“The majority of teachers are disillusioned by the way the Conservative Party has approached education in the United Kingdom,” declares Brittany Wright, a teacher of English in the Midlands who is also her school’s G&T coordinator (ie of students deemed to be ‘gifted’ and/or ‘talented’). Continue reading →
I’ve noticed over many years in the classroom that when students enter the physics or chemistry lab, they expect to be taught facts, and the teachers duly oblige by providing copious evidence from textbooks. But when those same students come to me to consider matters of theology, politics and philosophy, they generally take the view that they can choose what they like best, because just about everything that Hilton goes on about is mere opinion or speculation, if not total fabrication. If it feels good and brings serenity, it must be good and serene. Whatever they choose to believe is true, and truth is consecrated in the mind, just above freedom. Continue reading →
The world has lost one of the greatest musical virtuosos of our time. The renowned and charismatic conductor Claudio Abbado died on Monday. You only have to contemplate his Mahler 9, Bruckner 9 or his Brahms 3 to appreciate the breadth of his interpretative capacity and the profound grasp he had of musical form. Listen intently to the pulse of his sound: the silences have a cavernous depth; crescendos soar in emotional ecstasy; and his adagios creep toward heaven almost in communion with the divine. He was as serene on the podium as he was silent in life: music was his worship, and that was the gateway to freedom – spiritual and political. For him, no movement should distract and no words deflect from the sanctity of sublime orchestral harmony. Continue reading →
Teaching is a hard job – a very hard job. In the never-ending quest to increase GDP and propagate the nation’s culture, teachers swim in a very deep ocean every day; sometimes drowning. The commentators and critics who carp from the shore have absolutely no idea what it’s like to face a class of 27 agitated minds and fidgety bodies at 8.30 in a morning and still be marking at midnight (or having to get up at 5am the next day to finish the job). They can have absolutely no idea how tough and taxing it is to have to hold an adolescent crowd’s attention for hours on end, day after day, month after month, trying to devise new strategies for engaging and inspiring them through concentric circles of enlightenment. Continue reading →
“You haven’t even got a degree, you’ve got the shakes, and you think you’re God’s gift to teaching,” grunts Algy Herries, Headmaster of Bamfylde Boys’ School, in the TV adaptation of RF Delderfield’s First World War novel To Serve Them All My Days. “I take my hat off to you, I really do. You’ve got your work cut out, but there’s nothing like starting with ambition,” he reassures.
I watched this TV series while I was taking my O-levels, and read the book soon afterwards. It is, to my mind, one of greatest novels of the 20th century. The aspiring teacher is Second Lieutenant David Powlett-Jones, a nervy coalminer’s son from South Wales who has been invalided out of the army with shell-shock. His passion is history; his vocation – he eventually discovers – is pedagogy. Continue reading →
On April 23rd 2016 – and probably throughout the entire year – we will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. By ‘we’ I mean not only England and the English, or the United Kingdom and the British, but all nations and cultures of the world where Shakespeare is a passion, pastime or of any scholarly interest. And that necessarily embraces the whole of civilisation. As the holder of the Guinness World Record for performing the Complete Works single-handedly non-stop (five days without sleep – never again), I’ll certainly be raising a glass or two to the world’s greatest poet-playwright.
My record still stands after 25 years, and has just been re-published in the 2013 edition of the Guinness Book of Records. I will forever be grateful to those fine English teachers I had at school – Roger Calvert, Daphne Cooper and Jean Tidy – who between the years that spanned my O-levels and A-levels introduced me to Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, Antony & Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Measure for Measure and King Lear. From the academic confines of the classroom to the emotional exuberance of the school play, I found my soul simultaneously steeped in dramatic greatness, lyrical beauty and profound wisdom: ineffable, noetic, passive – it was like a religious experience. Every visit I made to Stratford-upon-Avon became a pilgrimage: sometimes wrestling with darkness and devils, and then rejoicing with angels and ministers of grace. Continue reading →
According to the latest national statistics on School Workforce produced by the Department for Education, a third of teachers of Physics, Geography and German have no qualification higher than an A-level in those subjects. Over the past year, the number of teachers with a relevant post A-level qualification has declined across the board, reaching 55.3 per cent of teachers of Religious Education; 53.1 per cent of teachers of Spanish; and 27.1 per cent of Maths teachers. Around 25 percent of teachers of Chemistry, History and French have no degrees in those subjects, while for English and PE it is around 20 per cent.
Such statistics invariably elicit concerns that our children are not being properly taught, or, at least manifestly not being taught be subject specialists. This leads to the tediously predictable headlines that our teachers are, at best, under-qualified or, at worst, incompetent. And, at a time of recruitment impossibilities in some subjects, there have been calls to restrict schools’ use of non-specialist teachers, with allegations of parents being ‘hoodwinked’ into believing their children’s teachers are experts in their subjects, while all along they know no more than they read in the pages of The Guardian. Continue reading →
I wrote some time ago of Halima (not her real name) who was one of my delights to teach. I’d identified her as ‘Gifted & Talented’ after just one lesson when she came to me in Year 10. She loved philosophy and was captivated by politics and theology, especially issues relating to the Middle East. She also had a flair for public speaking and a charisma for debating which frequently left her peers floundering. I always remember intellects like hers, not least because they made getting out of bed in a morning so much more worthwhile. She told me at one point that she wanted to go into politics: I’d helped to nurture a little future Aung San Suu Kyi. Brilliant.
Then, one day, she arrived at my class wearing a hijab. Nothing wrong with that: hundreds of girls in the school wore one, and seemed very content to do so. But Halima was no longer arguing or debating; in fact, she was scarcely speaking. This went on for quite a few weeks; neither her form tutor nor head of year could elicit anything from her as to why her demeanour had changed so profoundly; why she was suddenly so sad and withdrawn. And neither could I, until one parents’ evening when her father and elder brother came to see. In front of Halima, they began to explain to me how this straight-A* student was such a disappointment to them: all she talked about was religion and politics – men’s things – and she showed no respect for them or interest in getting married and being a doctor – the imminent life they clearly had planned for her. I listened politely, trying very subtly to reason with them by drawing attention to Halima’s outstanding grades. She became visibly upset as I made the defence. Her father scolded her, told her she was a disgrace, and they moved on to their next appointment. Continue reading →
It was the beginning of another academic year. I was in the staffroom, at the end of the usual sort of frenzied and frantic day which usually greets the first weeks of a new term. The Head came in and mumbled something, but I didn’t take any notice. No-one else seemed to. I was immersed in a sea of admin, data and trivia – student lists, text books, timetabling and staffing. As I gathered my bags to leave, I over-heard one of the English teachers refer to ‘an act of war’, but I assumed he was immersed in Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon or some such, so before I could become embroiled, I darted out to my car. It was sunny and still quite warm: a hint of Indian summer. I had a chilled bottle of wine waiting for me. I liked going home.
I turned on the radio to find some vacuous mood music, but there was none. Instead, as I drove out of the car park, I heard incomprehensible utterances: something about the Pentagon being hit. My mind hazed. I slowed at the junction and signalled left: something about the World Trade Center being destroyed. I paused at the traffic lights, turned up the volume, and listened. Continue reading →