Just the ticket

1st September 2006 at 01:00
Poor Marj Adams. I felt heart sorry for her having to endure her train journey in the company of a couple of the teaching profession's less rigorously literate new entrants (TESS, last week).

As an English teacher to trade, I also wince when I see teachers splitting their infinitives, using the adjectival phrase "due to" in the manner of station announcers when the appropriate word is "because", or making simple errors of spelling or grammar.

We live, I regret to say, in a world where some key skills, including grammar, are less valued than once was the case. Clarity of writing has suffered. So has style in writing. I retain my sanity, however, not by asking whether the world is going rapidly downhill, but by looking at teaching skills in the round.

The phenomenon of careless writing by teachers is not new. It was in the early 1970s, in my first years in the profession, that I saw a report card from a colleague 30 years my senior which, when complaining of a pupil's poor behaviour, suggested that this "ogres badly for the future".

As a headteacher, I and my management team colleagues do indeed check teachers' reports and attempt to indicate errors of spelling or grammar or confusions about pupils' names or any of the many other errors which can occasionally creep into reports - and they welcome that support. But I can far more easily forgive the occasional spelling or grammatical error than sarcasm, irony or unalloyed negativity in reports. The new generation of teachers is far better equipped to avoid that pitfall.

I am also certain that some of the very best and most engaging, talented and skilled teachers in my school are among the less skilled writers. They are every bit as intelligent as am I. Their skills are beyond question.

I want physics teachers who are expert teachers and excellent physicists, PE teachers who are expert teachers and excellent sportsmen and sportswomen, geography teachers who are expert teachers and excellent geographers.

If they fulfil these criteria, excellent writing is an added skill which I will welcome but which is not an essential characteristic in their job specs.

No, I do not believe that teachers "used to be better educated". They used to be differently educated. They were often academically brilliant in their subject areas but were poor teachers and could no more relate to young people than fly in the air.

We require our teachers to teach children with a wide range of academic abilities, from a range of family settings - some conducive to education, some less so. We require our teachers to have a command of a range of knowledge and skills which are essential for the modern world and which never troubled our professional forebears.

To do these things, the present generation of teachers requires expertise and intelligence and it has both in plentiful supply. Moreover, in my experience at least, the present generation of teachers regards the art of teaching as having equal priority with their subject expertise, which was certainly not the case in the past.

Schools should always encourage the highest standards of literacy and the very small-c conservative in me would likely find agreement with Marj Adams that teaching grammar and reading the best of English prose (rather than the most accessible) are the best means of developing that. At that point, our brief agreement ceases.

The calibre of the vast majority of the new entrants to the teaching profession is among the best I have seen in more than 30 years in education. The golden age of better educated, intelligent teachers - like most golden ages - is a myth.

Alex Wood


Wester Hailes Education Centre


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