Teaching – surely more than a matter of subject knowledge.

Well qualified teachers have the ability to sort out challenges

Well qualified teachers have the ability to sort out challenges

I recently read an interesting and well researched paper written by a historian who I have known for a number of years. The paper examines the development of comprehensive schooling in England in the 1970s during a period when many grammar schools were closed or amalgamated with secondary schools in which students had followed a less academic curriculum. This was a controversial national policy decision and the debates surrounding this period are very well documented and discussed in this paper.

The historian concerned is held in high regard amongst his peers and his expertise has been sought by a number of august organisations and institutions. As an eminent historian his credentials are unquestionable. But would he be able to communicate his knowledge effectively to others? How would students who may be less interested in his subject expertise than he is, respond to him as a teacher?

I ask these questions because currently here in England a debate rages about whether it is necessary for teachers working in our state schools to have qualifications that accredit their skills, understanding, and expertise as teachers. There is a school of thought (though how much thought has actually been applied isn’t specified), that so long as an individual has sufficient subject expertise, they should be able to teach. In other words, my friend the historian, who has a PhD in his subject and is acknowledged as an authority in his discipline, should be allowed to enter the classroom as a teacher without any further qualification.

I am quite sure that there are individuals who in many respect are naturally gifted teachers. I am however, aware that my friend would be horrified at the thought that he might be confronted with a class of thirty children of varying aptitudes and needs, and asked to teach them about the Tudor kings of England, the English civil war (which incidentally wasn’t very civil), or the signing of Magna Carta. When I recently discussed this possibility with him, he expressed the view that such a situation would give him nightmares, not so much about his own lack of expertise, but more about the likelihood that the children before him might get a less than satisfactory learning experience. Furthermore, he stated that whilst he hopes that the teachers who are currently working with his sons have good subject knowledge, he also expects that they should have good classroom management skills, an understanding of pedagogy, and an appreciation of those factors that promote or inhibit learning.

I suspect that those politicians who are proposing changes which would increase the numbers of unqualified teachers in schools, have reduced the idea of education to a simple list of subjects, rather than recognising that teaching requires much more than advanced knowledge in a specific area. I recall that as a newly qualified teacher I was grateful for those approaches to classroom management, forming effective relationships with children and families, understanding processes of assessment and learning and differentiated teaching that had been instilled in me by my tutors. I also quickly came to realise that continuing to study how children acquire language, understanding aspects of mental health and self-esteem, and those influences that lead to children being labelled as having special educational needs, enabled me to become a more effective teacher, and to better serve my students. Whilst I have always believed that subject knowledge is critical for effective teaching, I also regard the ability to communicate this knowledge effectively and to understand alternative approaches that should be considered when children are struggling to learn as crucial parts of the armoury of a professional teacher.

Children in our schools deserve to be taught by the best available teachers. Teachers themselves need to have their pedagogical skills recognised and endorsed. I know that I have always appreciated the professionalism of teachers who taught me in the past, just as I have immense regard for those who enthused my sons in their school days. A failure to recognise those aspects of teaching that enable classrooms to operate effectively, and all students to access learning at a level commensurate to their needs, is an insult to those committed teachers who continue to seek to ensure that all children receive a first class education.

Fortunately my friend the historian recognises the nonsense that is being spoken by those politicians who have failed to see the necessity to provide a well-qualified teaching profession. He recalls a time from history when few teachers were qualified, and many children denied their right to formal education. He suggests that those who do not see the necessity to have a well trained teaching profession return to their history books, and if possible read these with the guidance of an enthusiastic teacher.

All contributions welcome (but often overlooked)

Please be assured that there are many here who find such headlines deplorable!

Please be assured that there are many here who find such headlines deplorable!

It is impossible to ignore the fact that we are in the midst of a general election campaign here in the UK. It seems that every news item, radio or television discussion programme or news website has lost touch with any item or event unconnected to the current political scene. Whilst momentous international events may be occurring around the world, anyone interested in ensuring that they are in touch with these will find it necessary to delve well beyond the opening pages of a national newspaper. As if they were in some way unfamiliar to the masses, our national press seem to believe that we need to be reminded of the appearances of Messrs Cameron and Miliband, variously posed with babies, farm animals or their endorsing celebrities at every possible occasion. Amidst all this brouhaha there are serious debates to be had, but at times they are completely lost in trivia and flummery.

