Dale fellow, well met;Book of the week

3rd April 1998 at 01:00
Gervase Phinn is more than just an entertaining after-dinner speaker. He's an inspirational advocate of the vocation of teaching. Now his wisdom is set to win over a wider audience, writes Gerald Haigh .

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DALE. By Gervase Phinn. Michael Joseph pound;15.99.

When headteachers get together for a course or a conference, they usually like to have just one speaker whose message will be affirming, sympathetic, not too demanding, and as funny as possible. Those of us who try to fill this role have learned that the most demoralising thing we can hear, as we are driven from the station, is: "We had Gervase Phinn last year."

The principal adviser for North Yorkshire, Gervase Phinn is one of the most accomplished public speakers of any kind. A natural storyteller, he combines the timing of a professional comedian with palpable warmth and the ability to deliver a message that is much more than just a series of jokes.

The stories, though, are at the core of his performances; stories about teachers, schools, his family. Above all, he talks about children. One by one he brings them to life: the little girl who ejected him from the Wendy house because she was breast-feeding her dollies; the embarrassing incident of the trousers and the yellow paint; the country boy who patiently explained the horrific accident that can befall an over-excited bull.

Now Mr Phinn has written many of them down for us in The Other Side of the Dale, an account of his first year as an inspector of schools in North Yorkshire. Five years in the writing, it is the product of notes scribbled while anecdotes were fresh in his mind, and many Sundays spent writing them up. With a cast of village schools, fresh-faced moorland children, farmers, priests, lords of the manor, formidable teaching nuns, it is different from many recent books about education, just as James Herriot's books were rather different from most texts on veterinary medicine.

The comparison with Herriot is an obvious one; Michael Joseph, who publishes them both, makes the link in publicity. Their work has the same gentle, anecdotal feel, similar scenery, and many of Phinn's characters would be happy with either author. ("An old man in an ancient suit, pushing a barrow-load of hedge clippings before him, smiled as I approached. 'Champion day,' he said.") Gervase Phinn is content to be seen in this light. "The Yorkshire Post review," he says, "used words like 'sweet', 'charming' and 'innocent'. I have no problem about that."

I talked to him as he was preparing to speak to the Secondary Heads Association at the end of their annual conference -a formidable gathering of 450 headteachers and deputies, with guests from across the world. If he was nervous he did not show it, and he was at pains to emphasise the serious purpose of his mission, which is to support teachers, to acknowledge their efforts, "to remind them of why they came into the job, and of the joy of working withchildren".

Not that he is a soft touch as an inspector. "Teachers who are lazy, or cynical, or tired must be identified," he told the secondary heads. "I don't shy from that."

Teachers and heads are in tune with this ethos. Like him, they know that keeping faith with children can mean hard choices for adults; but they also know that their pupils are a never-ending source of delight, full of surprises and insights, of creativity waiting to be released. The appreciative nods and murmurs come rolling back to Gervase Phinn as he speaks: "A school should be for all children what home is for the well-favoured child - a place of laughter, love and security."

Many of his anecdotes, spoken and written, are effectively case studies which shed light on the way that children think and express themselves in poetry and speech. And to reinforce the fact that few thinking educators subscribe to confrontation between "traditional" and "progressive", his book has an approving account of a formal spelling lesson delivered by the formidable Miss Pilkington.

"She turned back to the class . . . 'Now, in nine out of 10 cases the sound 'shun' is spelled 't-i-o-n' as in the words 'disruption', 'investigation', 'examination', 'interruption' and, of course, 'inspection'.' She glanced in my direction . . ."

Though his work takes him into the Dales, Gervase Phinn is a south Yorkshireman by birth and residence. Teachers in Rotherham in the Sixties inspired his lifelong love affair with the English language. As a young head of English in Doncaster in the Seventies, he was spotted by Her Majesty's Inspectors, and found himself speaking to fellow teachers on courses run by the inspectorate. "That's how I got the confidence to speak to an audience," he says. This, in turn, helped him into the local authority inspectorate first in Rotherham and then in North Yorkshire.

His enthusiasm is undimmed. "I love the company of young people, and I'm optimistic about them." Many teachers feel the same way, which is why he is so popular. They will add their own nods of agreement when he says, "We think in terms of changing children's lives. Well, they certainly change ours."

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