Education: School's out for ever: the teachers' story: I'm off to work in Ethiopia now: Sister Patricia Twomey, headmistress of St Vincent's Roman Catholic primary school in Westminster, retiring at 59

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The Independent Online
WHEN I was 19, I entered my order, the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. It isn't a teaching order. We do a bit of everything. I was called one day into the office of our head and more or less told to go into teaching. And if it was what you were told, you thought it must be the right thing.

I was born in Co Cork in Ireland, and my mother had been a teacher in a Birmingham primary. Teaching wasn't entirely new to me - I'd already helped in an open-air school at St Leonards in East Sussex, mostly delicate children from mining areas and cities with asthma and eczema and chest complaints. I'd enjoyed that. So in 1956 I started at teacher-training college in West Wickham.

And then to my first primary school in Mill Hill, north London, where I taught reception class. It was more formal then, and the children simpler altogether, easier to teach. They didn't come from mixed-

up backgrounds, they didn't have as much exposure to the world. You didn't have any of the discipline problems you have now.

Mostly they were English. Maybe two or three black children. I had them in reading groups and made sure I heard each group read aloud each day. We had very little to do with the parents then, which is one of the things I regret.

The priest would come in from the parish to the school, he'd know all the children, they'd all go to Mass on Sundays. I went on to Hull and taught juniors at another parish school called St Vincent's. I loved it there, but those were the days of the 11-plus. You pushed them along - English and maths, intelligence tests - I'd hate to do that again. It was a very narrow approach to teaching and very hard on the children who weren't going to pass. I remember one morning when the 11-plus results came out a mother in absolute despair saying 'That's it - her life is finished.'

After four years I was sent to Edinburgh, St Andrew's primary school in Morningside, then back to Mill Hill, and in between teaching I took a history degree at the University of London.

By 1971 I was teaching in a secondary school in Dundee, which was a big change. The women of Dundee were supposed to be very tough - they worked in the jute factories - and the girls were quite a handful to get to work. Some of the girls were stroppy in Dumfries, too, when I took my first appointment as a primary head at another St Andrew's, a mixed primary with a secondary modern girl's top. 'Twas lovely. Just a small town and all come from the same parish.

Then, in 1979, I came to St Vincent's, Westminster, and for a couple of weeks I didn't know whether I was coming or going. They seemed to be arriving from all corners of the world. We have 191 child-

ren just now from 20 nationalities - South Americans, Africans, Portugese, Polish, Spanish, Filipinos, Asians, and Italians.

There's a much freer approach now. You don't have them reading round the desk and they don't chant tables, though they do learn them. They're typical inner- city children, with a lot of excess energy because they watch television in the evening. They're very chatty. They talk, I think they've lost the art of listening almost, they're lively and enjoyable to teach, though one or two can be quite disturbed, giving verbal abuse, disrupting classes, lashing out at other children - all ways of expressing their anger.

You don't take it for granted any more that they come from practising Catholic homes - the ghetto mentality has disappeared. Eight per cent of the children here are not Catholics - including a few Muslims - and we strive in our teaching of religion not to take it for granted that each child comes from a family with a mummy and a daddy. Children are more accepting of difference in school now.

I'm off to Ethiopia for a couple of months to work with our sisters there. Retiring makes no difference to me, money-

wise; my salary has always gone to my order. (An inner London primary school headteacher would normally receive around pounds 26,000 to pounds 32,000.) Then I will probably do parish work. I've enjoyed teaching very much, and the best of it has been the human contact.