Enviable results in social science at a Stoke high school are largely due to Lynn Jones's passion for teaching and seeing students succeed, Harvey McGavin discovers
Lynn Jones loves her job. She knows colleagues from university who have gone on to make a lot more money than her ("They have got garages bigger than my house"), but she would not swap places with them for anything.
Mrs Jones teaches social sciences and history at Blurton High School, on a windswept council estate in Stoke-on-Trent. For her, the rewards do not come in a monthly pay packet (she would rather subsidise school trips for less well-off pupils than spend it on herself), but in the joy of doing what she likes best - teaching.
"You have got to have a passion for your subject and for the kids," she says. "If you don't they will soon suss you out. They can tell if you're not bothered."
A Year 10 social science lesson on youth culture flies by in never-a-dull-moment fashion. Her brisk and friendly manner is full of facts and explanations, quick-fire questions and answers, and peppered with anecdotes about her sister's 1950s wedding dress ("When she looks at the photos she's horrified") and her daughter Jenny's grunge phase ("Mr Jones used to get in a state about it").
By the time the 45 minutes are up, the pupils have given a quick group presentation on a particular youth subculture, learned the difference between the functionalist and meanings approaches, know what semiotics is, and have produced a couple of poster-sized cartoons of a punk and a hippie.
While she is out of the room, I ask her pupils what they think of Mrs Jones. "She's a lovely person - she'd do anything for you," says one. "It's the way she teaches; she's so enthusiastic," offers another.
If any of them were asked to nominate a My Best Teacher, you can be sure that Mrs Jones would be top of the list. And the feeling is mutual. She has been at Blurton High School for 18 years, and has taught many of her present pupils' brothers and sisters, following their progress with the care of a surrogate mother. "That's what teaching is all about - it's a maternal thing, like looking after the next generation," she says.
Occasionally, there are disappointments, such as the boy she bumped into that morning on the checkout at the Co-op - an ex-pupil with nine GCSEs. "I busted a gut to get him through history, but he says he messed up at college."
"Some of them have got a chip on their shoulder because they 'only come from Blurton'. But I tell them they are as good as anybody. I believe in them and encourage them even when they are giving up on themselves."
Social science is one of the school's success stories. Mrs Jones started with a class of seven 12 years ago, and the subject is now one of the most popular in the school, with around 60 pupils sitting GCSEs each year. The results are astonishing - more than twice the average A-C pass rate for the school.
While other minority subjects have been elbowed out of the timetable, social science has survived at Blurton thanks to its popularity as much as its exam success. "The national curriculum has crowded out these kinds of subjects, but the reason we have survived is that it has been successful," Mrs Jones says. Its future is assured, thanks to the support of newly appointed headteacher Robert Powell.
The mix of sociology, economics and politics gives a taster of all three and opens up A-level opportunities in one or more of them, Mrs Jones says. More than that, pupils can relate to its everyday subject matter. "It's about what's going on in their lives and here's a chance to do it at school. They love it."
Coursework allows pupils to put research methods learned in class to the test and can also help them come to terms with difficult aspects of their own lives. "A lot of them do it as a kind of therapy," she says.
Divorce, suicide, fostering, and mental health are just some of this year's coursework topics inspired by personal experience. Visits to Parliament and an open prison have given them insights into less accessible subjects.
For someone who seems to have a true vocation, it comes as a surprise to learn that Mrs Jones did not always want to be a teacher. "I didn't know what to do when I left school so I went to see my headmistress. She said 'Why don't you try teaching?', so I did a year in a primary school and that was it."
Now she mentors undergraduates from Keele University who are training to be social science teachers themselves. "Mentoring is nice because I'm helping other people become good teachers. It takes a long time to become a good teacher. Mentoring helps me learn about my teaching too."
She worries about the future of the subject and hopes the Government will relax the compulsory elements of the key stage 4 curriculum to give schools, and pupils, the choice.
Only one of the four trainees she mentored last year has found a post. "It's a shame. All I want is for other schools to do it. Not all kids are scientific or technological, and there must be loads who would benefit."
Mrs Jones's skill in the classroom - rated as "outstanding" by Ofsted inspectors - comes from a passion for her profession. "I never come to school thinking it's going to be boring," she says. "The kids are so lovely and when they do well it's brilliant."