The Interview - 'I'd like to see more freedom'

15th May 2009 at 01:00
Paul Gustafson teaches craft, design and technology and English at King Alfred's Specialist Sports College in Oxfordshire. He wrote 'Eggbert's Adventures' - books aimed at improving children's vocabulary and reading

You've been teaching for 34 years now. Did you always want to teach?

I knew at 14 that I wanted to teach. I had some really good people teaching me at the time. Francis Joseph taught me English and Mike Kent (TES columnist) taught me science. They've been a massive influence on my teaching life and my life as an author. They're keen fishermen and I'm mad for fishing. Back in the Seventies we'd go fishing in the evenings and weekends - you could do that back then. It was great. Their enthusiasm was really infectious.

Are you worried about the young?

Slightly. Margaret Thatcher said the national curriculum would never become a straight-jacket, but that's exactly what's happened. Creativity has been slightly stifled when we should be encouraging it. I'd like to see more freedom and power given back to the professionals. We shouldn't be dictated to by external bodies. I'd also like to see kids get out more.

How has teaching informed your writing?

J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman and many other writers used to be teachers. My teaching experience has been of enormous benefit in writing Eggbert's Adventures. That contact with children gives you an understanding of what they want from books. It's an opportunity to test the books out and ask the children about storylines.

How did you go about testing Eggbert's Adventures?

I started the first book when I was teaching at a primary school about six years ago. I sent out 25,000 questionnaires to teachers and pupils and visited primary schools across the country. The aim is to reach children at the grass-roots level, bringing in the three Es - enjoyment, education and entertainment. It ties in with key stage 1 and is intended to switch children on to reading. My lifelong ambition is to understand what children require to make them want to pick up a book and read it. Boys in particular tend to switch off when it comes to reading. I want to offer them as many support materials as possible to harness and develop their reading skills.

How do you balance your writing with working in a school?

With difficulty. Writing books for children is very time consuming. I've written each Eggbert's Adventures book in rhyming couplets, which is very difficult. I gave a brief for one book to a well-known author who handed it back, saying: "No thank you very much". You end up utilising your holidays and weekends. You have to be organised and disciplined. Often when you've done a day's teaching you don't want to sit down and write, so I do it in bitesize pieces. I set targets and follow them on when I'm fresh and have the inclination.

How do you relax?

I go fishing in the Scottish lochs, Ireland or Sweden. When you're 80 miles up river in Sweden you're forced to relax. I also swim and do a lot of running.

Who has been your greatest influence?

My former teachers Francis Joseph and Mike Kent have been enormous influences. Colin Dexter, who wrote Inspector Morse, has been a great influence and source of encouragement. And Fred Buller - the greatest angling writer we've ever had - was like a father to me when I wrote my fishing books. He was an incredible historian - so methodical in such painstaking work. He taught me that there are no shortcuts if you want to write something with substance.

Would you encourage your friends and family to go into teaching?

If they were that way inclined, I'd say yes. There's nothing wrong with teaching. I haven't made an enormous amount of money from it, but I have enjoyed it. The people that really do enjoy it stay in teaching and I've got a lot of respect for people who stay in the profession.

What would you do if you were Schools Secretary for the day?

I'd slacken the national curriculum off and loosen it up a bit - make it a bit more palatable for people. It tries to be all things to all people. I'd keep it flexible, relaxed and enjoyable. I remember an inspector once telling me that education is like throwing custard pies at a wall - some stick, some don't. The key is to teach the same thing in as many different ways as possible.

What next?

I've got two more Eggbert's Adventures books coming out this year and I plan to do at least another 15 over the next three to four years. I also plan to do another fishing book and DVD. Then I'll be working on a series of books about animals and fish that I can't tell you about, but people in Hollywood are looking at it with a view to making a cartoon

Eggbert's Adventures teaching resources are available free at


2003-: King Alfred's Specialist Sports College, Wantage, Oxfordshire, various subjects on a supply basis.

1999-2003: Fitzharrys School, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, various subjects.

1986-1999: Temple Cowley Community School, Oxford, various subjects.

1980-1986: Taught at various special educational needs schools.

1979-1980: The Cooper School, Bicester, Oxfordshire, teaching art, craft and PE.

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