Team player in the real world

20th October 2000 at 01:00
Michael Duffy meets Teaching Awards finalist Andy Williams

Even as a schoolboy, Andy Williams used to revise his homework topics by pretending he was teaching them to an imaginary class. It is hardly surprising, then, that he made teaching his career. But his career is nothing special, insists the Teaching Award finalist for working with parents and the community. He says: "I'm just an ordinary teacher."

Neither his colleagues nor his pupils agree with that. True, his story has an ordinary beginning. He was brought up in Cardiff - he still cites Welsh rugby and the fortunes of Cardiff City as two of his abiding enthusiasms - and trained as an RE teacher (and rugby player) at St Paul's in Cheltenham. He did his teaching practice at Cheltenham ladies college ("perhaps that was a little different"), taught enjoyably at two schools in Devon and then, in 1996, moved back to Cardiff to the post of PSE and RE co-ordinator at Willows high school.

It is a demanding post in a sometimes demanding school. Like many other inner-city schools, Willows has to cope with a high level of deprivation and a high crime rate. Andy's pupils quickly made it clear that they regarded PSE (and even more so, RE) as a waste of time. "They saw it as totally irrelevant - and as a result they used to mitch off (truant) regularly."

But when Andy looked at the schemes of work he had inherited, it was not difficult to see the reason. "Everything was content-driven. You know - bullying in Year 8, sex education in Year 9, jobs in Year 10. There was nothing about the skills these youngsters lacked - nothing about the real-life situations they were going to encounter.

"So I turned the syllabus upside-down, and started with the skills we needed to develop."

The priorities were to teach youngsters to communicate, to work with others, to resist peer pressure and to develop self-esteem. The key was to build in enjoyment (lots of role-play, lots of drama) and to emphasise the relevance of the lessons to the world outside. "Community involvement was absolutely ital," he says.

But that's easier said than done. Andy's achievement has been to win real involvement in the programme not just from local organisations but from parents. "I think they recognise that this sort of approach has as much to offer them as it does to their children," he says.

It has certainly produced an extraordinary range of collaborative projects and activities. All sorts of professionals contribute to the PSE programme: community police officers, prison officers, magistrates, the fire brigade. Indeed, the school has its own Young Fire Fighters organisation, complete with uniform and fire station training. There are links with banks, churches, and voluntary groups, and the area's minority organisations. With help from the Prince's Trust, pupils have started a school nursery and tree-planting project. There is a Saturday morning sexual health drop-in centre at the school.

And has it made a difference? As far as the important things are concerned, Andy knows that it is too soon to tell - "though there has been a sharp drop in our court report figures." Where parental involvement is concerned, though, there has certainly been a change. And what of PSE and RE? "It's really taken off. PSE now has real status, with the kids collecting lots of certificates." Examination numbers for GCSE RE have risen from four to 43. No more "mitching-off", then? "Not often now. It took some time - but when they realised that I was here to stay and that I wanted to make it worthwhile for them, things got better. I love it now. I really do enjoy it."

On a par with rugby, and Cardiff City? "Yes - on a par with them."

The national final of the Teaching Awards at the Millennium Dome will be broadcast on BBC1 on November 5


* Be consistent

* Care for each of your pupils. They want to know how much you care, not how much you know

* Keep the job in perspective. Do what you're there to do, as well as you can. Don't become a zombie

* Stay away from paperwork. (Well, try to)

* Enjoy it

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