One issue that has been central to this election campaign, which in all honesty appears to have been in full flow for many months, is that of immigration. Nothing can be guaranteed to raise the temperature of the arguments put forward by our politicians and the media, albeit generally shallow in nature, than a discussion of the various merits or challenges presented by those, who whilst now resident in the country, were born elsewhere. This of course, is not a novel issue in a country made up almost entirely of a population that can trace its roots back to invaders and settlers over many centuries. Romans, Vikings, Celts, Saxons, Normans, Huguenots, all have come to this country, settled and become well integrated as “British citizens,”  contributing greatly to our rich tapestry of culture. There is no doubt that at the time some of these arrivals were greeted with greater enthusiasm than others, but each brought with them a new set of skills, architecture, science, arts, music, cuisine and traditions that have enriched our lives.

As a nation once proud to boast that through the might of its empire it ruled over half the globe, it was to be expected that once that rule diminished, there would be many who came to seek a life in a “motherland” which had imposed its own values upon their homes. Arriving in the UK a new wave of immigration contributed greatly to our national economy, bringing with them yet more aspects of their own heritage that has not only become part of the national scene, but in some cases, particularly those of an artistic or culinary nature, have also won the hearts of the “indigenous” population.

I like to think that when visitors come to this country they are made welcome and find that British people are warm and caring, and interested in the experiences that incomers bring with them. When they choose to stay and make the UK their homes, the vast majority make a significant contribution to the economic and social wellbeing of the country, bringing a wide range of skills and knowledge and working hard to support their families. It is for this reason that I find myself frustrated with the low level contribution that many politicians and media personnel are making to current debates around immigration.

Listening to the radio this morning I had the misfortune to hear a prominent politician declaring that excessive immigration was the single greatest cause of strain upon our national health and education services. In the view of this political leader, significant numbers of individuals are coming from overseas, bringing with them their families and friends, simply to benefit from our wonderful welfare state. Their sole interest in becoming resident in the UK is to take from our services, whilst making little contribution to the economic or social welfare of the country. Sadly, the rhetoric of this politician is to be found in much of the reporting in the media and the discussions heard in the cafés public houses and behind the lace window curtains in houses up and down the country.

There is, of course, another side to this argument, which is more often voiced by those who have regular contact with people who have come to this country to provide a much needed service. As a simple example of this I would suggest that far from placing a strain upon our health and welfare services, immigrants to this country are making a huge contribution to its maintenance and efficiency. Having myself spent some time in hospital following an accident a couple of years ago, I was aware that the professionalism of doctors, nurses and cleaners, many of whom had been born outside of this country was contributing considerably to my recovery.  Visiting schools on a regular basis, I am conscious of the number of teachers and teaching assistants of a wide range of national origins, who are ensuring that our education system continues to provide a first class service to children and families.

This side of immigration is being sadly overlooked, or in some instances deliberately distorted in the current election climate, as the contribution made by new comers to this country is ignored in order to make political capital. Whilst seething over my muesli this morning listening to the radio, a further thought on this issue came to my mind, which I have no doubt many of our political masters would seldom pause to consider. There have been many instances of “foreigners” taking residence in a country and over the course of time educating the residents of that land to look in greater detail and to appreciate aspects of their own life and culture as never before. Two examples of such people came immediately to mind as I was completing my breakfast.

Nickolaus Pevsner, born in Leipzig, Germany in 1902, came to England in 1933. Shortly after the outbreak of the second World war, Pevsener was interned as an enemy alien of the state. After his release, he continued to make a contribution to the history of architecture both as a writer and teacher. Probably the greatest contribution that he made as an academic historian was the compilation of The Buildings of England, through which he documented in 46 accessible volumes every significant architectural feature of the country. These books, still seen as the definitive guide to English architecture opened the eyes of British people to the magnificent art and architecture that is great feature of the country.

A second example, refers not to an immigrant to the UK, but rather to an Englishman who became the first from this nation to take Indian citizenship following independence in 1947. Verrier Elwin went to India originally as a representative of the Church of England, but before long came to appreciate the rich cultural diversity and lifestyles of tribal peoples within the country. From that point he dedicated his life to recording the art, poetry, rituals and life styles of tribal people in various parts of India. He campaigned vigorously for their right to maintain their traditions and through his writings brought the immense contributions that they make to the ecology and culture of the country to the attention not only of the Indian people, but an international audience. His study changed the perceptions of tribal people, set an agenda for others who wish to defend such groups and influenced changes in national and international policy.

