Focus: JSP goes back to school

Snakes? Crocodiles? They're a doddle compared to a classroom full of nine-year-olds, writes Janet Street-Porter, who followed her jungle adventures by taking up a far tougher challenge: teaching. This is her frank report (as marked, below, by the pros)
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Teaching is one of the most undervalued professions in this country. That is why I agreed to spend two weeks last autumn in a primary school, working as a supply teacher in charge of a class of 28 children aged between eight and nine.

Teaching is one of the most undervalued professions in this country. That is why I agreed to spend two weeks last autumn in a primary school, working as a supply teacher in charge of a class of 28 children aged between eight and nine.

My pitiful efforts to get to grips with the rigours of the national curriculum, including the rigidly enforced daily numeracy and literacy hours, were filmed by Channel Five for a documentary series which starts this evening.

I knew it would be hard work, but even so, the demands astonished me. Everyone has an opinion on what sort of people we want teachers to be, and on the high standards we expect them to instil into tomorrow's citizens. Primary teachers carry out one of the most demanding jobs going, yet also one that is among the most poorly rewarded.

We expect our primary teachers to be people with high academic qualifications. They have to have the capacity to deal with emotional and behavioural problems, the ability to understand health and safety issues, and the energy of a team of builders. Primary teachers have to work to rigid targets set by the Department for Education and Skills, are continually assessed by inspectors, have to deal with parents with no understanding of what their children are being taught and why, and then run everything from netball clubs to fundraising outside lesson time, constantly emoting positivity and fun.

We expect primary teachers to assume parental tasks: teaching about relationships, sexual behaviour, what constitutes good manners, and how to have a conversation. More and more children live in single-parent homes or in households where both parents work long hours. Meals are not communal affairs, food is consumed on the run, the television dominates the living room and many children are ignored. All the resultant behavioural problems show up in the classroom, where teachers have to provide structure and discipline to children whose lives often would be without it.

I arrived at Abbey Meadows school, located on a housing estate on the outskirts of Cambridge, feeling very anxious, not least because my knowledge of children is confined to spending time with those of my friends. (I have three godchildren, but have always thought my role as godmother was to stick up for youth versus the tyranny of parents, so I'm probably not a role model.) The other two participants in this experiment were the "It" girl socialite Tamara Beckwith, the mother of a teenage daughter, and Shaun Williamson, once Barry in EastEnders, who is married with two small children. We were each assigned to teach different age groups.

I have been in charge of large teams of people, from a BBC programme-making department to editing this paper to running Live TV, so you might say I have some expertise in people skills and organisation. Wrong. Dealing with teams of stroppy journalists or egotistical television producers is no training whatsoever for handling 28 children with short attention spans when you are not allowed to shout or use physical restraints. And, as anyone who saw me on I'm a Celebrity will have noticed, I'm not exactly the most tolerant and understanding of souls.

For someone not at her best first thing in the morning, arriving at 8am was a real challenge. Then there was the fight to get to the photocopier first, because each lesson required 30 copies of all the worksheets and tests my charges would have to complete. Staff room etiquette had to be mastered: not using the wrong mugs, doing the washing-up and not interrupting meetings, for example. The real teachers had their days extended by hours of essential get-togethers to discuss various aspects of their work, from organising trips to allocating meal rotas to interpreting new government targets on marking classwork or teaching IT.

My first few days were spent in a classroom being taught by the ever-patient head, Cliff Knight. He revealed that only 30 per cent of the pupils lived with both their biological parents. Although Cambridge is a centre of academic excellence, Abbey Meadows is situated in one of the 100 poorest areas of Britain. It was considered a "sink" school when he took it over three years ago - now, thanks to the valiant efforts of Cliff and his team, the school is highly regarded and passing its Ofsted inspections with flying colours.

But I discovered that to do this meant that staff had to work long hours running extra-curricular activities and clubs. They could not have managed without the help of even more lowly paid classroom assistants, often mums whose children were pupils, who felt a real commitment to ensuring that working-class kids got a good start in life. And there was another gang of unpaid volunteers, running breakfast clubs and raising funds. All had contributed to rebuilding a chaotic situation, giving the pupils a sense of pride in their school and restoring self-esteem.

All this unpaid and badly paid effort, mostly carried out by busy mothers, made me very cross. Why can't Tony Blair cough up enough resources to pay these people properly? Why does education have to be run as a kind of self-help charity effort? Why does new equipment and new facilities always have to be sponsored by businesses such as supermarkets and food chains, with all the implied strings. Within two hours of arriving at Abbey Meadows it was painfully clear to me that primary education is totally underfunded.

My first coaching - on "managing the classroom" - entailed precise instructions in using body language to gain attention. I had to stand in a place where all my children could see me, not talk over them, wait for a break in their conversation, stare at any behavioural offenders and take command of the situation.

I was never to raise my voice (let alone swear), lowering it when I was cross, relying on silence to restore order. I always had to celebrate any kind of achievement. I had to remember that some children would not normally be spoken to outside school, just issued with orders. So I had to work on the concept of conversation. There was a formal procedure to be followed for persistent bad behaviour, involving putting names on the blackboard, three warnings, then a trip to another class. Mr Knight was the final authority.

