The school was Silver Lake Academy. It stood in its own space, an island, proudly marooned from the rest of the world by pedestrian road crossings on every side. The nearby lake that had given the school its name, in which pupils had once been taught to swim by stern-faced masters, was long gone, drained and filled with concrete; a supermarket now stood upon its site. The green fields that the school had overlooked in its Victorian heyday were also gone, replaced by a housing estate. The rise in population in the area had led to the planned demolition of the old building and its proposed replacement with newer, sleeker, more fit-for-purpose units, but somehow the money for this had never materialised, and so the school had remained as it had always been, with its three storeys of dull brick, its ignored entrance notices for 'Girls', 'Boys' and 'Infants' carved in stone, and its clock tower, which had once been the town's only reliable timepiece, still marking the hour as it had for decades. The school had originally been a state-funded attempt to educate the poor. Now, to celebrate its one-hundred-and-fiftieth year as an educational establishment, Silver Lake was abandoning education altogether.

Inside, even at this hour, sixty minutes before any children would arrive, the school was a hive of activity. Teachers with worksheets to photocopy, displays to design, books to mark or plans to annotate, swarmed busily through corridors and settled diligently to work in flower-christened classrooms: Foxgloves and Crocuses, Cowslips and Honeysuckle, a whole hedgerow of names, one for each class, two classes per year from Reception to Year Six, plus the Bluebells of Nursery, all arranged over the three floors of the school, each with its own communal hall space. The staff room, offices and Foundation Stage were at the bottom; then a floor each for Key Stage One and Key Stage Two, where the children learned in serious silences that could last all day. The teachers were responsible for the progress of the pupils, and no excuses were acceptable for any failure to ensure every child was making progress every day, even when they were not yet inside the building.

The Headteacher of Silver Lake Academy, the woman responsible for making sure everybody knew their place, was Catherine Dinglesby, a short, squat woman, little taller than some of her Year Six pupils, but built of bricks and mortar. Formidable in her bulk, tough as old boots and surprisingly agile for her size, Dinglesby was not to be underestimated. She radiated power like the national grid. Her shoulder-length blonde hair, her piercing blue eyes and thick, bushy eyebrows, the solidity of her frame, all of this had caused many a man to quake in his shoes and many a teacher to acquiesce in whatever was asked of her. Dinglesby was sure of purpose and single of mind, and Dinglesby's mind was at one with her governors and her government. Having shaken off the yoke of the Local Authority by voluntarily converting to academy status, the only superiors Dinglesby need answer to now were the governors of the school, who had ultimate responsibility for the establishment's success, and the government of the country, who handed down educational policy to their academies like God handing down the law to Moses. Those philosophers who had informed local policy on schools were no longer Dinglesby's concern; nothing now stood between Silver Lake and the pure delivery of facts to the recalcitrant masses. Of course, there were always obstacles to overcome. No one understood better than Catherine Dinglesby the difficulties of being a Headteacher. Occupying her attention recently had been the thorny problems of where to find a new chair of governors, how to celebrate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the school, and who would write, as well as present, the obligatory speech that would be needed on such an occasion. Catherine Dinglesby sought to avoid all such responsibilities; she wanted only to sit in her office and be left alone. But it was not to be.

There was a knock at the door. At first Dinglesby did nothing, merely eyed the closed door with suspicion. The knock was repeated. Dinglesby paused before she went to open it. Very few people were allowed to knock upon that door, and each of those who were had a recognisable way of doing so. That this knock was not recognised by the Headteacher meant only one thing: an unauthorised person was upon her threshold. When she finally grasped the handle and pulled it towards herself, the Head saw that the unauthorised person was in fact people, and the worst kind of people: two parents and a child, collectively a nightmare come to life. Dinglesby could deal with a staff member at the door. A staff member could be intimidated, chastised for bothering her without an appointment, put in their place as easily as shooting fish in a barrel. Parents, especially parents with a child in tow, had to be appeased; pleasantries had to be exchanged; there might be problems to deal with. Dinglesby was experienced enough to know that none of the annoyance and fear she felt could be allowed to show upon her face, and so she smiled and greeted her visitors with a show of apparent warmth and welcome.


'Hello there. What can I do for you?'


'Good morning, Mrs Dinglesby,' said the father. 'I am Simon Cook, this is my wife Jane, and this is our daughter. You remember we were coming today?'


'Of course. Do come in.'


And Catherine Dinglesby had to let the invaders in to her private sanctum, to offer them chairs and tea and politeness, all the time wondering how they had got past the administration officer at her desk, how they had evaded the security protocols (where were their visitors' badges?) and wondering too who on earth these people were and what on earth they wanted.


'We did make an appointment with your secretary. We felt, as it was our little girl's first day at her new school, we should come in and meet you first. You know, to explain.'


'Certainly, Mr Cook. The new girl. Of course. And you wanted to explain. To explain what, exactly?'


'Yes. So that is why, in the end, we decided to home-school. Because of all the bullying she suffered, you see. Of course, we realised this could not be a permanent solution; neither Jane nor myself could afford to give up work full-time. But we can only return her to mainstream education if - and you must ensure us of this, Mrs Dinglesby - if there will be no bullying here.'


'Don't worry, Mr Cook, 'we don't have bullying in this school. It's zero tolerance.' Catherine Dinglesby smiled, but she spoke without emotion. Her words were an automatic reply, a phrase she had spoken many times before. As she said it, she did not even think about what it meant. Had she thought about it, she might have remembered that any accusations of bullying at Silver Lake were hushed up, denied and not investigated; that the victim was often blamed as much as the bully ('it takes two to create an incident'); or that the sufferers were fobbed off with platitudes, told to try smiling a bit more or to just forget about their fear. Had she thought about it, she might even have reflected how she herself enjoyed inflicting similar types of intimidation upon the staff; how she kept a file on each of them and patiently recorded every slip-up they ever made, just in case she needed to turn the screw on one of them one day; and how she loved to turn the screw. But Mrs Dinglesby did not think about any of this. Her words were an automatic reply, a phrase she had spoken many times before. Her mind was elsewhere, and hers was not the only one.


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