I am not suggesting that every immigrant will make so great a contribution to their adopted countries as did Pevsner and Elwin, but I do believe that many newcomers to a land enable us to see ourselves from a new perspective. They contribute greatly to the landscape and welfare of their newly adopted homes and it will be to our detriment if we do not provide them with an opportunity to express their own ideas in the current political climate.


When looking for solutions to national problems, consult the students


Vegatables of this quality can improve the health of everyone, but it takes school students to make them available to all

Vegetables of this quality can improve the health of everyone, but it takes school students to make them available to all

Whilst India has developed rapidly in recent years, and a period of relative  economic buoyancy has brought benefits to many within the population, the many daunting challenges that remain within the country are all too evident. High levels of pollution, traffic congestion, poor infrastructure and a vast number of people living in poverty all continue to blight the country and challenge progress. At times these difficulties appear overwhelming, and as is always the case, the majority of people look to those in positions of authority to bring about improvements. The ministers of successive governments of all political persuasions have made bold speeches promising to deliver radical change, but behind closed doors I suspect that many of them would admit that they have failed to find satisfactory solutions.

Perhaps the expectations surrounding politicians and their ability to manage change are too great. Whilst they look for solutions on a national and global level, this possibly means that they are too far removed from the local situations that require attention. It may also be that those in high office have become so imbued in their ways of working that they are no longer able to maintain the kind of creative thinking that can have an impact on the lives of the populous. Whilst the answers to major problems may not come easily, perhaps there are other individuals or groups who can bring progress.

This thought came to mind yesterday as I read an article in the Mumbai edition of the Hindu, under the headline Mumbai students offer solutions to global problems. This reported a competition held under the banner of Happy India, which encouraged school students to identify some of the most significant problems they thought their country faced, and invited them to come up with the means to address these. I was not really surprised that they rose to this challenge with great enthusiasm and have already put into place a number of initiatives that are improving the lives of people in their cities.

A group of students from Podar International School in Mumbai recognised that many people living in the poorest conditions in the city, were unable to provide their families with the kind of nutrition that could improve their health and lifestyles. Seeking a solution that would enable them to change this situation, they came up with a novel business initiative in which they purchased vegetables from a wholesale market, and then sold half these to affluent customers at a price that enabled them to make a profit. They then used the profit to subsidise the sale of vegetables to people living in the poorest communities in the city at half the normal market price for good quality vegetables.

Poonam, one of the students involved in this initiative commented:

“I got this idea as I used to walk past a slum while going to school. I saw that the people there were very lethargic. For them, eating was only meant to fill their stomachs. They have no concept of nutrition, because they cannot afford nutritious food. So we came up with a cross-subsidised model to provide cheap and good quality vegetables to them,”

In another example of enterprise, students from Ryan International School developed a system to use waste plastic, of which there is certainly no shortage in India, to repair potholes in roads. They have since taken this initiative forward and have gained local authority consent to experiment with the construction of a thirty metre length of experimental road using the technique they have developed.

In providing local solutions to problems that are pervasive across India, these enterprising students will have learned much. Not only have they been required to produce business plans and experiment with design and production, but they will also undoubtedly have discussed social issues, the reasons why problems such as those confronted persist, and what their responsibilities to their local communities might be.

It may also be that there is an educational opportunity to be grasped by politicians here. Whilst the impact of the initiatives taken by these students may be small in scale, and there will undoubtedly be issues surrounding sustainability, it is clear that they have both the understanding and desire to bring about change. If there are lessons to be learned from this competition on the part of the students, I suggest that there may equally be a justification for politicians to discuss how the enterprise of students such as these may be harnessed.

It has always seemed to me, that even in a democracy, the ability of politicians to bring about sustainable change is impeded by party politics and factional interests. The young people who have set an example in Mumbai, and elsewhere in India, are currently untainted by narrow minded politics, and have demonstrated how local understanding when embraced within an educational context can yield positive outcomes. I hope that if any of these young people become politicians in the future, they will remember the value of lessons learned through the Happy India competition.

