Strength of character

30th January 2015 at 00:00

One of the biggest surprises for anyone crossing the event horizon into the teaching profession is how little teaching the job actually involves. I, like many greenhorns, entered education panicking about whether or not my subject knowledge was good enough. I needn't have worried because I soon had plenty of other things to know nothing about.

For a start there was the admin, something common to any systematised career, especially in the public sector where accountability and impact are the Scylla and Charybdis of the job. Nurses, police officers, lawyers and many more all skip into their careers hoping to heal, collar rogues and champion justice, only to find that the first things they need to replace are their pens.

Workload, as I will tirelessly repeat, is one of the elephants in the classroom. Any innovation, evolution or revolution of teaching practice that doesn't address this is naive at best and fraudulent at worst. Which is fine, if you don't mind your child being taught by someone who is being eaten alive.

Then there's a more modern malaise that rears its unwanted, unlovely head like a priapic mortician every week or so. If you start a secondary-school career in mathematics in the UK, you may, not unreasonably, expect to spend most of your time teaching maths (and dealing with the associated admin, of course). Not a bit of it. You'll probably be expected to deliver some form of PSHE, perhaps a fascinating course on vandalism, sexting or contraception. If you're lucky, you'll be asked to give careers advice. Heaven forbid that these topics be considered a niche art. One terrified newly qualified teacher I knew thought he'd be groovy and get his form group to list every swear word and sexual peccadillo they could think of, to get it out of their systems. They were there until the bell, stripping the paint from the walls in the fury of their decadent, licentious joy. Not a lot about reproduction was conveyed that day.

This year's must-have add-on appears to be character education. Politicians from across the spectrum are sticking their chins forward to be first across the finishing line with this, so we can assume it isn't going away soon. But my concern, as it must be for anyone who inhabits a classroom rather than merely watching Waterloo Road, is: "Do we actually have time for this?" If the answer is no, then the matter is ended. There's no point wishing away the problems of society if those wishes cannot come true. We are not issued with magic lamps. Just as political policy withers without support from the Treasury, a school initiative that isn't launched with time and training is doomed to fail. That's quite apart from the other issues with character education, such as: what does it actually mean? How do we measure it? Do teachers need to be of good character? Is it as dumb as it sounds?

My fear is that the usual thing will happen: it'll be green-lit anyway. The train will leave the platform without any tracks ahead of it. And, as usual, teachers will be flogged when it fails.

Tom Bennett teaches at the Jo Richardson Community School in Essex and is director of the ResearchED conference

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