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December 14, 2002
The Sheila who couldn't cope

The December 14th issue of The Week, the British magazine which reports on what the rest of British (and some non-British) media have been saying, reckoned that an extraordinary article by one Kate Gibbs, first published in the Evening Standard (they don't say which day), was worth reproducing in full. Ms Gibbs is an Australian teacher who "thought she could handle even the most disruptive pupils". But then she had a go at teaching in one of the Government's new "flagship" City Academy schools, this one being in North London, hence the Evening Standard's interest. (I could find no trace of this piece, or about this particular Kate Gibbs, or about Grieg City Academy on line, so no link I'm afraid.)

It's a predictable saga of testosterone-fuelled insubordination, insults, rape threats, and consequent non-education, the minority of pupils who actually wanted to learn something being the main victims, along with the teaching staff of course. Money had been thrown about in abundance, but the government's attempt to get a grip on the place, had, for the time being anyway, only made matters worse.

Ms Gibbs' piece abounds with those military comparisons that always seem to crop up whenever state education is now discussed, and her second last paragraph provides further evidence of the Sovietisation of British state education, this time in the form of the idiotic paperwork that state teachers must all now endure. You sense that the staff might have been able to cope, if it wasn't for all their superiors looming over them, trying to make absolutely sure that they were coping.

I soon understood something about why teachers did not want to teach there. They were in open revolt at the crushing paperwork burden imposed on them by management, and what they called "the overbureaucratised Academy". Pigeon holes were stuffed daily with memorandums, student profiles, new agendas and forms to fill out to prove you had been setting homework and marking books. They complained of losing Sundays to lesson plans and evaluations that nobody read. From what I could see, most teachers could not wait to leave. The students, needless to say, picked up on this. They told me that the extraordinarily high staff turnover while I was there, five permanent staff resigned on one day made them feel rejected. They longed for continuity, for someone to attach to. Usually, I reflected, the questions I would be asked as a 25-year-old teacher were: "Do you have a boyfriend, Miss?" Or "Do you think he's fit, Miss?" But at Grieg City Academy, it was always one question: "Will you be here tomorrow, Miss?"

And then the last paragraph reveals that there very soon came a day when she decided that she wouldn't be.

By the end of my second week, I had lost my voice and was sick in bed with bronchitis. On the following Monday, I phoned to say I would not be coming back. As I put down the phone, I experienced a pang of guilt for the few good students I was letting down. But mainly I felt overwhelming relief. It's extraordinary to think you can plough £20m into a school and actually make things worse. It will take time and a lot more than money to transform Grieg City Academy.

Aussies have a formidable reputation in London for being just plain better at what they do more hardworking, more efficient, smarter, tougher than the local average. If an Aussie Sheila can't cope in one of these places, it must truly be in a bad way.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:35 PM
Category: The reality of teaching
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