Tag Archives: education

Hæc Olim Meminisse Juvabit

In which The Author thanks his lucky stars

One of my all-time favourite films is the 1939 adaptation of James Hilton’s novella Goodbye Mr Chips, starring Robert Donat and Greer Garson. Donat won an Oscar for his portrayal of the lead character (‘hero’ is too strong a word), beating off competition from Clark Gable, James Stewart, Mickey Rooney and Laurence Olivier. It’s an extraordinary performance, requiring him to age over sixty years during the course of the film.
I first watched it with Dad when it was on TV one day – I was probably ten years old, if that – and when we got a VHS player it was one of the first films we bought. I subsequently bought it on DVD, and watch it at least three times a year. If you haven’t seen it, I can thoroughly recommend it. (I don’t rate the 1969 remake, a musical starring Peter O’Toole and Petula Clark, though. It’s worth watching once, but I wouldn’t rush to see it again.)
Goodbye Mr Chips charts the career of Charles Chipping (known to everyone as ‘Chips’), a Classics teacher at a minor English public school. Aged well into his eighties when the film opens, Chips is introduced to a new master on his first day at the school. Later he meets one of the new boys, tells him a bit about the school, and then goes home for tea. He returns to his rented rooms at a nearby cottage, dozes by the fire, and dreams about his time at Brookfield.
Chips relives his memories across sixty-three years, from his lacklustre first day at the chalkface, his unexpected marriage in early middle-age, his later years as the much-loved ‘legend of Brookfield’, through to his eventual retirement – and beyond.
The sequence set during the Great War is particularly poignant, but it had never really come home to me until I was working on The Men Who Marched Away last summer. The film was released only a few months before the start of World War II, adding extra piquancy to the daily roll-call of Brookfield old boys who’ve made the supreme sacrifice. I never fail to dissolve into tears at the beautifully-played ending. Behind this cynical and bitter façade I’m an incurable romantic at heart.
I know the book and film are somewhat sentimental and extremely dated, but I love the simplicity and innocence of the story. Whenever I hear a junior government minister talk about ‘traditional British values’, I think of the underlying message: it plays up the virtues of honesty, tolerance, decency, fair play, ‘a sense of humour and a sense of proportion’ (in Chips’ own words) which underpin the story. It’s high up in my list of ‘must-see’ films.
One of the last books I bought during my time in the retail trade was a copy of the 1934 novella which made James Hilton’s name as a popular writer, and which has been in print continuously ever since. (I can date my purchase accurately, because the original receipt was still tucked inside it when I took it off the shelf last week.) You can read it in a couple of hours, but the story will live with you for years and years afterwards.
There was a time when I thought I’d like to pursue a career in teaching. Maybe I was inspired by Chips, and also by David Powlett-Jones, the hero of R. F. Delderfield’s novel To Serve Them All My Days (which was also on TV when I was in my teens), but I thought it seemed like a noble calling.
In September 1977 I’d been part of the last intake to Aberdare Boys’ Grammar School (see School Reunion), and our teachers obviously had a sense of vocation, together with a deep knowledge and love of their subjects. In my wildest dreams I could almost see myself doing the same thing.
The following year our school became part of the comprehensive system. Our numbers were swollen by hundreds of boys who could barely write their own names. I know I’m going to sound like a terrible snob, but things went rapidly downhill after that. The grand idea of the comprehensive system was that the academic grammar school achievers would set a high water mark for everyone else to aspire to. As I say, it was a grand idea.
Like most grand ideas, it failed to deliver. Instead of playing catch-up, the worst of the meatheads (as we called them) only served to put the brakes on the majority. Those of us who wanted to carry on as we’d started were derided as ‘swots’ – or (in my case) became the victims of relentless bullying – until the O Levels filtered out the scum and we could return to business.
