October 04, 2004
A golden generation of teachers – when they started and when they retired

On Saturday evening I had supper with my friend and fellow Samizdatista Johnathan Pearce, and very agreeable it was too. We discussed many things, and one of the more interesting things we discussed was one of Johnathan's father's school teachers. Johnathan's father was at school just after World War II, and consequently found himself being taught by, among others, people who had just won the war.

He was apparently taught physics by a young guy, about twenty five years old then, who had, before taking up his post as a teacher, been a navigator in a Pathfinder Squadron. For those not versed in the details of how Britain's wartime bombers went about their grizzly business, the Pathfinders were the ones who went to the target first, and started a small fire on it, which all the bombers would then aim their bombs at. The combination of technical expertise and sheer guts needed to be someone like that is something at which most of us can only, luckily for us, guess.

And one of these young fellows was, as I say, Johnathan's dad's physics teacher. Young, obviously. But also, because young, very keen and energetic. In short, the very essence of Alpha Maleness.

Johnathan's dad goes further, and says it would be interesting to examine the impact upon education, not just of this one young man, but of all the other young men like him who, just after World War II, while still only in their twenties, entered the teaching profession.

Someone like this physics teacher (a) is going to know his physics pretty well, and (b) is hardly likely to be phased by a classroom full of exuberant and potentially rowdy and out-of-control schoolboys.

Now you may say that, now, things are very different, and even the most formidable of men sometimes have a problem keeping in control of classrooms, and I am sure that's true. But the exact chronology of this golden generation of schoolteachers, if that is what they were, is, I think, suggestive.

In particular, ask yourself when these guys stopped teaching. Assume that they were around 25 when they started teaching, fresh from their Avro Lancasters and their tanks and their ships and their Spitfires, and that they retired at around 65. So, add 40 years to 1945, and what year do you get? Well, you don't need much maths for that. The answer is 1985.

Now, 1985 is the approximate time when it is now claimed that education in Britain started to enter its most recent period of being very bad, and in need of much increased central control.

The usual explanation for educational decline, and most especially of decline in discipline and pupil behaviour, is … well, what? Nobody properly knows, other than to note that wider social forces, forces outside of schools, made a big impact upon schools and changed them for the worse. But just what did these "social forces" consist of? All sorts of things, of course, including television, the rights-before-responsibilities mentality encouraged by the welfare state, drugs, the immigration into Britain of some ethnic groups who behave very badly (although others behave extremely well of course), have been blamed for this decline. Other more immediate malign influences on schools have included: idiotic teacher training colleges, idiotic theories of literacy teaching, and, in general, all the stuff you read about here from time to time when I am in a complaining sort of mood. But how about this for at least a part of the explanation? - that during the 1980s a lot of extremely good and, so far as the wider life of the schools they taught in, hugely influential teachers retired, and were not replaced by teachers who were anything like as impressive, and especially not as impressive to young boys. How about that as part of the story of our nation's current educational woes?

Certainly, to judge by the TV adverts being shown by the government now, they would give anything for another generation of men of this calibre and experience of life to go into the teaching profession.

So, there's your answer, start another major war, and hope that a decent number of young men survive it and then, because of the depressed state of the post-war economy, become schoolteachers in huge numbers. Well, not really. But I still say that this is an interesting way of looking at the larger educational picture, usually scrutinised only through a microscope with a label on it saying something like "educational policy".

Here is a gratuitous picture of some Avro Lancasters and of some of the Alpha Males who flew in them and looked after them …


… which I found here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:36 PM
Category: HistoryTeacher training