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October 08, 2003
Laura's school and Brian School

Last Friday I bought, because I feel that I should from time to time, a copy of the Times Educational Supplement (October 3 2003). It's a sort of giant Brian's Education Blog for centre-left to stupid-left teachers, done on paper. The economic basis of it is teaching job adverts.

The latest issue has (on page 5) what I've come to notice as a staple story for the TES, the one about the very smart person who becomes a starting out teacher, and who finds that it Isn't As Easy As She'd Thought It Would Be, and that she had to Work Very Hard.

This is the subheading of the story:

High-flyers are discovering that the teacher's daily grind is no cakewalk.

This story is about Laura Johnson, a 24-year-old Oxford graduate, who is doing a spell of teaching as part of the Teach First initiative. And she found it was very difficult, had to work from 7 am to midnight, blah blah blah.

The moral being: They Earn Their Money. Or to be more exact: We Earn Our Money And We Deserve A Stonking Pay Rise.

The more I think about these stories, and I've read plenty of them over the last few months, the more I find myself dissenting with extreme and indeed contemptuous vehemence from the usual version of what they are said to mean. They do not mean that Oxford graduates are less than very clever. Oxford graduates are, on the whole and give or take a few pomposities caused by ignorance of the world outside of Oxford which acquaintance with the world outside of Oxford will soon cure, pretty much as clever as they think they are. (It didn't take Laura Johnson long to realise how little she knew about what teachers did and how unrealistic were her first hopes of what she might immediately achieve as a teacher.) The thing that is stupid stupid stupid is the routine of flinging totally, and I do mean totally, inexperienced "teachers", on their own, into "classrooms" crammed with several dozen "pupils", and expecting non-insanity to be the result. The inverted commas in the previous sentence are there because "screws", "prisoners" and "jails" would make at least as much sense of what is going on here as does any talk of teachers and pupils. That kids get stuck in thumbscrews (see the previous story but one here), or otherwise get screamed at or assaulted, or that the kids retaliate in kind and assault their "teachers", is just the kind of Dickensian awfulness that one should expect from such a practice. The miracle is not that this happens. The miracle is that anything nicer ever does.

What would we say about the RAF if kids were plucked off the dole-queues and stuck in jet airplanes and expected to drive them straight away without crashing and burning? Of if they were "trained" for this absurd and destructive ordeal by doing nothing more than sitting about discussing and writing essays about the theory and the philosophy of flying for a few months or years?

The reason why teachers so often compare their lives to that of front line soldiers in wars is because that is indeed what their lives are like. And during the Second World War, the RAF did grab ignorant young men and stick them in complicated airplanes with woefully insufficient training, and hope for the best. That's the kind of cruel madness that happens in wars. But that's no excuse to do such things when there's no war being fought.

Brian School, will, to start with, have about one or two pupils, who can leave at any moment without explanation or justification if they don't like it, and there'll be me, and maybe one or two friends helping out, plus any concerned adults connected with the pupils who aren't sure what will happen with this arrangement and want to keep an earlly eye on it. At first there will be confusions and unpleasantnesses. Some kids won't like me or my friends and vice versa. Some adults won't approve of what is happening. But by and by, a small gang of consenting children and adults will coagulate, and slowly expand, learning all the time.

At which point, I fear, the government will shut the thing down on account of the adults not having had enough "training" (i.e. not having spent sufficient time writing essays about the philosophy of education), because we aren't helping enough with the government's latest truancy initiative and languages initiative, and because there's only one toilet. I'll say to The Government: but you aren't giving us any money, what business is it of yours? And The Government will reply: the fact that you refuse to accept any government money (fair comment that will be the reality of the situation) means that you are a Private School and that only makes everything far, far worse.

If Brian School can ever get past those problems and get as huge as the average tiny "school" is now, new adult members will be inducted much as new younger members are. They won't be hurled into insane asylum/prisons and made to stay up half the night preparing make-work for their prisoners and then lie awake for the rest of the night worrying about how to subjugate their prisoners. They'll be welcomed, told a little of how the place is organised and how it works, and then asked to make themselves useful, doing something easy which they can easily do. Some will have been enticed there with a particular activity in mind for them to start in on.

Some will be confused and angry, and leave, which is fine if they don't like it, they shouldn't hang about. Others will love it but be, in our opinion, unsuitable, and will be eased/intimidated out and if that fails, told to go. But some will be great and will see the point quickly, and will love it, and will stick around. It'll be the same as any other sane adult operation, in other words.

Many of these adults will (I fantasise) be ex-"teachers", who, for the privilege of actually doing some real teaching to consenting pupils, will be happy to do it for nothing.

