Where has all the inner fire gone?

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
The festive season is a tough time for non-singers. Last year my New Year resolution was simple - no more silent miming of Christmas carols, 1997 would be the year I learned to sing - and I booked myself on a weekend course of "singing for the tone deaf".

It wasn't a success. "Okay," said our teacher, hands poised over the piano, "What do you want to sing?"

We looked at each other in consternation. Didn't he understand? To ask us that was like asking non-swimmers to jump in and start crossing the Channel.

He flicked through a book of songs, we tried a bit of this and that, and he rolled his eyes and said we weren't joking, were we, we really couldn't sing, and played us tapes of barbershop quartets to remind us what good singing sounds like.

Only late on Sunday did he come to realise just how basic this course needed to be, and by then it was too late for a final rushed session on the basics of posture and breathing to do us much good.

It seems we were unlucky. The man who had devised this course, and who had had a real mission to teach the musically challenged, had died not long before, and our teacher was a replacement, hastily drafted in to fill a gap - without any empathy with special needs singers.

I thought back to him this Christmas when I received a letter from a larger-than-life actor friend who spends part of his week drumming up enthusiasm for public speaking in workshops for reluctant middle-school pupils.

"Most of them are fabulous once you get them going," he wrote. "I tell them there is nothing in the whole world as powerful as the voice of a person who believes what they're saying. Then I teach them a couple of tricks - open your mouth right up, connect your brain to your voice - and they're up and running. And when they've done their preparation and they enjoy their work (and don't those two things always go together?) I tell you, those kids shine on their feet."

Probably neither of these tutors has the kind of professional skills that would impress an Office for Standards in Education inspector, but while one, half-hearted and uncommitted, would deserve to be failed on his performance, the other, chaotic, yet passionate about what he is teaching, is by all accounts a dynamo in the classroom.

But does this kind of inner fire any longer have a place in an educational world dominated by targets, benchmarks, inspections and action plans? And, if not, are we losing sight of something important in the drive towards school improvement?

Until recently I wouldn't have thought to frame such a question. I have never belonged to the camp that sees Chris Woodhead as the devil incarnate, or thought it treason to point out that our classrooms host too many poor teachers and our schools turn out too many low-achievers. And obviously, once you've acknowledged such problems, you have to work on systematic ways of addressing them.

But what happens beyond that? One pointer can be found in a recent National Foundation for Educational Research report that looked at the success of the London borough of Newham in boosting standards.

This borough topped 1997's league table of most improving authorities, and is praised for having moved from being a defensive and active body to one with a dynamic vision and commitment. Exam results, school attendance, teachers' expectations and parental involvement are all rising. What is most needed now, the NFER says, if this success is to be sustained, is more "enthusiastic" and "varied" teaching with clear "pace" and "challenge". Back full circle, then, to the classroom and the individual chemistry between teacher and pupil.

I was thinking about this at my local gym, where, every Wednesday afternoon, a dozen teenage boys arrive with their teacher for a work-out. They amble in and wander around the equipment, talking, joking, picking their noses, occasionally picking up a weight or having a half-hearted go on a rowing machine before collapsing, bow-backed, onto a bench to recover.

They seem well-behaved lads, with an easy relationship with their teacher. The leisure centre gym is newly refurbished, the gym attendants on hand to help. Everything necessary for good education - the resources, the technical assistance, the appropriate activity, the low pupil-teacher ratio - is in place. But what happens is nothing. No exercise, no education, no effort, no energy. Perhaps the afternoon is billed as a taster session, where no one need do anything with any real application, or maybe it's simply seen as an excuse to skive off school. Whatever the reason, after 40 slothful minutes they amble off, having achieved nothing.

Watching this absurd weekly pantomime, I've come to think that the best gift education could be given for 1998, the one that would bring more results than any number of managerial, curriculum or legislative changes, would be a massive injection of personal energy - the kind that would make a gym teacher want to make the most of every moment in a well-equipped gym with a handful of students, and those same students want to learn something and move their lives forward.

Of course, such energy comes from inside and no one can ever give it to someone who hasn't got it for themselves.

But outside forces can go a long way towards fostering its growth, and because of this maybe the Government's resolution for 1998 should be to curb its tiresome song of "relentless pressure" to "drive up" standards, and try out a new tune of praise and partnership, acknowledging far more clearly than it has up to now that it is only through the efforts of teachers that any of its plans will come to fruition.

Meanwhile, my abiding good education memory of 1997 is of a school library in the Midlands, humming and heaving with children working to catch up on their reading and writing. Nothing fancy. Just the usual games, books, plays and puzzles. But plenty of helpers, commitment and a huge buzz of effort, concentration and achievement.

If anyone could ever bottle that kind of energy, they would have in their hand the true elixir of school success.

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