Last week I used one of the days of ‘community leave’ the BBC gives me to spend the day interviewing candidates for deputy head at the junior school in Hertfordshire where I’m chair of the governors. I was one of three governors on the panel, along with the school’s excellent head and our very brilliant and wise local authority advisor. In the end, we didn’t appoint anyone. Sometimes that happens, of course, and we’re going to have to do the whole thing again in a couple of weeks.
This is obviously one of the most important parts of a governor’s job. It’s exhausting, fascinating, sometimes quite emotional and always gripping stuff. I don’t think there’s any doubt that teaching is the most scrutinised profession in Britain. On interview day we required each of the candidates to write a paper about behaviour (against the clock); observe a class, write it up and tell the head what they thought; meet with a group of pupils; take lunch in the staffroom and then, to top it all, make a presentation to the panel before they got stuck into the interview proper (they had, of course, already been observed in their own classrooms by the head).
And, as a volunteer, it’s such an enormous privilege to be allowed to participate in this process: to interrogate the passionate and interesting and complicated people who came through the interview room that day, to unravel their life stories a bit and to test their fit for the equally complicated world that is a modern school. It’s the kind of experience you can’t pay for but it’s one that’s available to pretty much anyone. There are hundreds of thousands of vacancies for school governors in Britain. You should try it.
1984. I’m well into my fourth ‘gap year’ (in fact, I’m redefining the term ‘gap’). I’m working at a telesales place in Queen’s Park. This telesales place is different from the other dumps I worked at during the slack years, though – it’s run by a Californian cult whose working practices involve shouty ritual humiliation, enforced separation from family and the loud singing of Mustang Sally at 8am. One of my tasks during my few months in North West London – which included cleaning the cult toilets, walking the cult dogs and photocopying cult ‘training’ materials – involved cold-calling organisations of every kind and grilling them about their IT. Later in life computers became my thing – look, I’m using one now! – but I hadn’t encountered one then (isn’t that a crazy thought? 21 years old and never met a computer!). I might as well have been asking questions about, you know, particle accelerators.
I had a script. My goal was to acquire ‘qualified leads’ for my client to contact later. “Do you use computers in your business?” “What kind of computers do you own?” “How many?” “Do they run MS-DOS, CP-M, GEM, DR-DOS or [long list of defunct operating systems]…” One of the organisations I phoned was called CERN. Yes, CERN – essentially the coolest place on earth. Of course, in 1984 I knew even less about CERN than I did about computers.
My list said CERN was in Switzerland, though, which made it a more interesting call than the others I’d make that day so I was going to enjoy it. The cult had taught me that persistence was vital, so, after ten minutes bothering various receptionists, supervisors and under-managers, I was put through to ‘someone in IT’. He was impatient, seemed a bit absent-minded and spoke very quickly – but he spoke English and, at some point, he obviously resolved to help the clueless drone from London on the phone. He told me he was a developer, in information systems. He didn’t buy computers for CERN and he didn’t know who did. He was obviously a million miles from being a lead, qualified or otherwise.
But I had a form to complete and knew that a miserable stand-up humiliation awaited me if I didn’t finish it after spending so long on the phone, so I pushed on, obtaining a list of computer technology so exotic, so science fiction, as to render the whole call pointless. I don’t remember the detail but by the time I’d finished I’d used three extra sheets of paper and pretty much the whole of my new friend’s Geneva lunch hour. The cheer from the other telesales drones when I hung up raised the roof. I was ecstatic: on my entirely useless list there were PCs and workstations, minicomputers, embedded systems, mainframes and supercomputers… hundreds of them.
It was many years before it occurred to me that this harried developer with a rather posh voice might just have been the inventor of the World Wide Web. It’s difficult, of course, to know exactly how much influence I had on the final shape of the world-changing technology that was even then forming in that patient man’s head but it’s gratifying to know that I was there at the beginning. Something to tell my grandchildren.