Wishing upon a star like Mary Beard

22nd June 2012 at 01:00
What I wouldn't give for the time to nurture eager young minds, writes Di Beddow

I'm very excited by the prospect of universities once again being part of the development of A levels. Here in Cambridge we have the wonderful Classics professor Mary Beard, who blogs and writes books on being a don. She recently took her long, silvery locks around the ruins of Rome to tell television viewers what the Romans did for us. In her most recent article for the local paper, she describes her day from 6am until 11.30pm. It is, I would think, every sixth-form teacher's idea of educational paradise. She rises; checks for incoming essays via email; cycles through the lanes to work; lectures; tutors a PhD student; discusses the impact of her research at the faculty's planning committee; and supervises groups of two or three undergraduates for an hour at a time. It is a long and demanding day, but it appears to be focused on reading, writing, thinking, analysing, responding, creating and, most of all, enjoying her subject.

If Beard were given more say in A-level programmes of study and assessment, I am convinced that we would have a more demanding, productive and exciting couple of years with our students at school. We might well achieve what David Eastwood, vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, describes as the goal of the new A-level system: "... young people stretched to achieve more than they yet know possible". "Huzzah!" I want to shout. "Let's do it! Let's put the show on right here!"

And then I think of my day. Much like Beard's, it runs from 6am until 11.30pm. No time to check for essays in the morning, because students must be settled in for the day ahead. There is uniform to be checked; assemblies to lead; tutor groups to monitor; pupils to be mentored in the run-up to their GCSEs.

Then there is the teaching. Unlike most of my colleagues, I have only a small teaching load because of my leadership responsibilities. I love teaching and have not given it up even while acting as head over this summer term. I have a bright, vibrant and demanding A-level literature group that expects the very best from me in preparation, objectives, plenaries, setting and marking essays. On occasion, one particularly gifted boy asks a really interesting question about one of our texts. Beard describes a similar experience in her day: "These smart students have all kinds of tricky questions... The Crito is about whether you have a duty to obey the laws even if you believe they are wrong. It's a question that speaks to them."

My Joe does the same. "Miss," he begins, pausing for effect while the rest of the class settles down to watch the exchange. "If God is genuinely loving and Adam and Eve are his children, should He not really give them a second chance after the old apple-eating thing?"

On another occasion, he asked this about Paradise Lost: "Where exactly is Hell? Is it underground? If it is underground, how come the fallen angels do not career into the Earth's crust as they fall? Is there any mention in the Old Testament of them being thrown out of Heaven, falling and then sort of drilling down through the layers of the Earth until they end up in Hell? Or is Hell perhaps a completely different planet, Miss?"

How I wish I could sit down, halt the relentless school timetable and enter into such fascinating explorations. Instead, I usually deliver a closing, summative statement that acknowledges the fascinating query, but moves swiftly on to: "... and next week's timed essay in preparation for your closed book examination is ... ".

With budgets biting hard, it is difficult for us to split A-level classes into small groups and even harder to find the time to spend on one-to-one feedback on essays, coursework, revision and the like. Michael Gove may well be on to something with his closer relationship between A-level syllabuses and university demands, but please, Mr Gove, could we have the finance to match Beard's day of lectures, consultation, debate and tutorials as well?

Di Beddow is a deputy head in Cambridgeshire.

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