"Miss, Miss … I've chosen a book to read," says the slightly dishevelled boy with a dimpled grin, gazing at me over the top of his glasses which have slid halfway down his nose. "Great!" I enthuse, with what I hope is a friendly and encouraging smile. "Show me what you've picked." "I've picked a POOH out of your BOTTOM," he shouts, matching an action to his words with, of course, AA Milne's classic text in his hand. The entire class, obviously accustomed to his antics had, I later realised, been waiting for such a witticism. They burst into snorts and hoots of laughter while he bowed exaggeratedly in all directions to acknowledge the reaction. My first morning with year five. It was impossible to know what to expect from a room of 30 10- and 11-year-olds, but I hadn't banked on instant humiliation. Things, I thought for the first of many hundreds of times, surely weren't like this in my day. It is dispiriting to be transformed, in a matter of seconds, from the eager liberal parent-helper aspiring to enhance the educational opportunities of all to a fulminating blowhard growling under her breath about "discipline", "manners" and "respect". I'm there, one morning a week, in an entirely unprofessional and voluntary capacity to do the bidding of the teacher. It was time, I had decided, to put my time where my mouth was. The "big society" big idea for education – the establishment of so-called "free" schools – seems a recipe for even greater economic and social division, while threatening the already underfunded and overstretched state schools. Look no further than the beleaguered local authorities passing on swingeing central government cuts. So when my children's primary school at the heart of our local community asked for parent-helpers, I volunteered. My role, theoretically, is to listen to as many children as possible reading for five or so minutes each and track their progress in fluency, expression and comprehension. With large classes and a tightly timetabled curriculum to get through, many teachers just don't have the time to spend giving this level of one-to-one attention. But once in the melee of the classroom much of my time is spent helping, or at least trying to help, to monitor and control behaviour in the part of the classroom not being directly observed at that instant by the teacher. "Feral" is a word that often comes to mind when things have got out of control. Also "pack". For in my experience it is the collective, the collaboration, the "us against oppression" mentality that results in some of the worst excesses. It is not a single child kicking another on the floor, but several putting the boot in as a group activity. Of course, I'm merely reinventing the millennia-old global grievance of the adult against the shocking inadequacies, moral degeneration and all-round brutishness of children. But it's also this lack of originality that keeps me going back, week after week. Because, shocked as I have been at some of the scenes I've witnessed, this is more than outweighed by the delight of interacting with every single child as an individual through the magic of books.
There is the bespectacled and owlish girl with untamed thick wavy hair who wears boys' trousers and sits on her own in the library. When I read with her for the first time, I ask her if she likes books. "Oh yes, I love them. When I read it's like going into a world all of my own. I really want to write stories when I grow up. I love words so much." There's the boy with what I can only describe as a serious "attitude" problem. Resistant, resentful and oppositional to all requests. Demanding "respect" from all, giving it to none. Sharp as anything, he raps his dissent, beat and rhyme perfect. The very thought of having to sit next to some old woman and read to her is clearly an affront to his masculinity, and beneath his dignity. Much energy is expended in getting him to the seat. But once there, after a sulky monotone paragraph or two, his interest is sparked by Robin Hood's arsenal and the reading continues fluently, enthusiastically. We even have an engaged discussion at the end about Hood's moral stand, as well as his weaponry. There's the boy who just can't stop moving. Ever. Eventually I realised it was fruitless expecting him to sit in the chair following the words with his finger. When allowed to wind and unwind his legs, slide down in the seat, wriggle sideways and generally give rein to this overwhelming urge to motility, his concentration improved and his reading gained in fluency. And there's Mr Winnie-the-Pooh. He finds reading in English difficult, but he's also being taught to read and write his parents' language in classes after school and at the weekends. His behaviour in front of his peers is often highly disruptive and attention-seeking. But when I asked him what his favourite book was, and what it was he liked about it, he told me with great enthusiasm about reading with and for his younger sister. "That's when I'm a bit like you," he said. "I'm helping her, and it makes me feel happy".