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No formula for brilliance

Brilliant Primary School Teacher: What you need to know to be a truly outstanding teacher

By Kevin Harcombe

Prentice HallPearson, pound;12.99

2 out of 5

Everyone has to be brilliant these days. "Satisfactory" doesn't satisfy any more. "Good" isn't good enough. Even "very good" is disappointing when there's the glorious possibility of "excellent".

So here's a recipe for being "a truly outstanding teacher". But don't expect it to be readily digestible. In fact, several times while working through this book, I had to go and lie down in a darkened room.

That's not to say it's a difficult read. Kevin Harcombe has a clear, engaging, relatively jargon-free style, and there's plenty of wry humour to keep you going through the tricky bits. There are also many nuggets of sound, common-sense advice and some great teaching tips (I particularly liked his list of activities for getting to know a new class).

So why did I keep coming over all peculiar? Partly, it was the sheer quantity of stuff covered in the 236 pages - difficult for anyone to digest in a couple of sittings. But it was mainly terror that the book might spawn a multitude of Kevin Harcombe clones, brimming with up-to-date professional knowledge and intoning the mantra (taken from Chapter 7): "Ethos is important. Nurture and caring are important. Nothing, however, is as important as standards."

I've met many brilliant primary teachers in my time, and can't imagine any of them saying this. They would be more likely to claim that nothing's more important than helping children discover the joy of being successful, reflective learners (which, interestingly, tends to bring high standards in its wake). It's a higher-risk strategy than aiming straight for standards, of course, but - as Harcombe himself points out - brilliant teachers have to take risks.

I suppose it's the publishers I should rail at. What they want in a book of this type is a succinct, entertaining summary of current educational thinking, and Harcombe has more than fulfilled that remit. They also dreamed up the title, because they want to sell books and they know young teachers all want to be brilliant. But there can never be a recipe for "brilliant teaching". The outstanding teachers I meet are all very different. Their brilliance comes from experience and love of the job, not from self-consciously following someone else's guidelines.

Tragically, education over the past three decades has been largely about the self-conscious following of guidelines. Today's young teachers were reared in a standards-driven system, based on explicit formulae for achieving particular standards ("Here's exactly what to do to get a level 4 . or a grade 1 . or an A-star"). So we can't be surprised if they confuse "successful learning" with the pursuit of extrinsic rewards. It breaks my heart when some bright young thing asks: "What do I have to do to get `Excellent'" (And they do ask, believe me, they do .)

So I wish Harcombe had made it clear that brilliance in teaching (like brilliance in every walk of life) isn't about compliance. It's about being a reflective, open-minded professional, using your own brain and enjoying the amazing privilege of helping children to use theirs. There is no formula for excellence.


Kevin Harcombe is from Liverpool and has been a primary teacher since the late 1980s. He is now headteacher of Redlands Primary in Fareham, Hampshire, and was the National Teaching Awards primary head of the year in 2007.

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