The Interview - 'Children can be too dependent'

10th July 2009 at 01:00

Barry Payne is head of The Parkside School in Norwich, a specialist college catering for pupils with complex learning difficulties. He spent three months on a VSO placement in Namibia earlier this year.

How did you get into teaching?

I was looking at a career in electronics or the police force, but in my sixth form we got the opportunity to work in a school. I enjoyed my experience of teaching. After my A-levels I did a three-year teacher training course at King Alfred's College in Winchester, specialising in technology and maths.

Did you always want to work with pupils with special needs?

No, that came later with my second job at a school in Collingswood. During the year, I found that there wasn't much on offer for special needs pupils. I worked with a group of staff from my school and other schools, and set up a specialist Damp;T area for children who couldn't take all the exams. As soon as they got a curriculum that was relevant to them, they could engage with school. It was like a mini enterprise: they had reprographics and produced things in the workshops.

Was working abroad always part of your plan?

It was always my aim to work in Africa or Asia. I sort of missed that out, going straight from college to work. I thought I'd missed the boat - when you become a head, there's not much of a chance to work in those areas - but the National College for School Leadership, the Voluntary Services Overseas and the National Association of Head Teachers have collaborated to give people like me that opportunity. So I took the chance.

How did working in Namibia change your perspective of education in the UK?

In many ways, I would say. Ten years of teaching in a special needs school is intensive. To get away from one system and look at another system was useful. The education system out there is being developed and built and is still in its infancy, especially around management. Since 1990, they've had independence from South Africa and I think they need people with experience in management, helping them with it.

The children were wonderful too. They were in classes of up to 45 and even if their teacher was ill and there was no replacement, they would sit there all day, waiting to learn. They'd manage themselves and I was astonished at how good and well organised they were; how much they could do, not necessarily academically, but to look after themselves and to live.

How has it influenced your teaching now that you're back in the UK?

I am more aware that we make assumptions about children; we think they need support when sometimes they don't. This can be emotive, but sometimes we do things for children when they can do it themselves. I'm amazed at the resilience of children. I'm concerned, I suppose, that we're probably making children dependent rather than independent.

To a certain extent, I've taken that back to school with me. I have a saying that you never learn to walk until you first overbalance, and sometimes you do stumble and fall, but that's what happens in most areas of life.

Whether its teaching maths, English or citizenship - if they've always got someone helping them, how independent can they be? I don't mean taking away that support; I mean giving appropriate support when they stumble.

Would you recommend a placement for other teachers?

Yes I would. It's given me the chance to refocus and look at something different. I came back refreshed. It also gave my senior staff the opportunity to try things and find out how rewarding it is to run a school.

What's your single biggest achievement?

Going into a school in Africa and training the staff on identifying special needs. They looked at me sceptically at first, as they didn't believe they had children with special needs at their mainstream school. Having those staff go out and train other staff in other schools, I was really pleased to have achieved that in three months. But every year, taking on children for whom the education system has not worked and turning them around is the biggest buzz I get out of education. I don't think you can get a better job than that.

Is there a motto that you would advise other teachers to apply?

Every child is unique and deserves a chance. Sometimes, it's not the cuddliest children, but once you get underneath the behaviour and the problems, giving them that 2nd or 3rd or 4th chance, it's amazing how many you can succeed with.

What would you do if you were education minister for the day?

By all means use statistics, use evidence, but never forget that you're dealing with individual human beings. I'd start to look much more not just at groups and who does exams, but how the education system develops people, not statistics.

What's the worst excuse you've ever heard?

The pupil who told me he had not handed his homework in because his dad had not done it yet.


1997- Headteacher at The Parkside School, Norwich.

Jan-April 2009: VSO placement in Namibia, through Leaders in International Development scheme

1995-1997: Deputy head, St George's School, Tunbridge Wells

1991-1995: Head of all off-site provision based in Baldock at The Valley School, Stevenage, Herts

1989-1990: Part-time advisory teacher for Hertfordshire local authority in the implementation of records of achievement.

1987-1991: Head of the transition course and 16-19 provision at Brandles School in Herts.

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