Spotlight on the back row

4th November 2005 at 00:00
Fred Sedgwick is too modest. His book delivers much more than its title suggests, says Tim Brighouse, who enjoys a three-act celebration of outstanding teaching


This book is like a ship flying a flag of convenience and sailing under false colours: a delightful sham and concealment. To read it is like finding a masterpiece within a cheap and tawdry frame. It is neither an explanation of "how to teach with a hangover" nor "a practical guide to overcoming classroom crises". In fact it is never practical; philosophical more like. Read Fred Sedgwick's book whether you are attracted by the title or put off by it. Not to do so would be to miss some beautiful writing and a set of cameos drawn from the author's career, initially as a young teacher, then as he journeys through three headships, and finally in the past 10 years or so as a supply teacher extraordinary.

I say "extraordinary" because if he speaks and behaves as he writes, I guess he's much sought after as a startling visiting expert teacher capable of coaxing poetry out of any pupil, be they never so prosaic; of persuading the least motivated child of the intoxicating nature of Shakespeare. To read this book is to glimpse and appreciate the magic of a very special educator.

Between the two sections, or "acts", of the book, there's what the author calls an "interval", which consists of snapshots from primary headteacher meetings attended by Sedgwick throughout his career. Like the rest of the book, this shows the author's capacity to shine a bright, revealing and often (but not always) sympathetic light on human frailty. He is able to describe the changing nature of LEAs' headteacher meetings over the years, while considering the meetings themselves as less important in his life than either the accelerating avalanche of central government curriculum, assessment and inspection orders or the conversation of parents at the school gate.

When he took his first headship in Hertfordshire in 1975, the heads'

meeting centred on "the quality of children's work, especially the visual arts... Really it was about how that work should be displayed; how a school could be a pleasing environment." By his second headship in Suffolk in the early 1980s, the agenda had moved on to "Managing the school plant". "I gazed at this uncomprehendingly until I realised it meant 'plant' in the sense of buildings - not monstera or spider plant or cactus."

In the next scene from Suffolk, at another heads' meeting, Sedgwick is outraged to be told he's the "chief education officer's middle manager and you'd better believe it". He wryly observes the "goodies" who sit at the front declaring after group sessions that their first task is to "check on the state of the school's infrastructure". In the back row, Sedgwick and his colleague Stuart Murdoch (who, tiring of headship, went on to manage the football team MK Dons) mock the front-rowers, preferring to focus on curriculum teaching and pupils' learning, only to discover they are wrong and the "goodies" are right.

The pre-interval chapters - "Teaching with a Hangover"; "Kissing and Parting: love and its trials"; and "Teaching with a Dodgy Headteacher" - provide Sedgwick with a chance to review school and professional life through the eyes of a young teacher. The main issue on which he gently lifts the veil are the qualities, characteristics and habits of outstanding - as opposed to successful - teachers. By that I mean not necessarily extrovert performers, but the quiet Mrs Lewis I once knew who always got every child to read in her primary school, or the organised Ms Rana, now working in London, almost every member of whose class, including those with SEN statements, obtains a higher grade in GCSE ICT. They are teachers who invite their pupils to suspend their self-doubt and do what is asked of them in the certainty of their ultimate success. And that's what the pupils do.

What is it about such teachers? Is it that they see children's failure to learn not as a lack of intelligence on the pupil's part but as a challenge to themselves to find new methods which will unlock the child's mind? In short, they believe that in the end they can teach any child successfully and regard the occasional failure as a stimulus to extend their repertoire of skills; of questioning, of storytelling, of different techniques appealing to different mixes of the multiple intelligences which make each child unique. They enlist not just the single pupil's allegiance, but that of the whole group. Learning in their classes is a co-operative activity.

They deal in a kind of hope and certainty that brooks no denial.

The three chapters in the second section - "The Kids Round Here"; "Teaching with Ofsted Present"; and "Challenging Children and Managing their Behaviour" - allow Sedgwick the chance to reflect on some of these key issues, always, like the good teacher, illustrating his arguments and ideas with compelling stories.

Before, during and after the interval, Sedgwick reflects on the huge influence of headteachers on the likelihood of teachers becoming outstanding. He has no time for "The Computer Headteacher", who "keeps as far away from the children as possible, doubles up classes when a teacher is ill, has meetings with anyone who will come to the school... their favourite part of the school is the entrance hall with their own name and qualifications displayed". Nor has he any time for "Mr and Mrs Management".

Sedgwick prefers what he calls the "person headteacher", tirelessly growing energy and skill in staff, taking the blame and ascribing collective success to the efforts of others.

The chapter I enjoyed most was "The Kids Round Here". This is where Sedgwick puts his finger on a perennial problem (but a diminishing one).

Whenever heads or teachers refer to "these" children, rather than "my" or "our" children, you know the school and the children are in trouble. So I hope anyone inclined to believe the same will read the book, be amused and uplifted by its style and take heart for the future with renewed determination to teach every child successfully.

Tim Brighouse is chief adviser to the London Schools Challenge

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