Joys of being independent

27th August 2004 at 01:00
In the last of our summer series, Julie Greenhough confesses her guilty secret and sings the praises of a career switch

Now that last term is a distant memory and you are relaxing away from the stress and strain of the classroom, I have decided to come clean about my guilty secret, a burden that I have been carrying for a whole year.

Many are the times I have tried to get it off my chest. I wanted to speak out for myself before I was outed, yet I was worried that I would become the subject of taunts and ridicule. So, while I have you in a more carefree mode, here goes: I have gone independent. In fact, I have switched from the state sector to the independent sector. There. I have said it aloud. Still with me? OK then, here comes the rest: independent, single-sex and faith school all in one. Try not to fall out of your deck chair! It is extreme, I know, but allow me to explain.

I thought about confessing earlier in the year and hiding behind Diane Abbott. Politically left of centre, the working-class daughter of a trade union man, I am a shining example of comprehensive education eager to repay the system. I recall vehemently refusing to train anywhere other than mixed-sex comprehensives when on teaching practice, damning faith schools as perpetuating a selective opiate system, and shunning independent teachers at Inset days as being on a soft option.

All of this was done in blind ignorance, I hasten to add. My knowledge of the independent sector was based on images of Eton, ice-cold baths and repressed sexuality. I did not even know what a prep school was. No one carried the torch for comprehensive education higher than I did.

And yet I have just had the most rewarding year of teaching in my career.

Nor, I now realise, am I alone in having made the shift.

Most significantly, I have time to teach. Yes, of course, cash plays a huge part. We have resources, lots of them, but nothing extreme. Why shouldn't every pupil have a copy of the class text? Why did I have to pay out of my own pocket to photocopy the set scenes in Macbeth because we were short of copies and had no budget left? Fundamentally, I do not just teach; I enable pupils to learn. My work is no longer about delivering a utilitarian educated workforce of tomorrow, but of equipping and celebrating the whole self as a learner for life. We form a community of learners, not just a group enduring and making do.

The little things also help. Tea, toast, jam and Marmite at the end of the day, free lunches and drinks, a laptop. Not a single item has been stolen from my classroom; indeed I find myself with more pens and rulers at the end of the year than at the beginning. Recruitment crisis? What crisis? Teacher retention? Not an issue. My wall displays are read and admired, not destroyed. There is an unlocked stationery cupboard so I no longer have the indignity of being handed a rationed number of board pens each term. No more having to ask to use the photocopier and having to justify what I want to copy. No more being called an "effing c***" by 11-year-olds as a matter of course. No more tables being thrown at my head. No more violent assaults from parents or pupils.

I tried really hard in the state sector, yet each term that passed saw me more disaffected. Issues of quality of life and personal safety outweighed the guilt and pangs of conscience and professionalism. I yearned to put to good use the creative force that the PGCE had ignited and I rallied against yet more government initiatives, drives, tests and constant reforms that sapped my enthusiasm.

Now I find myself in the weird position of agreeing with Prince Charles that Labour's education policy is stifling learning and encouraging faddish teaching methods. It still angers me that some schools have everything and some virtually nothing. The polarities of class and location still remain.

Our education system is only nominally comprehensive. Policies of raising educational achievement for all do not, it seems, entail reduced inequality so the policies perpetuate a grossly unfair system of leading-edge schools, specialist schools, faith schools, and city academies.

It is no longer a simple choice between state or independent. The new education policies of both major parties only seem to create yet more divides. Goodbye comprehensive Utopia, hello real world. It is not all a bed of roses, however. When it rains, the plastic buckets still come out to catch the water from leaking ceilings. But that's all I can complain about.

At the end of the day, pupils are much the same underneath. When I ask my Year 7 tutor group to reflect on what has been their most memorable moment of the year, and what they have learnt that they will take with them next year, Matthew exclaims without hesitation that he can now suck sherbet lemon up his nose. Daniel goes one further: "I can suck my own toe now, Miss!"

Ted Wragg returns next week

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