The long-running BBC children’s drama series Grange Hill was frequently cited as a negative influence on schoolkids. In fact, the reverse was true: Phil Redmond and the other writers were simply holding up a mirror to society. In any large inner-city comprehensive school with a diverse social and cultural intake, you’d probably see the same tensions and dilemmas played out on a weekly basis.
Our school, situated in industrial South Wales, and with an all-male, 99.5% White British pupil body, didn’t have the same problems as the fictional Grange Hill. There was hardly any racial tension, and there were no teenage pregnancies (not within the school gates, anyway – although at least one of my contemporaries became a father within weeks of finishing his O Levels). However, there was outrageous homophobia at all levels, and an incredible amount of sexist language and behaviour was directed towards some of the female teachers. I shouldn’t imagine things changed very much after I left.
Grange Hill, for obvious reasons, concentrated almost exclusively on the kids. It took a long time for a popular TV drama to emerge which followed the tribulations of the teachers themselves. Waterloo Road, which recently completed its tenth (and possibly final) season on BBC1, did its best to redress the balance. It depicted the pressure which teachers come under every day, when faced with stroppy teenagers, pettifogging bureaucrats, the ever-changing demands of the National Curriculum, and their own work/life balance.
Even so, it gave a rather rose-tinted view of the profession. Every week one of the teachers would help a wayward pupil to turn his/her life around, and hardly anybody ever went seriously off the rails. The stressful side of the profession was played down, though. Only one of the teachers became an alcoholic over the course of the series. I can think of a fair few, just from my own personal circle. (Mind you, since we only ever saw about half a dozen teachers actually doing any teaching. The rest just appeared as background artists in the staff room. Who can be sure Christine Mulgrew wasn’t the only secret swigger?)
A couple of years ago the BBC also made a fly-on-the-wall documentary following the fortunes of some newly-qualified teachers in Greater London. It was extremely disheartening to watch their high ideals being dashed on the rocks of the real world. If some future Government ever wants to launch an advertising campaign to dissuade graduates from entering the teaching profession, the BBC has already done most of the spadework.
My own life veered far away from my ambition to stand up in a classroom full of barely-civilised teenagers. I thank my lucky stars that it did. I know now that I absolutely wouldn’t be able to do it. Lots of my friends did go down that path, though. Some of them clearly had the vocation that I thought I had over three decades ago. Others, I suspect, simply went down the PGCE route because it was better than working behind a bar (or in a bookshop) and wasting their degrees while slogging away on minimum wage (or slightly above).
My cousin Adam was awarded an MA in archaeology from the University of Exeter a few years ago. Unsurprisingly, there weren’t many job vacancies for young archaeologists, so he returned home and got a job in one of the many Wetherspoon pubs which clutter up the capital city. Eventually he bit the bullet, went down the teacher training route, and is now working at a school in Kent. As far as I can tell, he’s thoroughly enjoying himself. Adam had a bit of a scare during his first week of classroom practice, though. He’s a very tall good-looking chap, and one of the older girls slipped him a note with her phone number. When I heard about it, my first piece of advice to him was, ‘Join the union ASAP, just so your arse is covered!’
Another friend of mine, a chap I used to work with in the bookshop, was a very gifted mathematician with a PhD in physics. He decided to give teacher training a go as well. After a few days of classroom practice, he decided he wasn’t cut out for it after all and went into insurance instead. What a waste of his (and everyone else’s) time and money!
I know at least one other guy who embarked on the PGCE journey, only to jump ship as soon as he faced a class of unruly teenagers. I don’t blame him. I’d probably have done the same thing. The days of Mr Chips are long gone – it’s Grange Hill and Waterloo Road all the way now.
I caught the tail-end of Any Answers on Radio 4 over the weekend. The callers were discussing the alarming rate at which newly-qualified teachers were abandoning ship once they were faced with the competing demands of the pupils, the parents, the headteacher, the local authority, the governors, the Government…
A couple of former teachers phoned the show. They told disturbing stories of their own decisions to take early retirement, or their mid-life changes of career, or the toll that teaching had taken on their mental and physical well-being. The last caller was a GP who said that in the previous week he’d signed four teachers off sick with stress-related conditions. That’s a pretty scary statistic, isn’t it?
