All jam and plenty of bread?

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
Twin sisters Jane Cullen and Jenny Brown both chose independent schools when they moved into teaching from other careers. They tell Hazel Leslie how their decisions are working out.

Neither Jenny Brown nor her twin, Jane Cullen, saw themselves as teachers. With both parents in the profession, they had decided early on that teaching was one thing they would never do. They both read English - at different universities - and after they graduated Jenny found an editorial job and Jane started work as a travel industry researcher.

For Jenny, management magazines soon palled and teaching English began to seem more attractive. Being penniless again while she took a Postgraduate Certificate of Education was less appealing. So she looked for a job in the independent sector, where the attitude to PGCEs is more flexible, and found one at Cranleigh in Surrey, a boys' boarding school with a mixed sixth form.

This unsettled Jane: "Jenny used to ring me up when I was writing tedious reports on percentage increases and say she was about to teach King Lear, and I began to think 'she's actually being paid for doing that'. Having a twin sister you tend to spend your life trying to be different, so it was hard to accept the idea of teaching at first. But it's also incredibly useful having a twin - I knew that if she could do it, I could."

So Jane answered an advertisement in The TES and landed a job at Wellington College in Berkshire, a boys' public school with a mixed sixth, housed in an impressive building with extensive grounds a few miles from Sandhurst. Four years on she is head of English - the first woman in that position at Wellington - while Jenny has moved from Cranleigh to teach English at Highgate, an independent boys' day school which has been on its site in north London since 1565.

Both admit that they started on the independent school route because, without PGCEs, they had no choice, but both agree that it has had big pluses. Jenny finds Highgate "stimulating, friendly and unstuffy. In an academic school you do have to be really on top of your subject, but you are teaching children who basically want to do well. Classes are small - 25 in a top set, 17 in a lower set - and you are fortunate enough never to have to cope with difficulties like a shortage of books".

For Jane, "the primary reason I'm teaching is because I love English. At a school like Wellington I have the freedom from other problems to be really enthusiastic about my subject and I have a budget to promote it too".

So is an independent school job all jam and plenty of bread? Pay rates are certainly higher and holidays are longer. At boarding schools like Cranleigh and Wellington you can expect to be fed and housed, and, since such schools are usually well away from big towns, there's not very much to spend money on during term time either, so it's relatively easy to save.

There's not much time to spend money either. Apart from Saturday teaching, which is almost universal in boarding schools, non-teaching duties are definitely part of the agreement when you take the job, and some schools recognise this by paying teachers a special extra allowance.

"You have to be a joiner-in" says Jenny. "At Wellington, every member of staff who is not a house-sitter is an under-tutor in one of the school houses. I'm under tutor for the girls and I love it - they are very supportive of one another and there's a very nice atmosphere. I take them for prep and PSE, and they sometimes come and talk to me about personal things - not usually taxing, just standard teenage problems.

"It's part of your job to keep the children occupied, and you are far more significant to them than you would be at a day school. You have to learn to relate to them outside the classroom, to show you are human without compromising your own position.

"In a boarding school you make close relationships, but you have to get used to the lack of private life, especially when you're living in college. By the end of term I'm ready to rush away and see my other friends - it's a bit Jekyll-and-Hyde. During term time you are completely enclosed by the school, but a lot of the time you're getting paid to do things that you'd probably enjoy doing anyway. Sometimes when I'm watching cricket on a Saturday, or doing aerobics with the girls, I think 'other people actually pay to do this'. "

By contrast, Jenny is now enjoying the freedom of teaching in a day school. "Cranleigh was a great place to start and I still have good friends from there, including some of the pupils," she says. "It was small and supportive and a wonderful learning ground, but small communities can also seem very parochial. I couldn't go back to boarding now. An inner city day school is very different. The children are very streetwise and much less biddable. Most of them are extremely articulate and in many ways less sheltered and more mature.

"I enjoy having weekends, but I still do a lot of extra-curricular things - I run a book group with Channing (the nearby girls school) and I'm involved in debating, and finding speakers for the general studies course. The boys come from a lot of different backgrounds. A great many parents have stressful jobs and there are quite a few broken homes. I'm a house tutor and I'm surprised really by the number of boys who do come and talk about personal problems, though at a day school you can't have the same involvement in their lives. "

Has either felt the lack of a PGCE? Jenny feels she might take one eventually to give her more flexibility. "Obviously the teaching practice part of a PGCE is extremely useful. I suppose the fear of every new teacher is that they won't be able to control the class, but my main surprise from the first day was how easy it was. Cranleigh paid for me to do a newly qualified teachers' course at the Institute of Education, but I think that was mainly interesting because I found out just what problems some other teachers were having to cope with. "

Jane agrees. "My fiance (also a teacher at Wellington) has a PGCE and I've discussed it a lot with him. Most of the theory part does seem like common sense. Oddly enough I think teaching boys is in some ways easier for a woman. They don't feel so competitive with you, and they don't want to be humiliated or exposed by a young woman in front of their friends."

With school fees rising and the effects of the league tables, there is pressure on independent schools to perform academically, so most are looking for teachers with a good degree. However, Jane and Jenny both feel it is the range of an applicant's interests that is likely to swing the balance - independent schools are looking for people who are interested in doing more than simply teach. And they both agree that, with or without a PGCE, they would start the same way again.

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