My life in education flashes before me

18th January 2008 at 00:00
It was nice of former colleagues to email me saying they missed me, with comments like: "Things aren't the same."

My brain is obviously not facing reality as it still wakes me at 6am on the dot. I muffle: "I'm retired."

It still wins and dictates my getting up and showering, adrenalin pumping, for leaving at 7am.

Within a month, contacts from school virtually stop, so much for the "missing you" brigade.

10am. My mental lesson bell sounds, Year 7 English. Facing that class, the challenge of reaching out to all, making a difference - even to those ensconced in tight, frightened corners, heads down, determined to resist at all costs.

I suddenly see myself cringing haplessly in Tai Junior School, Rhondda, age 10, classroom eerily quiet and threatening. The date is March 19, 1958.

Everyone, it seems, is determined I am going to fail, relegated to the "secondary modern" school and a life of manual servitude underground.

In a stance reminiscent of my grandmother when she used to braise her stockings in front of the open coal fire, legs apart, leaving her mouth and mind to drift with the rising smoke, I swirl through my Tonypandy Grammar School years, attaching as much importance to them as they did to me.

I stop suddenly on the Boulevard St Michel, in the first week of May 1968, where I am attending the Sorbonne as a language student.

I jump to September 1969, my first job. I teach O-level to the "A" band, CSE to the "B" band and prepare "C"-band students for life's challenges. Welcome to the "one-size-fits-all" comprehensive school of the future where approximately 30 per cent of the original Form 5 cohort would leave with no paper qualification.

The first week of May, 20 years on, Princess Diana arrives at Cardiff Central Station to launch "The Travelling College", the first private enterprise to run on the British Rail network. After 20 years in secondary education, I am exhilarated by the chance to extend pupil opportunities in a way never before envisaged - a 13-carriage school with the remit to experience Britain on scheduled trips.

Emerging from my journey, blowing the smog from my coffee, I look back on hope for the future and allow myself a glimmer of satisfaction. In my last year of teaching, fewer than 1 per cent of the Y11 cohort left without a formal qualification. And that was a school in a catchment area deemed to be one of the most emotionally and materially deprived in Europe.

On a recent tour of the UK, Jesse Jackson urged that we should use education as a weapon to fight inequality. Now, more than ever, parents, pupils and professionals should seize the opportunity. The gateways to success have never been more open or more numerous.

Barrie Phillips is a retired teacher. He taught at Cardiff's Fitzalan High School.

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