Dream on Brian. That's what blogs are for. More realistically, if anyone is already running something like Brian School within easy-ish travelling distance of Brian (i.e. near-ish to London SW1) do please get in touch. I'd far rather not have to do all the organising myself. I'm better at just helping out.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:38 PM
Category: The reality of teaching

When my ex did her teacher training ten years ago - a 4 year B Ed which is the norm for primary teachers, as opposed the one year postgrad course most secondary teachers do - she spent a substantial amount of time every year actually in front of a roomful of pupils. In Liverpool. In a variety of schools, some them in not at all nice areas. This was the most valuable part (I wouldn't be quite so cynical as to say the only valuable part) of her training, and I think it prepared her quite well for her first full time teaching job (8 years in Salford). She's bloody good at it and works extremely hard.

You're right though that secondary teachers, who mostly do the one year postgraduate course, are woefully under-prepared.

Comment by: Alan Little on October 9, 2003 11:56 AM

Brian, there is so much to comment on in your brief posting -- teacher salaries, teacher training, and The Brian School.

Teachers are underpaid -- correction, *some* teachers are underpaid and others are far overpaid. I don't know how teacher salaries are computed in the UK -- here in the U.S. it is the result of a collective bargaining agreement between the teacher union and the school system and the traditional salary schedule is a matrix of increments over the base or starting salary, usually there are increments for experience, so that the longer you teach, the higher up the salary scale you are, plus there are increments for additional training beyond a bachelor degree. For example, a few years ago, when my wife became a teacher, she was starting with zero experience (teaching Fortran programming part time in a university didn't count) but she received the maximium possible extra pay for training (if I recall correctly, it was perhaps a ten percent increase) because she had two master's degrees (plus additional graduate study beyond that) -- of course, even with that she was making less than half of what she had made as a senior database architect; in fact, even the very highest paid teacher in her school would have fallen short of that salary.

So yeah, some teachers are underpaid -- and there are many who are not worth what they are collecting now. However, as a taxpayer, I know I couldn't afford to pay for a doubling of teacher's salaries. (Hmmm, wait a minute, if my wife's salary were to double, I suppose we could afford to pay the extra taxes, but most other people, not gaining the benefit of that salary increase, couldn't!)

I do have lots to say about teacher training -- based in part on my own past experience as a publlic school teacher and also on my experience in technical training in private industry -- but I don't have time to do it here and now -- perhaps sometime in the next week or so I'll dump a big sack of words on your doorstep.

Comment by: Jim on October 9, 2003 05:51 PM


I look forward to whatever you can find time to write.

Also, you might prefer to send it as an email and I could put it up as a separate posting.

Meanwhile, thanks for all that you have said.

Comment by: Brian Micklethwait on October 9, 2003 07:24 PM


Thanks to you too, of course. The first draft of the above rant had a bit about how no teachers were properly prepared for classroom teaching, but then I realised that this was almost certainly rubbish. Blogging is teaching me humility, when it comes to making sweeping generalisations on subjects which I know hardly anything about.

The experience of your ex shows that it can be done much better than if often is done, and that not everyone is simply ordered over the top with no relevant training. I'm glad to learn this, and it would explain why lots of schools, despite all the moaning of people like me about the malign effects of compulsoriness, nevertheless manage to get useful stuff done and good people's lives improved.

Comment by: Brian Micklethwait on October 9, 2003 07:26 PM

This is my first comment, though I'm a keen follower of the blog.

In many ways the notional 'Brian School' sounds wonderful - a small group of people who share values and enjoy each other's company must surely make for the kind creative, stimulating environment to which I'm sure many children and parents aspire.

Call me fastidious, however, but the reference to 'intimidation' (of adults who don't fit in) concerns me. The adult operations I've always found to be sanest and healthiest are the ones where those in charge don't rely on intimidation to achieve their goals. There are better, more honest ways to deal with a group member who's spoiling the party for everyone else, and, since you also mention 'easing them out' and finally 'telling them to go', I'm sure you know that.


Comment by: Catherine Walker on October 9, 2003 10:41 PM


You are right of course. By "intimidation" I certainly didn't mean any thing remotely resembling violence. I think what I was thinking when I used this word was that being "eased out" can be a pretty scary process - a pretty "intimidating" process - when you are unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of it. I can't remember when this last happened to me, but I'm very sure I didn't enjoy it one bit. And I was trying to be honest about the fact that running anything often results in severely hurt feelings, no matter how hard you try to avoid this. Hence the use of a hurtful word.

That confusion aside, I'm glad you like reading this blog, and I hope that continues to be so.

Comment by: Brian Micklethwait on October 10, 2003 07:16 PM

Brian, this is my first post too. I comment to Samizdata though.

One book that was very influential on my thinking, when I was younger and was thinking a lot about alternative schools, was the book Summerhill. I understand the school is still in operation. It is not exactly like you describe, but there are some important things in common. You might refamiliarize yourself with it if you need to. They are on the web but I am sneaking a minute from work and don't really have time to go looking for it.

Thanks :)

Comment by: speedwell on October 15, 2003 09:59 PM
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