attacking not just parents, but our children too. We may all come from different backgrounds, cultures and religions – but there’s not one of us wouldn’t lay down our lives to protect our children. If you bring in your registration, we’ll resist. We’ll comply with your draconian regulations if we legally have to, but you’ll get no co-operation and nothing in the way of goodwill. If you force our kids back to school then collectively we’ll be the biggest thorn in the side of state education that you could possibly imagine.”
I shook my head at Smith incredulously.
“Smith, you all bleat on as if state education was the most harmful thing in society, when it’s you home edders who are the greatest danger! Children are SAFE in school, don’t you get it! We can see them. We can monitor them. We can protect them. They are SAFE!!!”
A figure was coming up behind Smith, peering intently at me with a steely expression. To my amazement I realised it was old Mrs Mort.
“Wha.... why is she here?”
“Who? Oh, Mrs Mort you mean? She asked if she could come.”
There was an unwelcome smugness in his voice as he continued. “Apparently she was bullied at school when she was a little girl. It took her years and years to come to terms with it. She was saying earlier that if only her parents could have had the courage and ability to home educate her she believes she would have grown up to be a different person.”
He smiled kindly at old Mrs Mort. Her wrinkled little face lit up and she beamed at him.
“Terrible isn’t it. To think that something that happened at school all those years ago can blight your entire life, destroy your self confidence and make you timid and nervous. It’s not right, Mr Badman, not right at all.”
Old Mrs Mort was wearing a T shirt which was odd in itself, but the slogan on it shook me rigid. I pointed a wavering finger at it.
It was a white T shirt emblazoned with artwork from that blog on the internet. You know the one that always tries to make me look like some sort of idiot? The image was Batman with a goatee and carried the words; The Badman Report; Tough on Children – Tough on the causes of Children.
Old Mrs Mort looked down at it delightedly and then turned a glinting expression to me, meeting my eyes with determination.
I had lost the capacity for coherent speech. To my abject horror I felt my mouth forming into an all-too-familiar, wobbly O shape that I knew could ultimately crystalise into a long, drawn out scream.
Clasping my hand to my mouth I turned and fled back to the house.
In total amazement I heard a strident voice ring out behind me. It was the first time in living memory that I had ever heard old Mrs Mort utter a single word.
“I must say he moves surprisingly quickly for an expert with his foot in his mouth!”