Marks out of 10 - Farewell idealism, hello survival mode. Innit

2nd July 2010 at 01:00

At the Chalkface: Great Moments in Education

Ian Whitwham

Hopscotch, #163;8.99

Thirty years ago, Ian Whitwham qualified as a secondary English teacher. Eager to change the world and passionate about educating the next generation, he was ready to take on anything that London's schools could throw at him, all in the name of education.

But little did he know that over the next couple of decades, he would have to wade through twilight workshops and sexting, "broken Britain" and mock Ofsted weeks, and still fit in time to worry about league tables.

At the Chalkface: Great Moments in Education charts many of these developments at a time in Whitwham's career when idealism has taken a back seat and quiet resignation is setting in as the default coping mechanism for navigating the system.

There is a depressing inevitability about some of Whitwham's stories. He has no illusions about where his pupils will end up. No illusions either about his own fate as a humble classroom teacher, rejecting the lure of management and the higher echelons of the school's decision makers. But his revealing insights into schools and the way they are run from on high are often hilarious and always poignant, pointing out the comedy of errors that is the modern classroom.

Whitwham may be setting out his own views, but he is far too self-aware to fit into the egotistical mould. He talks directly to the reader as fellow conspirator and puts the voice of his inner monologue down on paper, objectively assessing his own failed attempts to engage his pupils. This is someone who recognises his own flaws and the impossible contradictions of his job. As a result, his stories are easy to warm to.

At one point Whitwham bumps into a pupil playing truant in a coffee shop: "He's bored senseless by the national curriculum, he's not meeting his targets and his school career is in freefall. Snap. We drift into a rather unprofessional complicity."

The teacher is touchingly inspired by his pupils despite all their misdemeanours. He needs a glossary to understand what they are talking about and skilfully captures their dialogue with "lowit" and "safe" and "blads" aplenty. But on comparing "Planet West London" with "Planet Teacher" - "where language goes to die" - Whitwham concludes that the new educational lingo is much worse than anything his pupils come out with.

Running through the book, and under a thin guise of wry humour, is a sense of social justice. This culminates in the final Two Nations chapter with his musings on the divisions between private and state, rich and poor. His frustration with academic research and diktats about how best to tackle educational apartheid will ring true with many teachers. In these pages, the inner-city, "bog-standard comprehensive" teacher gets to take on the might of the educational establishment, via the American TV series The Wire.

Whitwham's writing style is distinctive and engaging, taking the reader along on his flights of fancy. Sentences are short and to the point, but full of drama. Ever the English teacher, he swaps from direct speech to archaic witticisms and Shakespearean puns, conjuring an image of the old-fashioned scribe, railing against the injustices of the world, at one point asking: "Will no one rid me of this turbulent youth?" The style can take some getting used to and occasionally feels a little stilted; the occasional sentence, with its combination of Whitwham's "whither" and his pupils' "innit", needs a few re-readings to figure out.

At the Chalkface might contain the stories of one teacher and his class. But it is also the universal story of every classroom teacher battling through report cards and performance management assessments and Ofsted inspections, all the while trying to retain some sanity.

The stories were originally published as newspaper columns, and each one is self-contained and a page-and-a-half long, making this the perfect book to dip into. Columns are grouped together, so whether it is problem pupils, teacher testing or classroom practice that is getting to you, a relevant column and some solace from a hardened practitioner can be found easily.

At the Chalkface is a book to be stored in the special-measures drawer for a much-needed pick-me-up.

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