Review - Books - No fear: a trip to teaching hell

21st January 2011 at 00:00

On The Edge

By Charlie Carroll

Monday Books


Here's a cracking idea. Do your PGCE, survive a year in a tough school in Cornwall, get a job in a good school in Somerset, build the beginnings of a successful career ... then chuck it all in, buy an old VW camper van and deliberately seek out the toughest, roughest schools in England and supply teach in them. Yes, supply teach - the most demanding and soul-destroying job in teaching. By choice.

Short of certifiable insanity, this is an option that most of us would not take. But it was the decision Charlie Carroll (a nom de plume) made when he decided that "something was wrong".

Despite an idealistic love of teaching and having achieved a degree of success, Mr Carroll was buried under paperwork and targets and his romantic vision of the noblest profession was fading fast. "My twenties ... were being stolen from me in an astonishing combination of confrontation and bureaucracy," he writes. I would suggest a lot of young teachers will know exactly how that feels.

Not many will opt for Mr Carroll's route out. Take a degree of disillusionment, a desire to travel and a just about credible intellectual rationalisation that the aim of the trip is to discover why so many young teachers leave the profession, and the result is a leaky VW camper van in a miscellany of lay-bys in the north of England. Mr Carroll's road trip is under way and he is about to enter the circles of hell that characterise the English education system at its most brutal.

If you ask the supply agency for the toughest schools, you will get them. That, of course, is because nobody else wants to teach there. It is not many pages into On The Edge before you see in full-frontal horror why: ICT lessons are sabotaged from the start by a mass logging-in using the wrong username; vicious fights break out in the playground; objects are hurled; drugs are dealt; foul language is an every minute event and the threat of violence against staff is never very far away.

In one school, the entire maths department has been suspended - ludicrously - for "gross misconduct" after they abandoned a riot involving 200 students. Unsurprisingly, they fled until the police cleared things up.

There are occasional moments of relief. One of the saddest passages in the book occurs after Mr Carroll has actually built a positive and productive relationship with the foul-mouthed, drug-dealing but oddly appealing Philip. At the end of the day, Philip approaches him, hand outstretched to shake and asks if he will be back the next day. When Mr Carroll says he is booked elsewhere, Philip withdraws his hand and without another word walks away.

Inevitably perhaps, Mr Carroll's travels and experiences give rise to reflection on a system that so often seems to fail not only pupils but also teachers. They are all too familiar concerns, but they remain largely unaddressed. For instance, teachers are allowed to use "reasonable force" to prevent one student hurting another, but that conflicts with the student's right not to have his "privacy, dignity and physical integrity compromised".

Report-writing has reached such a level of blandness that it helps neither parents nor schools nor students. No-exclusion policies damage everybody. Successive governments have spurned the opportunity to reduce class sizes, frequently quoting spurious research that any practising teacher will tell you is nonsense. Mr Carroll is right to raise these issues, although the occasionally hectoring tone in which he does so sometimes grates with the more anecdotal style that he adopts elsewhere.

One recurrent thread is the importance of SMT in maintaining order and creating a positive atmosphere. Predictably in Mr Carroll's chosen schools, its frequent failure to do what it should be doing is evident. He recounts many incidents in which SMT members walk away or fail to appear at trouble. Conversely, the schools where SMT, and the head in particular, are a constant presence on the corridors fare very much better.

I enjoyed and was gripped by On The Edge, but it scared me and I had to keep reminding myself that Mr Carroll had picked the worst schools he could find to supply teach; they are not representative of the country at large. Nonetheless, I still very much hope that he sent Michael Gove a copy for Christmas.

The Verdict: 8 out of 10


Charlie Carroll

Charlie Carroll has been teaching English in state secondary schools for the last seven years. He lives in the West Country with his wife. On The Edge is his first book.

Charlie Carroll is a pseudonym.

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