Review: Books - Passion amid the paperwork

6th May 2011 at 01:00

Inspirational Teachers Inspirational Learners

By Will Ryan (edited by Ian Gilbert)

Crown House Publishing


This important and urgent book opens with one of the saddest education stories I have ever heard. As a head, the author had talked to an eight-year-old pupil in his school who was bemoaning the boredom inherent in a project on rivers that involved her cutting out parts of diagrams from a pre-published worksheet and sticking them on to another piece of paper to illustrate the water cycle.

The child argued that this was "a load of rubbish" and proceeded to describe with great enthusiasm aspects of the real life of a river that lay at the end of the lane from the school. Some years later he chanced, as a local authority adviser, on the same girl, now a teacher herself. She told him that one of her latest lessons related to the journey of a river, making use of a lesson downloaded from the internet that involved a diagram and the children sequencing sections of text to piece together the story of the water cycle.

When reminded of her response to this same task as a pupil and asked why she hadn't been able to act on her own advice, the answer was sadly predictable. The drive to ensure a 5 per cent improvement in standards in English and maths meant no "extras" like out-of-school visits, with their attendant health and safety risks, no story settings until the following term, and no deviation because all she had to do was use the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency schemes to ensure the topic was covered.

This prologue encapsulates most of the charges that Mr Ryan levels with unerring accuracy at the state of education in England: a results drive to the point of madness, inflexible management (one could hardly call it leadership), a lack of imagination in interpreting the national curriculum, the stifling of intellectual curiosity in the young and the inhibition of creative teaching. The triumph of Dickens' Mr Gradgrind, one might think, is almost complete.

Is it any wonder that a 2007 Unicef report on the wellbeing and happiness of children ranked the UK as the worst of the 21 wealthy nations surveyed? Should we not despair when a colleague of Mr Ryan's tells him that her son went through 35 mock Sats papers before the tests?

Despair, fortunately, is something this book has no truck with. Its subject is inspiration and it is the author's unwavering belief that inspiration is the birthright of every child, and creative teaching the key to providing it.

Inspirational Teachers Inspirational Learners sets out to show how, even in the present circumstances, this can be achieved. Literacy and the arts are key; awe, wonder and emotional and spiritual intelligence need to be nurtured; learning outside the classroom is essential; there needs to be passion, courage and faith.

Ofsted does not come out of his anecdotal evidence well. That is, perhaps, predictable. But his biggest challenge is to school leaders: "The prime duty of any school leader is to take a dynamic and inspirational lead on the curriculum ... it should course through every vein to create a passionate community where everyone wants to learn ..."

The tick-box mentality of many school managers, with their insistence on paperwork and uniformity, gets short shrift: "I have become firmly convinced that the size and degree of elaboration within planning documents is inversely related to the quality of action and learning."

But any head wanting to take up the challenge of creating an inspirational curriculum will find plenty of practical help here with encouraging enterprise, "awakening joy in creative expression" and pursuing alternative means of assessment. This is a book that aims to effect improvement and realise an ambition, not simply moan about the current climate and the sterility of many of our classrooms.

Particularly important are his claims for a return to what might be called "real literacy", with story at its heart. A study by the National Foundation for Educational Research suggests that while standards of literacy achieved by pupils have risen, a love of reading in boys and girls - Harry Potter notwithstanding - has declined.

It is not unrealistic to attribute this at least in part to one of the most damaging trends of the past few years: the rise and rise of the use of extracts, rather than the enjoyment of shared whole books. Stories inspire; children need to be exposed to full texts; daily story time needs to return to every primary classroom.

Mr Ryan brings a wealth of practical experience as well as idealism to this book. The questions he asks schools to ask of themselves are enlightening and his suggestions for moving towards a more creative and inspirational curriculum are well grounded. The anecdotal sections of the text make their points with humility and humanity, and although in some cases they provoke anger and frustration they also point the way to remedies. In short, Inspirational Teachers Inspirational Learners is itself an inspirational text that should be on the reading list of all educational administrators and on the bedside table of all school leaders and classroom teachers.


Will Ryan has worked in schools in South Yorkshire for more than 30 years - as a teacher, headteacher and local authority adviser. As a headteacher he led a school that prides itself on genuine pupil creativity and was described by Ofsted as "outstanding".

The verdict: 1010.

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