Life in a smaller world

5th May 1995 at 01:00
New teachers talk to Frances Farrer about their experience of starting out in the private sector.

There are many reasons for considering a first appointment in the private sector, not all of them obvious. After all, the hours are usually much longer (though the terms are shorter), the social commitment is greater, and the money is not radically different. The teaching conditions, however, are very different indeed, and may make it an attractive option.

Often private schools offer opportunities for subject specialists which can't be found within the state system. Jo Gornall, a newly qualified teacher who started work last September at Queen Anne's School in Caversham, near Reading, says she went there because the school was offering a job teaching only chemistry.

"The teaching methods can be more flexible here," she says. "I'm very happy." At her interview she liked the school surroundings. "I had no misgivings about the private sector - I was just concerned that the school should be right for me."

Some NQTs are afraid that if they take a job in a private school they will not be able to cross back to the maintained sector. Brian Dance of the Independent Schools Information Service (ISIS) is keen to lay this fear to rest, saying that he himself moved several times between the two. His state sector experience was in grammar schools.

However, there is anecdotal evidence which suggests that although this ease of movement between the maintained and the private is the official position, much depends on the locality and on your subject. It is not entirely surprising that envy creeps into the perception of state sector teachers when they contemplate the resources and ratios of the private world.

At Millfield School in Somerset the ratio is one teacher per 7.5 pupils, and there are 42 sports to choose from. This sort of difference of opportunity may make private schools very attractive to NQTs.

For some, like Robert Murgatroyd, who teaches business studies at Millfield, the question of the state sector does not arise. He is a mature entrant to the teaching profession with a degree in English but no PGCE and Millfield has shown the flexibility of an independent school in taking him on to the staff.

On the subject of private sector imagination and discretion, there is talk of being able to teach more interesting subject combinations - religious education and trampolining, perhaps - and broader age ranges, perhaps in a secondary boarding school with its own junior school; and of potential for a massively wider variety of activity and teaching style.

Millfield, founded in 1935 with a subtly varied take on the old public school ethos, that of "developing giftedness", sets out to create "happy, confident, well-qualified people who have appreciated being here". Words such as "loyalty", "competitiveness", and "team spirit" are often heard, and the phrase "not insistently academic" is spoken without hesitation. Headmaster Christopher Martin says of the pupils: "I feel confident they are their own people, they are alert to each other, well-disposed to each other. They thrive on being asked to do things."

For Millfield NQT and old girl Lucy Jackson this positiveness was the biggest deciding factor in returning to teach there. She too likes the pupils. "They're full of life, there's a great feeling of hope. They appreciate each other's talent." A recent school play is an example. "Everyone wanted the boy who was the star to do well. They were entirely on his side, encouraging him before the performance and congratulating him afterwards."

Lucy Jackson believes that being at boarding school has considerable socialising advantages for pupils. "In their houses they've got to mix, " she says. "Whatever they do in their various classes, they are still going to have to make some social situation for themselves in their free time. They must just get on with it, so they do."

Chemistry teacher Darren Payne admits to a feeling of "almost betraying the past - I went to a comprehensive in Nottingham". Like the others, he says his training did not equip him for conditions in a private school. "We spent a lot of time on how to manage with few resources, how to share equipment, how to deal with large classes and disruptive pupils - none of which is really relevant here."

Apparently the question of classroom management does arise, but to a different degree. The pupils' awareness of the ultimate sanction, which is exclusion, is thought to more or less solve it. That motivation and energy are much higher is also germane.

The pastoral situation in a private school is qualitatively different but, say the NQTs, no less demanding. The pupils' problems may be related to having parents at a great distance, or several sets of step parents, or to coming from a different culture and finding the adaptation to English school life confusing. Such troubles are more likely to be taken to house-parents than to class teachers.

The question of working conditions in private schools doesn't only relate to the time which is spent teaching. Staff in boarding schools have a far greater degree of social involvement with the pupils, longer hours, even weekend working. There may be school trips in the cause of art or sport. Staff tend to socialise together more than is usual in the maintained sector.

The extra-mural choices are many at Millfield, where the fortnightly pupils' newspaper contains articles about the difficulty of catching cheaper off-peak London trains, and teachers speak of the adjustments they had to make to an environment in which when you ask where missing pupils are during a weekend, you may hear that they are away swimming for Britain or competing in an athletics international.

Robert Murgatroyd says that his first year of teaching at Millfield has been an eye-opener: "Many old perceptions are no longer accurate. For example, the idea that life in public schools is easy. I'm working much harder now than I was in business." So what was the point of leaving the the commercial world? The answer is many-sided.

"I always wanted to teach," he says, "I was interested in exploding the myth of 'if you can, do, if you can't, teach'. But I also wanted to see the world of 'action'. So I've done both. In the end, I like working with people rather than spread sheets."

He speaks enthusiastically of the hidden financial benefits of his current situation. He is a house-parent, which means free accommodation for himself and his family. His three children can be pupils at the school where he works. All this, and living away from London in beautiful countryside, far outweigh a drop in salary.

Systems of induction often trouble the minds of trainees and here the private sector usually scores quite well. Jo Gornall has had help not only from her mentor, who is her head of department, but also from other teachers, notably the younger ones who can remember what their own first year was like.

At Millfield, with 1,264 pupils and 170 members of staff, there is an induction programme of a corresponding complexity. It includes NQTs spending a day there on appointment, with syllabuses, classes and books explained and advice given on housing. There is a further induction day three days before the beginning of term, when the complicated campus with its many departments is shown.

This culminates in a group photograph and a dinner for 300 or 400 people. The more usual mentor system is also in place and, with the University of the West of England in Bristol, the school is developing an in-service training programme which leads to an MEd in educational management.

With all the privilege, do pupils at public schools need little or no pastoral care? Not according to Darren Payne, who arrived with the standard expectation - "I thought they would be arrogant" - and discovered "they're just normal".

All the Millfield NQTs speak of the emotional difficulties of the private pupils as being qualitatively different, but no less upsetting. Children may have to deal with three sets of step-parents, or parents' being in Africa or India, creating terrible homesickness and indeed confusion about where home is.

But in the end, with some similar problems, with much longer working hours and greater scope, the verdict seems to be that the overriding optimism to be found in well-resourced schools, and for pupils the pursuit of excellence in whatever sphere it may be found, are exciting elements to work with.

All say they would consider going back into maintained schools, but phrases such as "well, anyway I wouldn't rule it out", suggest that the thought is not necessarily compelling. In their current situation they agree with Lucy Jackson that there's "a fabulous range of choices". For Ms Jackson, her own old school provides the rare chance of teaching trampolining in conjunction with religious education.

* Further information can be obtained from: National ISIS, 56 Buckingham Gate, London SW1E 6AG, which supplies lists of independent schools in the area where you wish to teach

* Head Masters' Conference (HMC), 130 Regent Road, Leicester LE1 7PA, is a group of about 240 senior schools, some with junior schools attached

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