I’ve been pondering this subject for some time now, for a number of reasons. It’s partly because of Adam’s decision to go into teaching, which he seems to have made out of necessity.
It’s partly because I watched that BBC documentary series with a strong sense of relief that my path led me in another direction entirely.
It’s partly because I’ve seen a number of young friends sign up for PGCE simply because there aren’t any decent local jobs for young graduates.
It’s partly because every day a fresh batch of vacancies for teachers appears on Universal Jobmatch and elsewhere. About a month ago I put a status on Facebook, pointing this out, and asking whether teaching was really that bad. I got a number of replies from my friends in the profession, and opinions seemed to be split roughly down the middle.
It’s partly because a lot of my friends think I’d make a good teacher – or (as a couple of them have said) a good lecturer.
Well, that isn’t going to happen any time soon. Only last week I heard back from a training provider in Merthyr Tydfil who offer a City & Guilds qualification in adult education. I’d spoken to their rep at a careers fair a few weeks earlier, and told her that I’d been looking into doing PTLSS (the previous qualification) via Janis and Grace, some friends of mine. (Unfortunately, their company folded a few months ago, so the idea had run out of steam.) The Merthyr-based provider is running the course over six weeks, starting next week – and it’s a snip at £450!
I emailed back, saying that £45 would just about break me, and ten times that is utterly beyond me. If you’ve ever wondered why the teaching profession (and the adult education sector) is increasingly populated by nice middle-class boys and girls, that might give you some idea of the reason. As with so many careers these days, it’s increasingly becoming the preserve of the well-heeled, or those with unlimited borrowing facilities from the Bank Of Mum And Dad while they’re studying.
Finally, though, I’m writing this because an old friend of mine has announced that she’s quitting teaching. She’s a few years younger than me, and has taught in primary schools for some years now. After my most recent bout of depression, she told me that she’s been battling the Black Dog for a while too. You can only take so much before you give way under the strain. In her own words, posted on Facebook this morning:
‘I love children and I love teaching. I didn’t want to leave teaching but the workload is unmanageable. My hat’s off to all you teachers that keep going. I know it’s a struggle and an uphill battle. But I’m done x’
I don’t blame her for a minute, now that I’ve explored my own thoughts on the subject. She’ll be a great loss to teaching, especially when I consider how much she’s put into her career over the years. However, I’m sure she’ll find something equally fulfilling and less stressful to occupy her time. I wish her all the best of luck for the future.
Goodbye Ms S. Hæc olim meminisse juvabit. I need not, I hope, translate.

That Don’t Impress Me Much

In which The Author bursts someone’s bubble

Yesterday the rain managed to hold off all afternoon, so I decided to walk home through Aberdare Park. It was approaching four o’clock, and small groups of teenagers from the new ‘community school’ were making their way towards town.
‘Now hang on just a minute,’ I hear you think. ‘Isn’t the new community school just outside the town centre? Surely, if they were heading home they’d have been going in the same direction as you?’
Well, yes, in a manner of speaking that’s true – except that the new school wasn’t completed on schedule. It didn’t surprise me one bit. I’ve said for a long time that the last building project in this country to be completed on time and on budget was Stonehenge. It came as no surprise to anyone else, apart from the education authority, of course.
Having prematurely closed the three schools which were due to be amalgamated into the new super-school, RCTCBC had little choice but to reopen some of the existing buildings at the start of September. (They couldn’t reopen the Lower Girls’ School, of course, because they’d sold that off during the summer, as I told you in Last Chance to See…?) Staff and pupils alike are currently spread over three sites a couple miles apart, and it seems that a great deal of the school day is spent in simply getting from one to the other. Depending on whom you believe, the new building will either be completed by Xmas, or by next Easter, or in time for the start of the 2015-2016 academic year. I’ll try and keep you posted.
