Classroom diary

17th September 2004 at 01:00
My Story about a exiting incidnt. Me mate darrens a pimp an he done women wiv bling. and his a crakhead when is out weekends

hedone good wiv stealing anthat an drugs anhe had a good f***.

Philip Hume gave up a full-time classroom career to become a supply teacher.In the first of two articles he vents his anger at a system in meltdown

Have a glance at the corner of a secondary school staffroom at break time.

You are likely to see a group of strangers swapping anecdotes about the school and comparing it to others they know. These are the supply teachers.

The new unofficial inspectorate. If they don't like your institution, they may not come again. And they have that choice because, in this educational marketplace, they are increasingly in demand. Not all are ex-teachers. One I met last year combined supply work with being a bailiff. Before freelancing, he had been a merchant banker. Another had been an actor and magician; another a farmer in Africa; another a folk singer and author.

Many are Australian or South African. Gathering them together in one room to discuss their experiences of our schools would produce some fascinating insights.

A new role has arisen in the past couple of years. That of the continuous supply teacher. This freelancer is paid each day he or she comes in and has no contract and no obligation to prepare lessons, mark books, fill in reports or attend meetings, although a supply teacher with a bit of a conscience may do some of these things. The price for this freedom is insecurity. The supply's services could be terminated at any time. These days, though, you can be fairly confident of having a pretty long run of continuous supply.

Six years ago I gave up full-time English teaching to pursue other interests and, to pay the mortgage, did some exam marking and supply teaching. To my astonishment, the phone hardly stopped ringing. So many teachers were leaving and so many exams were starting that you could pick and choose the plum jobs. I was even contacted to examine drama, for which I have no qualification. I also, through a friend, became involved in higher education as a learning support tutor. Work with dyslexic students broadened my skill base and is still doing so. My experience in various comprehensive and private schools over the following few years has given me a unique perception of the way the secondary school system is working.

This article is part of a record of two terms of continuous supply in two outer-London schools. All the events happened, but not necessarily in the order described. The characters, too, are real, but names are changed. What follows is an account of my experiences. Though subjective, it is close to the truth I know others have experienced. I am writing because I am angry - angry about what is happening to our children and to the teaching of English. I do not blame teachers. Far from it. It is the abuse of these dedicated and talented people that the descriptions in the diary record.

The abuse is the outcome of a crippling assortment of targets, testing, clumsy inspection and league tables. I discovered this at first hand during 2002-3. I felt free to write about it whereas the full-timers were ground down by the workload and had no spirit for revolt. It is a brief account by a non-writer, an ordinary supply teacher, driven to write to provoke the sort of debate that might bring about change.

Monday, September 2, 2002. Inset day

The War and Peace of mission statements crashes on to our laps. At last I see my colleagues. We lounge in the smart new sixth-form block and watch the PowerPoint displays from senior management eager to impress. An inspector is there. He says we must "show evidence of inclusion and differentiation in all our lessons". Most importantly, classroom discipline and teaching styles must have a "consistency of approach" across the staff.

Idiosyncratic teaching must be moderated to follow the classroom procedures set out in our notes. Consistency of approach, it is argued, will support weaker members of staff. So, individual flair is out. Ring in the new collective strength.

Tuesday, September 3. First day of school Desmond mechanically chucks bits of paper around the room.

"Er - excuse me!"

"What!?" (Meaning: "Are you daring to pick on me already?") (Gently) "Don't throw things."

(Pantomime outrage) "But I weren't doin nuffin!"

(Serene) "I saw you."

(Undeterred) "So?"

(Sensing a point scored for truth) "Don't do it."

"All right!" (Meaning: "You don't have to keep on and on and on about it.") Relationships, certainly with adults, automatically mean confrontation for Big Bad Des, it seems. I wonder if we can start negotiating. He is prevailed upon to stay behind for a talk, but does not engage, constantly fidgeting and looking away. I move into a mildly threatening mode and he reflexes into submission. I might wish it otherwise, but he appears to respect an authoritarian approach.

Wednesday, September 4 Year 11 will take mock exams this term. There are 15 pupils in the class.

Or rather, there are 15 names on the register. Three haven't appeared yet, and were, I'm told, absent all last term. Bernie, the head of English, has asked me to collect their coursework. I ask the kids for it. Uproar, as they inform me they don't have it, that they handed it in last term and that they're not doing it all again.

Later, I search cupboards, cabinets and shelves. Stuffed in a corner of the stock room is a bundle of papers: the coursework. About half of it. Torn pieces of paper, each with half a side of scrawl and doodles. Obscenities casually pepper the texts. For instance: My Story about a exiting incidnt me Mate Darrens a pimp and he done women wiv bling. and his a crakhead when is out weekends hedone good wiv stealing anthat an drugs anhe had a good f***I

Underneath this stuff was a paragraph of beautifully neat, red writing: You have some interesting ideas, Sean. Try to arrange your paragraphs so that they indicate changes of time or location. Do not use swear words.

