Frances Farrer talks to two new teachers at Radley College and finds that variety can be the spice of life at an independent school
Motoring up the long driveway through lush, green, Oxfordshire countryside towards buildings of various ages grouped around the Georgian main school house of Radley College, you might wonder a trifle ironically why anyone would want to take up their first teaching post in such a setting when inner cities are crying out for help.
Radley is an independent boarding school of about 600 boys founded in 1847 with the intention of emphasising the aesthetic. It is said to be, apart from Eton, the only remaining single-sex public school. Iaian Campbell and Howard Ionascu began as new teachers there last September. Both are keen to acknowledge that they went to comprehensive schools.
Now there is officially no difference between experience gained in a state school and in a private school.
There is no overarching practical reason why new teachers should prefer to start in one or the other, except perhaps for a specialist such as classicist Mr Campbell whose subject has no state sector opportunity.
But although he says this was, "a major factor in my choice," he also observes that the most rewarding aspect of his working life is the variety of activity. Mr Campbell's role as a resident sub-tutor approximates to the title assistant housemaster and means that he not only teaches his subject but also lives in the school and has some domestic responsibility. He believes each of these situations benefits the others.
"It's nice to see the boys in a range of circumstances, strike a rapport with them," he says. "The all-round aspect is much better. There's lots of sport and it means you can talk about that in lesson time, which can make a better quality of communication. You see a different side of them again in the evening."
Lesson time, however, is wholly serious. "Ours is a big classics department. It's well done here. I also teach some English. Key words are discipline and rigour." The teaching ratio of 1:9 and the impressive list of Oxbridge entrants bears this out, and the school reports that from 8O A-levels taken last year there were 64 grade As. It seems clear that there is no room for passengers.
Academic excellence is one factor; what about the emphasis on the aesthetic? The visitor notices immediately the stone floors, oak panelling, stippled walls, hand-painted murals, and the newly upholstered chairs in the library. There are art posters along many corridors. Boys wear black suits and academic gowns and walk about decorously whether indoors or out.
You may catch sight of an immaculately dressed 13-year-old incongruously eating a Pot Noodle under a mock-medieval arch, but you will not see running or shouting.
Along the noticeboard corridor there is much concerning sport, rowing at Henley, golf clubs for sale alongside a computer game, a music system and a litter of black labrador puppies.
Last year the Queen visited because it was the school's 150th anniversary, and Messrs Campbell and Ionascu received commemorative pink porcelain boxes on the day we met. Rarefied? Sitting in the oak library looking through deep windows at the green and pleasant landscape which is the school estate, the question, "Why did you choose the private sector?" sounds almost facetious. Yet musician Howard Ionascu volunteers the information that he learned most from the rougher of his two teaching practices.
"I did four weeks in a tough comprehensive," he says. "It was vital. It wasn't the school for me - but I realised that teaching has as much to do with approach as with subject knowledge. In that situation, unless I could switch on the boys, all my musical knowledge was lost."
With disciplined and motivated pupils such as he has now, surely such lessons are irrelevant? "Music has to compete with other things," says Mr Ionascu. "The boys are incredibly busy and positively pressured. I am especially concerned with ensembles and the chapel choir, for that you really have to inspire people."
Like Mr Campbell, he lays emphasis on the requirement to play a multiple role "I'm coaching sport," he says. "You don't expect just to do your subject. And I feel I need to be as all-round as possible so the boys don't see me as an ivory-towered musician." He says his training did not in general prepare him for this situation. "I learned an awful lot about classroom preparation and management," he says, "but for music, the course was geared towards key stage 3, which doesn't exist here." However, he says he gets a lot of feedback "from other dons" and regular appraisals with the warden.
He does not live in the school with the boys, but in a staff house, and usually eats in a common-room. "It's a way of life here," he says.
"I enjoy being able to teach music to small class groups where they are eager to learn," he says, but "the academic pressure is very great." Like others in the private sector before him, Mr Ionascu maintains that privilege is not necessarily all it seems.
"The pupils have a different set of problems, and you have to learn how to deal with them."
To people still training, he makes an appeal. "Don't write off the independent sector because of preconceived ideas - in the classroom context it's like any other school. Teaching is teaching."