Relatively speaking - Expert Advice - The trainee whose father runs her college

30th July 2010 at 01:00
Jessica Conroy is 20 years old and about to enter her second year of a BEd primary course at Glasgow University where her father, Jim Conroy, has been dean of education for the past five years


I left school at 17. I joined the Chase Manhattan Bank and was destined for a career in finance. After four years, I decided this was not what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. I only had an inchoate idea of being a teacher, but I thought I'd apply and see what happened.

I grew up in rural Northern Ireland and my parents - in particular, my mother - were incredibly committed to education. I was one of five children and the only one to pass the 11-plus and win a scholarship, but all of us went to grammar schools because my parents paid the fees even though they were not rich people. They saw education as a way to deliver certain social goods; some of that commitment to education must have lodged itself.

My father was appalled when I told him I was leaving banking. He was a cattle dealer who shipped cattle to France and Italy. He felt that banking would have given me a nice career with a big salary and all kinds of benefits whereas teachers didn't get paid much, he pointed out.

But after I started studying at St Mary's College in Strawberry Hill in London, I became fascinated by educational and philosophical questions. I went on to specialise in the philosophy of education and then the philosophy of religion at Lancaster University.

I was teaching at a sixth form college in Bristol when I got married: I was 29, pushing 30. We then moved to London and (I) got a job at St Mary's College, where I had been a student. About four years later, I was offered the position of director of religious education and pastoral care at St Andrew's College of Education in Bearsden, Glasgow.

At that stage, the girls (twins, Jessica and Rosie) were four months and Ed was about three years. My wife had a hankering to teach the children at home for at least a year. In the end, it went on into their teens: my wife enjoyed it and the children seemed to thrive on it. The decision to keep educating them at home was made from one year to the next. It was not a great plan; it simply evolved.

I passionately believe teachers need to have some grounding in liberal education, not just the arts but also sciences. They need to be interested in the students and the world and capable of bringing students to a more complex understanding of that world.

Jessica and Rosie, at different times, suggested they would like to be teachers. I spoke to them about it separately. Rosie said she wanted to be a teacher because she liked children. I told her to go to art school and see how she felt at that stage. Jessica said she wanted to be a good teacher and help kids who were struggling. I said: "That's OK, you can be a teacher."

Jessica likes children, but it's not about sweetness or being twee. She wants them to succeed, and she wants to be able to help them. It's different from what Rosie wanted, which was largely about fun.

Jessica will be an incredibly dedicated teacher, concerned and possibly a little anxious about whether she's getting it right. Having her here for the past year has been very interesting and has offered me an insight. But conversations around the dinner table don't influence professional decision-making. If you ran an organisation based on what your daughter said, you would be in serious trouble.


At Glasgow University you can do Catholic teaching or primary teaching. I've just finished my first year doing the former, and I hope to teach in a Catholic primary. I think a school with a religious ethos nurtures other sides of a child's character, not just their smarts. Even if the child is not Christian, I think it's important to nurture their soul so they feel part of a community.

I was home-educated until I was 14. It was really good. When you tell people that, they think you couldn't possibly have any friends or know anything because you didn't go to school. But I'm not a total social recluse! Me, my sister and my brother went to school when Edward was in S5 and when my twin Rosie and I were in S3.

It was quite relaxed being home-schooled. Mum taught us a lot, without us really noticing. She would wake us up and read things to us - Shakespeare, just whatever she thought we'd like. By the time we were about six, dad had read The Odyssey to us. I was obsessed by the Egyptians, so I did quite a lot on that - each of us followed our interests. We did things like maths, but we used blocks and stuff and we would make lunch together.

It all started because mum could not face taking Ed to school every day with us in the buggy. She joked that she would only have been at home for half-an-hour and then she would have had to collect him for lunch. She thought she would just do it for a year, until we got a bit older, but she just never gave it up.

Mum isn't a teacher - she would kill me for saying that! What I mean is she didn't do a teaching degree, but she is very wise. She knows Latin, Greek and French and is more than capable of teaching children.

We did go to nursery, but Rosie quit. There used to be a really cool play house on two storeys, but there was another set of twins and one of them used to stand at the door and bite people. Rosie hated it. I wanted to stay because we got to cook stuff, but I didn't want to do it on my own. Mum says it's always been like that: I waited for Rosie to crawl and then I crawled; I waited for Rosie to walk and I walked.

When Ed went to school, he got five As and Rosie was the same, but I did not do so well in S5. I'm dyslexic and I struggled with big classes, so in S6 I moved school and got the qualifications to get in here.

A lot of kids thrived at my first school, but I found the focus on schoolwork monotonous and did better in a school that was about nurturing the child, rather than passing exams. We did a whole-school assembly twice a week and you could get involved in charity work; there was also team- building and outward bound. I got to work in the primary and nursery school to gain experience and if you were in S6, you could do paired reading.

When I was little, I didn't know I was dyslexic. Mum said she knew I learned differently to Rosie and Edward, because I got frustrated easily if I didn't understand something, but she never really told me. It was only when I went to school that I had to get a report saying I was dyslexic, so I could get extra time. I remember my biology teacher said to me I could come at lunchtime or break and he would help me: that made a big difference and made me realise the difference between a good and bad teacher.

I don't want to sound like a prom queen, but I was motivated to become a teacher so that I could go that extra mile to help children develop, not just in their education but socially and emotionally, and to give them confidence.

I think in first year (of teacher training), you are just easing into the routine. It is hard but manageable, although I found it tiring working in a school just on a Monday and a Friday - I don't know how teachers do it every day!

If there's something I am struggling with, dad will always have a strategy or mechanism for dealing with it. It's good having him there to tell me what he has learnt and then I don't have to make mistakes.

We talk quite a lot about education at home. If there was something we disagreed about, dad would challenge me on it and bring out a load of books to back up his point. He is quite smart, obviously, but it wouldn't just be his opinion; he always has evidence. I usually don't disagree though, because we have similar views - but I've only just finished my first year, so I suppose that may change.

As told to Emma Seith.

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