Life on the education production line.


Is there a teacher somewhere under all this paperwork?

Is there a teacher somewhere under all this paperwork?

“One cannot walk through an assembly factory and not feel that one is in  Hell.”

W.H. Auden

I am inclined to think that I was one of a fortunate generation of school teachers. Throughout my career in schools I generally enjoyed teaching and found the whole process immensely satisfying. That doesn’t mean that I never experienced days when everything seemed to be out of kilter, with the end of the day coming as a blessed relief. But in general I always felt privileged to be engaged in something I enjoyed, felt fully committed to doing and gave me opportunities to work with interesting similarly motivated people. I suppose that like most teachers I encountered some children who were more difficult to like than others, but generally I found that time spent in class whilst undoubtedly demanding was a great pleasure and the pupils I taught were fun to be with.

My passion for teaching has not diminished, though now most of my work is with post-graduate students and serving teachers who are attending classes by choice, rather than being there because they have to be. Whilst there are obvious differences between teaching children and adults, many of the features are the same. Enthusiasm, love of the subject, a sense of humour and an ability to communicate are all essential characteristics of the successful teacher.

Whilst not suggesting that I lived through a “golden age” of teaching, I am convinced that teachers in English schools today are far less likely to be as enthusiastic about their current situation. This belief was reinforced over the weekend in an article written by John Harris in the colour supplement of The Guardian. Being married to a primary school teacher I am acutely aware of the long hours of lesson preparation, marking and paperwork that occupies every evening and a large portion of weekends, but Harris’ article has confirmed many of my worst fears for the profession I love.

At the outset of his article the journalist introduces us to a drama teacher who has given 22 years of service to a secondary school in the south west of England. Harris, clearly inspired and impressed by this teacher, describes a lesson she taught called “The Terrible Fate of Humpty Dumpty” whereby her class are encouraged to think about issues of bullying and enabled through team work to enact a scene that teaches them about morality and justice. The teacher tells him about the many school performances that she has produced in the past, some featuring more than 100 pupils. Ambitious productions such as Guys and Dolls and the Wizard of Oz built upon the enthusiasm of not only the pupils, but also the 30 or so staff who supported her in this venture. Sadly, she reports, such activities have become a thing of the past. In a relentless drive to establish a  curriculum aimed at hitting targets and achieving high marks in examinations drama has become marginalised as a subject. Teachers who would in the past have so willingly given time to support dramatic productions are under such pressure to manage their paperwork and achieve targets that they no longer have the energy to do so. This committed drama teacher has had enough, she is leaving and all of her experience and expertise is going with her. Harris is clearly perplexed as he reports her words:-

“Teaching’s been my life.” She wells up. “I’ve loved it and got so much from it. But I don’t want to be here any more.”

The saddest aspect of this article is that this teacher is just one of many interviewed by John Harris. All report that they are disenchanted with a profession to which they have always felt committed. They describe their working lives as being driven by targets and paperwork, much of which appears designed simply to satisfy an oppressive inspection regime, that devalues their professionalism and instils fear into their colleagues. Those subjects that at one time were regarded as both enriching and essential in providing a balanced education are now described by politicians as “soft options” and seen almost as an irrelevance in the educational process. This message of “irrelevance” is passed on to the teachers who have previously demonstrated a passion for these subjects.

When I was working as a head teacher it was always apparent to me that teachers who enjoyed their work and felt confident that they were appreciated, were effective at teaching children. Teachers have always worked hard, but in the past they did so because they believed in what they were being asked to do and recognised that their endeavours had positive benefits for children. Furthermore, they were praised for their efforts and respected for their dedication. I am convinced that the professionalism demonstrated by teachers in the past was no less evident than that expected of those in schools today. However I do not believe that high levels of dedication can be enforced by legislation or political interference.

John Harris’ article is appropriately titled “Inside the A* Factory.” The implication being that the purpose of schools has been reduced to one focused upon the production of A star students within a narrow range of subjects. Factory workers have always made an important contribution to the economy of our country. In the past their labours were clearly distinguishable from those of teachers. Both factory workers and teachers play an vital role, but until recently the borders between the two have seldom been blurred.

Are we witnessing the destruction of an education system through the systematic demoralisation of teachers? There are many who believe that this could be the end product of the current dominant doctrinaire approach.