They are inappropriate. You have to adopt the right register. This is coursework for GCSE, Sean, and you must take more pride in it. I think you should make descriptions longer and consider using more adjectives.


* Use powerful adjectives

* Improve presentation by using paragraphs

* Use Standard English at all times.

Two languages, two cultures - and no communication.

Monday, October 7 Dipen, a full-time English teacher from South Africa, and I quietly discuss the mounting indiscipline in Year 9 and Year 11. We agree it is hopeless to attempt to try to force kids to do the set curriculum. It is little more than dictation and it invites more and more resistance. I show him a piece by Sam in Year 11.

Autobiography My life started off reasonly well apart from we had to live with our auntie because me dad was beating me and my brother up, so my mum left him.

I surpose it was good, but tuff. We eventuly found a home in kendal road number 200, this was about 2 years later. My mum was now going out with a man called Steve. I didn't perticulaly like him but I had to deal with him.

Things were just working out when my mum found out Steve was cheating on her with the taxi whore. So we kicked him out but he wouldn't leave us alone so we had to move.

We were now living in a street called the cresent. This is where my life went bang! I was 6 years ols now and I have moved 3 times. I had no friends at first til I met a mate called Peter. He's 2 years older than me. He looked after me when I was in trouble and played football with me every day.

I look back on my life and realise how lucky I was to have a mum that loved me more than anyone in the world and a brother who the same loved me. My sister she did things that would hurt me but I know she loved me. After two years of living in the croft my mum was diegnosied of liver tuners and if she had an operation there was a strong posserbility she wouldn't make it.

So she never had it done. But she did have kemotheropy to kill all the cancerus cells.

Sam comes to school and in his English lesson he is given a poem to read.

If I follow the scheme of work, I will say: "Now, Sam, pay particular attention to the structure of this poem. Some important features have been highlighted for you. It has a regular rhythm and syllabic pattern. Most lines have 10 syllables (some have 11 or 12). Despite this regularity, the poem does speed up and slow down as you read it. The poet has used punctuation to control the speed of the poem. It is written in two stanzas.

The first stanza is shorter than the first. This is because there is less lyrical and 'romantic' description - it is more matter-of-fact. Short sentences are used to build dramatic tension and suspense. It also represents..."

If Sam has remained awake through all this, or not kicked the seat of the boy in front of him, or stabbed the table with his compass, or torn up paper to put in his mouth and spit around the room, he might reflect upon the aridity and irrelevance of the programmed poetry lesson in comparison with the heartbreaking and yet robust account he has given of his life.

Tuesday, November 19 Our head of year tells us that, although the inspectors are not due yet, Ofsted will want to see us all teaching Macbeth in exactly the same way, lesson by lesson and according to government guidelines. Who, I wonder, is going to check up on all this? Maybe, like the Thane himself, Ofsted can say: "There's not a one of them, but in his house I keep a servant fee'd."

Grumpy Old Man syndrome may be at work here, but I feel that kids are more defiant than they used to be. A typical conversation might go: Me: Why are you rude to me, Kerri? I'm not rude to you. I always treat you well.

Kerri: I'm like that.

Me: You're like that?

Kerri: Yeh. I'm always like that.

Or: Me: You just need to put in some capital letters, Alison, and it'll be fine.

Alison: I don't do capital letters.

Me: But you have to.

Alison: I've never done them. I don't do them.

Or: Teacher: Don't do that. It's dangerous!

Boy: It's my life. Leave me alone.

And it's wilfully alone that these children seem. At least, deliberately remote from adults. The retorts are beyond rudeness. They are a cold, easy way to fend off teachers. These children are refusing to engage with us, are not even arguing - just asserting a spurious right to make up their own whim-led rules.

Sally and I send Grant and Michelle, two Year 9 pupils, to see Bernie because their provocative insolence needs slapping down from a greater managerial height. Grant had been trying to use his mobile phone throughout a lesson and Michelle had walked out when admonished for chatting. Bernie is in his office with Scouser Damien, second-in-department, when we arrive.

We are therefore treated to seeing two contrasting bollocking modes in a single session.

Uncle Bernie has grey-bearded age and unquestionable status to exploit in these situations. He sighs. He shakes his head. He is so disappointed in Grant and Michelle. How many times has he told them that it was in their own interests to co-operate in a lesson? Could they not see what damage they were doing to themselves and others? How often he has bumped into an ex-pupil outside school who has said to him: "Oh, Mr Firs, why didn't I listen to you? I'd have got through my exams if only I'd done what you said." Bernie allows time for the sad irony of this to sink in. Then he sits on his desk, clasps his hands and gazes down at them.

"And look at you two now. Intelligent students. Lots of potential. And you waste it. Grant, what are you going to do now? (Pause) Look at me. What are you going to do?"


"Sit up, boy!" booms Damien. Mr Nasty takes over. He strides up and down and sometimes yells close to their faces. "This isn't the first time there's been trouble with you two, is it? And you know what's going to happen if I see you two again like this, don't you? You're going to spend time with me. And you're not going to like it. Are you? Don't give me attitude, Grant!!! Stand up! Take your hands out of your pockets! What was that? What did you just say?"