Anyway, I was on the slight incline between the lower gates and the Industry Statue, heading for the middle gates.
Gratuitous Industry Statue photo to compensate for lack of photos this week
Gratuitous Industry Statue photo to compensate for the lack of pictures this week
At the same time, three teenage lads in school uniform were coming the opposite way. They were talking among themselves, and one of them deliberately broke off from his mates and walked towards me. I don’t know why, but I was instinctively braced for trouble. However, I was wrong. Instead, he pretended to accidentally drop something from his pocket and it landed on the tarmac between us.
At the same time the lad said, quite loudly, ‘Oh no, my drugs!’
I glanced at it before walking on; it was a miniature Ziploc bag containing a small amount of some green substance.
I was out of earshot before his mates were able to reply. I didn’t bother to look back, either, so I don’t know what happened next.
I can only assume that this kid, on seeing a fairly long-haired old hippy type walking towards him, had decided that he’d earn some kudos by openly displaying his stash in public.
Well, if he should happen to read this, I’m addressing this next bit directly to him:
I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I was incredibly unimpressed by your whole act. For one thing, you need to develop your sleight of hand a bit. Anyone who saw it could tell that your ‘dropping’ of your stash was anything but an accident. Also, your shocked tones at realising you’d ‘dropped’ it might have worked in a school nativity show, or maybe an am-dram production of a Frank Vickery play, but you really need to work on your delivery before it sounds convincing.
Furthermore, when you’re a little bit older you’ll have to be a bit more circumspect about the whole possession schtick. You’ll soon learn that you shouldn’t advertise the fact that you’re carrying anything in public, in case you get stopped and searched. You certainly won’t produce your stash in front of a total stranger, who might well be an undercover copper or a police informer.
Most importantly, when you get older, and after you’ve spent a bit of time with the sort of people I used to hang around with, you’ll discover that a little bit of green really doesn’t count for anything. The big boys and girls – the sort of heavy people whom you’ll eventually come into contact with – will just laugh at your pathetic, trivial, infantile first steps into the world of drugs.
I’m talking about the sort of people who’d smoke your little stash for breakfast and then send you on your way. I’m talking about people who will take all your pocket money in return for a little bit of dope, make you run errands for them so that you’re ‘obliged’ to them, and eventually set you on the road to small-scale dealing. You might have some minor run-ins with the law, and maybe gain some ‘respect’ from your wannabe gangsta mates, but that’s as far up the ladder as you’ll get. It’s only the big boys and girls who get to live in the big houses, drive the expensive cars, and set up the front businesses to launder their takings.
You, on the other hand, will have to mix with the worst sort of lowlife, the ones who take every prescribed and non-prescribed substance known to humanity, because they think it’s a ‘cool’ way to spend their time. I’m talking about people who will do literally anything for money, just to feed their habits. I’m talking about people who become so desperate for their next hit that they’ll steal anything that isn’t nailed down, betray the trust of their families and friends, and end up in a sad, socially-isolated circle of junkie mates.
I’m talking about people who don’t usually make it to my age. Their lives tend to run out pretty quickly once they get into that pattern of existence. It’s unusual to meet a smackhead much past the age of forty, believe me. By the time they’re in their thirties, their bodies are pretty much washed up. Even the ones who manage to steer clear of the hard stuff aren’t always safe. I’ve seen friends of mine lose their sanity by playing with forces they don’t understand. By contrast, I fully intend to live well into my eighties, or even longer, and keep my mind in gear for as long as I possibly can.
So, little boy, I hope you now understand why I didn’t pay any heed to your pathetic attention-seeking behaviour yesterday. I’ve lived far too long, seen far too many things, and seen too many people whom I used to know fall by the wayside, to be impressed by your little baggie. Please keep it to yourself from now on – or I’ll acquaint you with another meaning of the word ‘grass.’ When I do, try to think of it as just an interesting form of extra-mural education for the weak-minded.