Away with words

19th September 1997 at 01:00
Geraldine Brennan meets a teacher who has spent her career encouraging mastery of language

Jill Pirrie's favourite nouns are "economy", "spareness" and "focus". She has no time for frilly adjectives or superfluous tick boxes. At a lunch-time meeting less than a month after her retirement as language co-ordinator at Halesworth Middle School, near Lowewstoft, Suffolk, she talks for two-and-a-half hours while other diners come, eat and leave, and continues while staff start twirling their tea towels. But no words are wasted. Beneath her warmth and openness, she is precise and intense.

As she ponders on her departure, two years early, a new favourite noun surfaces. "Release - it comes down to release," she says. "A kind of exhaustion had set. I had always imagined myself being distraught at retiring, but I'm happy." Her widowed mother's ill health and the pensions cut-off date introduced by the last government helped confirm the decision she had started to make during two visits from the Office for Standards in Education.

"My lessons were highly spoken of, but you could see they had some reservations. Now I can be myself, with no need to put up a front for officialdom," she says. What is this subversion she has had to smuggle past the authorities? It is teaching a socially mixed group of nine to 13-year-olds in a rural area to write accomplished poems that have been winning national prizes for more than a decade.

The prizes, and plaudits from such names as Ted Hughes and the late Edward Blishen are not the end that justifies the means, but by-products of her philosophy of teaching "mastery of language" in which "children have to learn the power of the noun and the verb". Her book, On Common Ground, outlines her philosophy more fully, but at its heart is children's concentrated work on their own poems.

"I do poetry about once a fortnight," she says, three weeks out of the classroom and still speaking firmly in the present tense. "It has to run like a thread through the year. But the national curriculum says six weeks on the novel, six weeks on poetry. Someone once told me I ought to be jolly pleased because everybody has to do poetry now. But what's happened is it's been kept in its place."

On Common Ground celebrates the pleasures of poetry but recognises that it will not work without hard graft using the tools of language. Alongside exercises to free the imagination there are weeks of work on lineage and "the tricks of sound and meaning coming together".

She says: "Because poetry is so conscious and so structured it weds itself to grammar easily. I teach prose in much the same way, but we spend more time on poetry."

She favours sitting in rows and likes a lot of silence to encourage "focus". "I'm not a group work teacher, I like to talk to the class and engage them through my own words," she says.

Traditionalists seized on these methods with glee when, in the mid-Eighties, Halesworth pupils cleaned up at the WH Smith Young Writers Competition and won an Observer prize. A BBC Late Show documentary and national press attention followed. Miss Pirrie found some of this difficult. "I am not at all the sort of traditionalist people assumed I was," she says. "I did not experience the Sixties as progressive."

She spent that time in her only other long-term job apart from Halesworth - at a Bedford secondary modern - "the headmaster wanted to run it as a public school" - where she taught grammar by rote and despaired when the grammar question was removed from O-level English language. "That question was a lifeboat for some students. If they could learn it and got full marks it nudged them into a pass. I still believe in grammar, but in teaching it in a different way."

She believes her own entrance to Lowestoft Grammar School - which Tim Brighouse, the Government's adviser on standards, also attended - was secured by her grasp of grammar. An only child, she was the first of her family to sample post-14 education.

She remains "totally at odds with Blair and Blunkett on streaming and setting". She adds: "They're running counter to everything I hold most dear. We've had mixed ability at Halesworth for more than 10 years. If you teach to the very bright everyone can come in at their own level."

Her English teacher rescued her by drawing on her talent for speech and cast her as Viola in Twelfth Night. "It helped that I looked like the boy who played Sebastian. That play was my way out of despair."

She trained at Whitelands, Put-ney (now part of Roehampton Institute) in one of the last two-year teacher training courses. "When I remember myself I see the dangers of a national scheme of work. I was green and vulnerable, and if there had been a national scheme I would have latched straight on to it and would never have developed my own way over a decade. New teachers have so much pressure - how can they think of how to do anything?" In answer to one of the most frequent in-service training day questions, Miss Pirrie has never written poetry herself ("I thought it would distract me from teaching") although she says she may take a creative writing course. Retirement will give her time to expand her INSET and advisory work. "I shall advertise myself as a subversion consultant," she promises.

And in answer to the other recurring question (do her pupils continue to publish poetry?): "I'm not in the business of making poets. I'm interested in teaching mastery of language." But she has an eye on new evidence of the longer-term effects of her teaching from an Oxford Brookes University researcher who has interviewed former pupils.

Some interview transcripts appear, she says, as "a vindication of what has been an act of faith". She is especially pleased with the remarks of a recent law graduate from Durham. "He said the poetry process had taught him to write in a sparer, more economic way than he would ever have dreamed possible. "

The second edition of On Common Ground is published by The World Wide Fund for Nature

Apple Fire: The Halesworth School Anthology is published by Bloodaxe

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