"You'd better be sure that it's nuffin I hear about you from now on, because if it isn't, there's going to be nuffin but trouble. For you! Do you understand? Answer me!"


"Right, you can go. Michelle, you stay. I've got more to say to you."

Grant, his face grim and angry, slowly picks up his bag. He gets to the doorway then turns and cheerfully calls: "Bye, Michelle."

Michelle whisks round, smiles and goes, "Byee, Grant!" And he has gone before the rest of us even think of calling him back. And they have won.

Grant and Michelle have, in that final swift salut, shown their indifference to and independence from the system that is attempting to discipline them.

Tuesday, December 10 Form period today is inspected by a good-natured young year head. She is bright and copes forcefully with cynical 14-year-olds. I must seem like a sad old hippy to her. However, there are no real disasters, in spite of no lesson plan and no standing behind chairs, as instructed in the procedure booklet. The thing is, I want to create (or encourage) a community of co-operation, not a community of obedience. If, like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, I can teach some of these kids the meaning of compromise, it will have been worth all the risk of chaos. Difficult concept for them to grasp, but I'd like to see if it can be done. They start to co-operate by "acting good" during the inspection. Their reward is an afternoon registration with food, drink and music. Bribery produces results and we meet our behaviour targets.

Last night was extraordinary. I went to London to hear the US academic Noam Chomsky speak in St Paul's Cathedral. His lecture on Kurdish human rights had received little publicity and I was not expecting a big turnout. And yet 2,000 people were inside, 1,000 (we were told) outside. The cathedral was packed. The crowd outside looked huge. Many were young. I experienced education at its best: a forum people choose to attend that is gentle, stimulating, fuelled by the need to know more, to stretch horizons and not be zombied into accepting what Chomsky calls "emotionally potent oversimplifications" from the media.

Harold Pinter introduced him, saying: "Noam Chomsky does something very simple and yet very rare. He tells the truth." Chomsky's truths are told in a cumulative list of research detail. It should be boring. It is thrilling, because, detail by detail, it overturns all our day-to-day assumptions about how governments and the media work. Education can impel us to question everything and Chomsky insists we should not just accept what he says, but go away and check for ourselves. Education as experienced in schools, though, is without scepticism, without the subversive edge that makes us question and explore. It has become confused with training and rendered meaningless except as a means to a qualification - a series of jumping contests such as Swift described when the courtiers were competing for favour on Lilliput.

Chomsky's insight into generative grammar should have liberated us from narrow behaviourist doctrines. Yet these doctrines infect the whole strategy in English now. When education pretends to be a science with its phoney statistics, or a business with its coercive target-setting, it undermines the great natural resources in every individual. Teaching is an art, not a science or a business. To have sacrificed the aesthetic for the mechanistic approach to learning is a great tragedy for our students.

Friday, December 13

Dipen is here for the last time and we have a fond, sad farewell sitting on boxes in the stock cupboard. He's lasted a term, but the kids are used to this change around of teachers and they affect indifference. He is not mentioned at staff briefing. So many like him have departed thus, and the sadness and embarrassment have to be swept under the carpet.

Reports are given out to Year 9. At least most are. The office is so backlogged with things to do that not all of these have been printed off and some teachers have not filled them in properly. They go to the kids (most of them) even so. Here is a copy of a report. It is for a girl in my form.


So far this year Kelly has been making good progress in class and homework and has a high level of organisational skills, technical ability in drawing and has been more than capable of producing ideas which show imagination and creativity. Homework is always completed on time and to a high standard.

Kelly is prepared to make a constructive and positive contribution to the lesson with ideas that show a good grasp of the visual and oral language of Art.

Kelly's behaviour has been excellent, leading to a positive and constructive contribution

Kelly has not been at school since the second day of term. The report, undeterred, gives her national curriculum levels and suggested "areas for improvement". Glancing at the other reports by this teacher, one is struck by the same phrases churned out time and time again. Of course, they come from a "statement bank", which we are all encouraged to use. The results are vague and impersonal, and it is an easy step from that to the fictitious patchwork that is Kelly's report. One more example of the dehumanising that has characterised educational reform over the past 10 years.

I suppose I'm not being positive and constructive. I may even be off-message, and am certainly dissing the strategy, but everyone here knows they are living in a nationally created madhouse. Yet they cannot articulate or organise a suitable protest. They have only enough energy to survive. Thus the work overload is another way of ensuring compliance. To survive, they have to turn a blind eye to their failures and humiliations, cheer themselves with little weekly awards and heroically batter away at the growing indifference of the kids. Deep down, it is the kids they all care about, and some of that ordinary human decency survives, too. But instead of noisy protests or the collective spirit that fuelled last month's march against the impending Iraq war, or the great assembly at St Paul's, hungry for enlightenment, there are furtive moans and ever-increasing amounts of long-term sick leave.

Next week: the exams. This is the first of two extracts from Failed Better, a book by Philip Hume, who writes under a pseudonym. He has yet to find a publisher. Contact him


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today