It was all about ticking boxes

9th February 2001 at 00:00
Former PGCE student Phil Wisdom explains why he quit

I thought I'd make a good primary teacher. I felt I had a lot going for me: former journalist, philosophy graduate, occasional writer for TV and radio, ex stand-up comic, sometime actor, multi-instrumentalist, handyman, IT-literate, good at languages - oh, and I quite like children.

At 35, with a new home in a different area and looking for a fresh start, I saw teaching as the career I'd always wanted: stimulating, challenging and worthwhile, particularly as us boys are supposed to be falling behind at primary level for lack of male role-models. This was my chance to save a generation from apathy, alienation and atrophy. I answered the call and signed up for a PGCE at St Luke's, Exeter University's school of education.

The warning bells began chiming before my fortnight's preliminary school experience, when the university sent a sheaf of tasks aimed at "structuring my observations". Some were useful: most were a waste of time and interfered with the running of the class. By the time I left, I was already wondering if I wouldn't have learned more by simply watching.

Seeing education from the outside, with only media images to go on, I'd imagined something rather like a Battle of Britain squadron (but with fewer moustaches): mounting casualties, overwhelming odds and raw, self-sacrificing young recruits rushing, wide-eyed, to fill the gaps in its ranks, with St Luke's as a sort of operational training unit. I expected a crash course in basic subject knowledge, planning and classroom management, with the emphasis firmly on practical skills.

What I found was a grove of academe where hypotheses pirouetted on pinheads. Perhaps I'd been away from university too long, but most of what we were doing struck me as just plain silly. In fact, it was worryingly like being back at school.

Some of the blame must rest with the Department for Education and Employment. Can anyone explain why someone teaching subtraction to seven-year-olds needs to be able to solve quadratic equations?

Officialdom is also maddeningly obsessed with cramming a little bit of spurious IT into everything. Thus, when writing a poem for English homework, we had to word-process it and print out three separate versions, allowing us to claim we could use computers in literacy lessons.

But my greatest frustrations stemmed from the course itself. While some subjects were exciting, relevant and fun (notably, and rather surprisingly, science and PE), the general approach was that we shouldn't even enter a classroom without a thorough grounding in educational psychology. This felt a bit like turning up for your first driving lesson and getting a slideshow on How We Distil Petroleum. I could have done with less about Bruner and Vygotsky and the zone of proximal development, and a bit more about stopping Daniel and Carl colouring in each other's heads with felt-tip pens.

Then there was "the profile". This is a 54-page, multi-coloured, loose-leaf document designed to accompany us throughout our careers and demonstrate our competence. Besides the key subject knowledge prescribed by DfEE Circular 498, it contains a further 172 attainment targets for each core subject (English, maths and science) and the foundation subjects (everything els).

Each of these targets requires a piece of written evidence and a signature from a responsible adult to prove you can do what you claim. The profile makes doing your tax return look like buying a TV licence.

In between doing everything else, we were expected to compile resource files containing, for example, maths equipment we'd made (in case our schools didn't have any) or reviews of books that might fit in with an English lesson we could hypothetically be asked to teach five years hence.

If you'd done 15 software reviews, someone else had done 25 - and woe betide if, like me, you'd only done three. But on the rare occasions when our groups were actually asked to teach, anything went. Our RE presentation - re-enacting the Crucifixion with shadow-puppets - began as a blasphemous farce and went rapidly downhill.

Provided you'd done what you were told, whether you were capable of actually teaching it was a secondary consideration. As term dragged on, grim-faced knots of men (it tended to be men) muttered conspiratorially in corners about quitting.

Teachers trained elsewhere reassured me their PGCEs were equally uninspiring and I took comfort from the thought that it wasn't me, it was them. But I was counting on a good experience during my first placement to revive my enthusiasm and remind me why I'd decided to become a teacher.

To this day, I don't know what went wrong. Two of us were sent to a charming village school with bright, happy children and one full-time teacher. Everyone was nice as pie. We did guided reading; we climbed ladders and knocked in nails; we stacked the chairs after lunch; when the teacher went sick, we taught a whole week's literacy and numeracy by ourselves. I thought we'd done rather well, so it came as rather a surprise when the teacher asked St Luke's not to send us back. It was at this point I realised that, while I still wanted to work in education, the feeling wasn't reciprocated.

One lecturer - a good and enthusiastic teacher, if I'm any judge - began the term with a Dickens quote about a mid-Victorian schoolmaster newly-emerged from a college which "turned out teachers like pianoforte legs". The lecturer's point was that we should strive to be more than merely mass-produced artefacts. I don't think he was being ironic; but the longer the course went on, the clearer it became that my ideas and experience were of no value.

The official view, as an administrator explained, was that students who quit were just filling in time with a PGCE while they decided what to do with their lives. A few new graduates, maybe. But how do you explain away those who, like me, gave up decent jobs for a career with poor pay, conditions and status because we believed we were needed? It certainly wasn't for the pound;6,000. I could earn twice that distributing mail-order catalogues.

I still think I'd make a good primary teacher. Whether I'd still be as good by the time I'd finished a PGCE, I'm less sure. My course was all about what you knew, not what you could do. As far as it was concerned, the more boxes you could tick on "the profile", the better a teacher you were: but as for compassion, humour, fortitude, ingenuity, imagination, patience, joy, where were the boxes for those?

Phil Wisdom lives in Bodmin, Cornwall

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