Mike Kent: A tale of two extremes

18th September 2009 at 01:00

Education is never far from my mind, and while I was shifting books to redecorate the lounge at the weekend, a paperback dropped on the floor: William Tyndale: Collapse of a School - Or a System? It was published by The TES in 1976. I had read it before, but I thumbed through it again with interest.

You're probably thinking, "Poor soul. Why didn't he do something more fun on his day off - play the guitar or watch a film?"

Well, I did that too, but William Tyndale Primary in Islington, north London, has a particular fascination for me because that's where I started my teaching career in the early 1960s.

It was run by the Inner London Education Authority (Ilea), then responsible for all schools in the area. I arrived after three years of questionable training, having learnt how to write straight lines on a blackboard, how to construct baskets from cane and raffia, and how to make pupils leap over a gymnasium horse.

I had a great time. Within reason, I could teach what I liked - there was no set curriculum then - and I filled pupils' days with poetry, creative writing, music, art, and science experiments that would now cause a health and safety official's hair to stand on end. Two years later, hardly believing my luck at finding such a fascinating career, I moved a few miles up the road to Camden Town and promotion.

I thought no more about Tyndale until I caught a headline in the paper in the 1970s. There had been several changes of headteacher and it seemed the school was falling apart. Teachers and governors - "managers" in those days - were at each other's throats. Parents were moving their children out in droves. Local inspectors were popping in half-heartedly, unsure of what to do.

Within months the teachers were striking, the school was in disarray and a long inquiry was held, chaired by Robin Auld QC. It cost Ilea pound;100,000 - a huge sum then. I couldn't believe I was reading about the same thriving primary school that had started my career so well. The repercussions shuddered through government and the country's primaries.

There was much apportioned blame and many recommendations in the final report. Children, it seemed, were learning nothing and in most classes were allowed to "choose" all day. Teachers had little control over the pupils. Senior management was weak. There was no curriculum, and anyway the teachers didn't agree on what should be taught. The governors were not appropriately involved with the school. The inspectorate didn't alert the authority when things were going wrong, and when it did it was too late. Perhaps teachers should have a professional body to look after their interests .

It is fascinating to see how things have changed in the past 50 years. Curriculum? It is now so crowded that many essentials at primary - drama, art and music - have been pushed aside in the constant drive to "raise standards".

Senior managers? They often lean on class teachers so heavily with their targeting and tracking demands that many staff get far less pleasure than they should from teaching. Governors? They are volunteers, but now have such awesome responsibilities that they are becoming hard to recruit. Inspectorate? Well, if Ofsted isn't currently breathing down your neck, the local education authority or the school improvement partner certainly is. Discipline? Have you seen how many forms have to be filled in if a child is disruptive?

And yes, teachers do now have a professional body. It's going to MOT us every five years.

Why, I wonder, do we constantly lurch from one extreme to the other?

  • Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary School in Camberwell, south London. Email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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