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Votes of confidence for late-developers

As the policeman waved on my car I looked at his face. The shock of recognition nearly caused me to stall.

I'd taught in the secondary schools of this city for some eight years. If during that time I'd been asked to nominate the lad most likely to become a mass murderer, Tom would have had my vote every time. His obsession with Vlad the Impaler, Frankenstein's monster, and famous poisoners throughout history seemed a touch excessive - even by the standards of other young males. Now here he was, some years later, looking the picture of respectability, one of Her Majesty's Constabulary. Mind you ...

I was reminded of one of the longest-serving teachers in the grammar school where I began my career. He used to carry a card in his wallet at all times. Printed on it were words to the effect that, in the case of accident or medical emergency, he did not wish to be treated by the following list of doctors. These were all ex-pupils whose levels of intelligence he did not rate sufficiently highly to be entrusted with his life.

On the more positive side, my wife and I now live in a medium-sized town in the English Midlands where she was a teacher for 20 years or so. We occasionally contemplate moving but always reject the idea when we reckon up the steady returns we accumulate from her investment in human capital.

This manifests itself in myriad ways. To whom do we turn when we want a plumber, roofer, electrician or decorator? Obviously to her ex-pupils whose service is fantastic.

In shops, too, assistants sometimes pick up my credit card and ask whether their ex-teacher, Mrs Hellawell, is my wife. From then on, no trouble is too great.

My wife points out that these good, useful young people were often shy, dull and alienated pupils. Even allowing for the pains of adolescence, and for the fact that their current enthusiasm for work may not last into middle age (nor may the work), this surely tells us something about the gap between school and work, about curriculum content not being relevant to life.

For these young people, who clearly possess commitment and energy, education was not a success and school didn't begin to bring out the best in them.

David Hellawell is Associate Dean, University of Central England

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