Bagpuss, Darth and me

5th March 2004 at 00:00
Francis Gilbert's account of his first three years in teaching made Tim Brighouse's jaw drop. A decade on, Gilbert is still in the classroom. What does his story mean for schools today?

I'm a Teacher Get Me Out of Here. By Francis Gilbert. Short Books. pound;9.99

Francis Gilbert is a natural storyteller. His tale of his PGCE and his first three years in a struggling inner-London secondary is always compelling. What's more, it's true. I read it in one jaw-dropping gulp.

With brutal honesty he reveals the awful reality of starting his career in a dysfunctional school in the early 1990s. The school, its identity shielded by a particularly small fig leaf, is bottom of the league tables when he gets there.

But before that, he struggles to get accepted on a PGCE course, and once at Cambridge he paints the first of many vivid vignettes. Professor Holmes is his other-worldly tutor given to espousing modern methods while expecting nothing but silent acquiesence from students exposed to his remorseless lecturing style.

We move on to the heart of the story - Gilbert's three-year initiation in his first job - and meet the main cast. There's the "tough bruiser" of an archetypal deputy head who "knew how to deal with kidsI a big man with a definitive air of Michael Caine in Get Carter about him". We read of him pacing the classroom like Darth Vader in a suit as he effortlessly restores calm for the author. To be his friend in the staffroom helps to keep order.

Then there's the deputy's best friend, who has learned in 20 years at the school to be cynical about much, including the 21-point school code of behaviour. "I've just two things to say to this class. I expect you to work and to behave." They do. This particular teacher - left-wing and, "like most left-wing male teachers, a disciplinarian" - looked the part.

Gilbert recalls: "Shaved grey hair, a cowboy moustache and eagle-like blue eyes that were always anticipating - seeing trouble before it happened and sorting it out with a conciliatory gesture or a gentle warningI He was talked about with hushed admiring reverenceI a kind of shaman, a witchdoctor whose influence filtered through the corridors and the years."

Like a portrait sketcher circling a restaurant to create lightning images of diners, Gilbert conjures instantly recognisable and plausible characters: the inept head of department reading the Daily Express in his stock cupboard, the brash, friendly, inspirational working-class drama teacher, the whisky-swigging head of year. Not forgetting the English advisers, the LEA inspection team, the head whose "saggy, genial air" reminds the author of Bagpuss, and, of course, the pupils. Such as Charlene, who asks the education welfare officer: "Don't you think that Sir has a nice arse?" It's clear Gilbert likes children, despite everything, and they like him.

He offers explanatory footnotes that racily illuminate for the uninitiated such common terms related to school life as "the stock cupboard", "on call", "staff hierarchies", and "symptoms of controlaholism" (one of which is to say "ssh" a lot under your breath).

So what are the wider implications of this book and its revelations? I could react by saying that all this happened a decade ago and that this particular school has moved on under new leadership (Gilbert admits this) and is now widely celebrated as one of many achieving outstanding results against the odds. But that would ignore the fact that there remain a handful of schools at the wrong end of the pecking order in heavily urban areas.

Such schools have well-intentioned but inadequate leaderships, with too much staff turnover to provide the stability that pupils from challenging backgrounds need. These schools desperately need extraordinary leaders and teachers committed to motivate, with enough passion to cause the pupils to suspend disbelief and rise to the relentless expectation of success.

What they don't need is constant inspection and being treated as pariahs with the result that the sort of staff they require (those with energy, imagination, generosity of spirit and great skill) are tempted to work elsewhere. Such schools deserve almost double the resources of other schools, and certainly not half those a more favoured private school would enjoy.

It's clear from the book that teachers are able to make a significant difference to pupils by working in pairs or with a learning assistant.

There's a spellbinding description of the value of a residential study trip to Gilbert's pupils. This is something that all pupils should experience early in their secondary school career, but it costs.

So this account reinforces my belief that city schools demand from staff, teachers and leaders alike more skill, expertise and commitment than those more favourably located. The Chartered London Teacher initiative, backed by a London-wide subject network, will help attract more teachers of Gilbert's calibre, who have the character to persevere and extend their skill and knowledge of pedagogy, their subject and the many barriers to children's learning and who, most importantly, show interest in, and knowledge of, their pupils' identity, race, culture, religion and language.

Gilbert reminds us of what it means to be a beginning teacher in challenging circumstances. His book is a sobering reminder to the rest of us of what we owe such teachers. Yet while it will no doubt inspire public debate, I fear this will be the kind of discussion that generates heat rather than light. I would like to read a sequel outlining the next stage of his teaching career (I gather this remains an occupation that he enjoys). This book should provide hope to those struggling to establish themselves at the beginning of their career - especially if they are as woefully unsupported as Francis Gilbert was.

Tim Brighouse is commissioner for London schools

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