Richard Hoyes takes a broad sweep

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
I t's common for teachers to whinge - even, I'm sad to say, in the columns of The TES. So I'm not going to say I wish I were a chimney sweep and not a teacher, or that I have friends who are chimney sweeps and their social lives are better than mine. I sweep and teach (I own a set of rods and sweep my own flue every year), and I know which I prefer. Only if they sack me will I fall back on the brush.

I'm not going in for fanciful nostalgia, remembering the time when the schoolteacher with his little bit of wisdom was considered on a level with the parson and the doctor, and the sweep was a lower rank with the thatcher and the mender of grandfather clocks. I'm not going to say just look at them now. Thatchers, clock menders and chimney sweeps have gone up in the world, partly because of rarity (just try finding one in the Yellow Pages who isn't fully booked) and teachers are ten a penny.

I'm not going to say that because it just isn't true.

At the college I teach in we have a partnership with the Institute of Education, University of London, which means that we, along with our partner schools, help supervise student teachers. What is refreshing about this is seeing the talents and range of backgrounds of people coming into the profession. This year's placements at our college include a futures broker, someone refreshed by a year in New Zealand, someone who has slaved in publishing for five years and a police officer from Milan. They see their futures in business studies, maths, English and science teaching respectively. They are driven by zeal. At a careers day last year James, the student teacher from Belfast, eloquently told us he wanted to be a teacher in order to do something in the aftermath of the Troubles and that when he'd qualified he would be going back to Belfast. Which he has done. I wish some of the nation's whingers had been there to hear him.

And that's without the pound;6,000 hat will be paid to next year's recruits. These people pay their own travel, support themselves and dig themselves steadily deeper into debt. In fact, one of the biggest hurdles facing student teachers, the institute tells us, is the well-meaning whingers in some staffrooms who take them to one side and try to put them off.

I suppose every profession gets its share of them. The young chimney sweep has his dreams and aspirations. He'll be the cleanest sweep ever. He'll sweep the meanest cottage as clean as the grandest stately home. He will have the job satisfaction of knowing that even if the householders don't appreciate him at the time, later, when they're toasting their toes in front of a roaring log fire, they'll think back gratefully to the sweep.

No lad, it's not like that, the chimney sweep whingers will tell him. The good old days have gone. When the happy young housewife opened the door and you'd step into her cottage with the carpets rolled back. Over the noise of the vac you'd call out, "Could murder a cup of tea, love". Then send her out to look for the brush coming out of the pot and you'd do an extra twist on your rods just to surprise her with a flurry of soot. Then hurry off to a wedding to leave a smudged patch on the bride's cheek, kissed for luck. What larks.

Nowadays householders are litigious, ready to sue at the first sign of a stuck brush or a chipped mantelpiece ornament. There's paperwork. Targets. You have to record how much soot you collect. And there's Ofsoot, the government watchdog. Inspections.

And the kids. They're not what they used to be either. They just won't do what they're told. You can't send them yelping and wheezing, spluttering up a chimney nowadays against their will. I'd look at some other profession if I were you. Ever thought about teaching?

Richard Hoyes teaches at Farnham college,Surrey. E-mail:

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