My young son and I cycle around Strumble Head, in wild west Pembrokeshire, squeezing through tall, mossy hedgerows on tarmac made glass-smooth by years of sheep droppings. We leave our bikes on the dry Prehistoric drystone wall and walk round the peninsular towards the lighthouse. The wind hugs us tight to the cliffs and as we tiptoe we look down past our feet for porpoises or dolphins. So we peer as we walk, tripping down stony heather bluffs and sea-pink ridges. We perch where the gulls and kittiwakes perch, and scour for any signs of life. Every so often we see seals bottling or hear the eerie sigh of a bull seal over on the brown slab of an island opposite. Eighteenth century sailors imagined mermaids when they tracked its mournful mating call.
Mostly what I enjoy is the deep green bays, and the enormous pale slabs lurking just below the water beneath the cliffs. Great unspoiled tanks of pristine deep water. Within touching distance of big marine mammals. I perch on the cliff edge like a cormorant and mentally launch myself into the crescent of pure, green water. We stroll past serious looking binoculared couples in National Trust green. For an hour or two we wander the warm crags, eyes on the horizon, checking our feet. The breeze dies down and the sun comes out and my son soon loses the intensity.
But then, moment by moment, we become dimly aware of warm wafts of air lifting huge clouds of butterflies off the violet heather and vanilla gorse. My son waves his arms throughout them and we both smile. Staring through the clash of red, black and orange is like being a child with a kaleidoscope again. An unexpected blessing after all that effort-filled pursuit.
That feeling of searching too hard for something in the wrong place. And all the time looking for the wrong thing, when the thing I needed was right under my nose.
As teachers we spent ages creating incredible powerpoints only to be told that visualiers are in. Design forensic lesson plans but then find out it’s more about curricular intent. Scrawl purple-pen feedback in all the exercise books and then read ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger’. Pour interventions into kids like water into a colander, knowing there will always be holes! Then being told that now, in 2018, it is actually THIS that is going to have most impact, it is THIS which is most effective and THIS is what Ofsted are looking for. And then to see the BBC2 ‘School’ programme and feel the rock-bottom morale of children and staff and witness the dignity of the under-pressure headteacher James Pope.
Which is why rereading THIS is a tonic (the pupil premium is not working) and thoughtful reasoning against over simplistic directives. And understanding THIS (to address underachieving groups, teach everyone better) is what, deep down as teachers, we have probably always known. And realising THIS (graphically exposing Ofsted bias) helps me to be at peace that just maybe the system is stacked against some schools and it’s not just me being neurotic. But there is still a sense of having spent half a lifetime searching the wrong waters for dolphins, with faulty binoculars, when all the while the butterflies danced just inches from us.
Two days later we cycle to Mwnt and after a long, sunny, timeless day, frisbee around the grass car park. The day is almost done and we walk, relaxed in the cool air along the cliff tops to watch the sunset. Just as I try to badly explain to my boy how the bright yellow stains on the rocks is where bird poo has fed the lichen (he yawns), we hear rather than see the rush and suck and then crash of a dolphin. All that is left a spiral of white on the surface of sea. Like tree rings. Then another. And another. And altogether we watch over a period of 30 minutes while two pods of five dolphins swim out west along the sunlit Ceredigion coast. 400m out to sea, occasionally coming up for air and beautifully free of human contact.
And you know what? We weren’t even looking for them.