I had to learn how to deal with nosebleeds, bee stings and minor cuts. Bumped heads meant a special letter home for the parent or carer. I was given a rota for each day, which seemed to consist of a whole set of sub-rotas, starting with playground duty at 8.45am, then the ritual of leading my class into the building, taking the register and taking the assembly in rotation, not to mention school dinner duty, more play supervision, afternoon register-taking and parent-teacher meetings.

From 9.30 to 10.30 each day I taught numeracy, then, after break, an hour of literacy. The remaining time before lunch was taken up with essay-writing, drama, composition and handwriting. In the afternoon, group activities took place, from reading to art to music to spelling, and PE. I also had to teach science, history and religion - now confusingly called PSHE.

The first thing that struck me was the amount of jargon the teaching profession employs. Most is quite unnecessary and largely generated by the omni- present demands of the DfES. Sometimes in the staff room I felt as if I'd landed on another planet where everything was referred to by initials, always erring on the side of political correctness. No one ever actually fails at anything any more, they just get a different set of grades for their effort.

Sara Medley, whose class I took over, seemed to be at school from 8am to 6pm every weekday, with most evenings spent preparing work for the next day, and weekends researching stuff on the internet for history and geography. Soon my hotel room was full of lesson plan sheets as I followed her example. Every teaching period had the same structure, which started with writing the "lesson objective" on the board. In numeracy it might be "to recognise positions on square grids with numbered lines" or "to recognise four- and five-digit numbers and to be able to read and write numbers up to 10,000".

That was the easy part. The lesson was divided into three parts, with the children grouped according to their ability; the smartest were given more tests to complete during the main part of the hour, and the weakest were supported by a classroom assistant. Holding the attention of a bunch of kids of wildly varying abilities is a challenge. Then there was all the fussing over what colour pens, pencils and rubbers they'd be using and what books or sheets of paper the work would be done on.

I got to dread the moment when they started fighting over rulers and the regular plea of "Please, miss, can I go to the toilet?", a sure sign you've lost the battle.

And so it went on, through science, where my objective was "to show that solids are formed by evaporating liquids" without letting a lot of instant coffee, salt and custard powder coagulate into a huge mess I'd never get cleared up. For religion, or whatever it's called now, I brought in boxes of cakes from the local Asian bakers to fulfil my objective of "understanding what is celebrated at the festival of Diwali".

In history, we used clay to write messages to each other in runic script, as used by Vikings. One super-smart kid, an identical twin, calmly informed me that actually the Vikings had "at least three" different sets of runic alphabets: he loved the subject so much he'd been studying it on his computer at home. Bless.

I was probably at my weakest teaching PE, in which you had to strike a fine balance between chaos and organised activity. The most popular game seemed to be one in which everyone ran around the assembly hall at top speed, and when I shouted "String bean!", jumped up and down on the spot.

I enjoyed taking assembly, when I gave a short talk on the most important word in the language. There was a short pause, filled in by an older boy whispering "buggery", which I chose to ignore, before I announced: "It is sorry", in my most kind, but firm, Mr Knight-approved manner. My chat about how adults never seem to be able to say sorry but need kids to set an example went down well, especially when I said I'd chucked a coffee spoon at the programme researcher the day before and hadn't said sorry for five hours.

At the end, I knew I would never make the grade. We celebrity teachers had to survive for only two weeks, but Cliff Knight, Sara Medley and all the others around Britain are beavering away endlessly to ensure that the children in their care get the best opportunities possible.

The range of subjects taught now is far more thrilling than in my day, and I can see no reason why eight-year-olds can't be taught Spanish or French. I did not even find the rigid structure of numeracy and literacy a drawback. But education is scandalously underfunded. Every parent in the country should attend a day of lessons at their child's primary school, then make their dissatisfaction with how we reward the teaching profession clear at the next election.

A copy of this article was forwarded to the DfES. No minister was available for comment


Amanda Haehner, Croydon, south London

"I don't know why it takes a celebrity to say things teachers always say. 'Underrated' is how we feel. Teaching can be fantastic, but it is now eroded by meaningless tasks and bureaucracy. That can be soul-destroying."

David Angell, Plymstock, Plymouth

"Relating to a class and imparting the wonder of knowledge, that's at the centre of the onion. But there are many other layers around it and it's often difficult to get to because of the rigmaroles of the system."

Hilary Bills, Sandwell, Birmingham

"Parents think teachers work short hours and have wonderful holidays. When I started I just had to teach. Now teachers have to juggle the curriculum and deal with teaching assistants and learning mentors."

Richard Sinfield, Twyford, Berkshire

"Unfortunately, Janet hasn't seen a teacher's joy - to see your students leave more able to make sense of their world, more mature and confident than when they arrived, and know you have played an important part in that."

Snezzy Floyer, Ardingly, West Sussex

"People can expect too much. In some primary schools, the teacher is really the carer. You can become so consumed by the needs of the children that it starts to encroach on your own life."

Rob Worsfold, St George, Bristol

"I am amazed that Janet Street-Porter sums up the lot of primary teachers so succinctly after only a few hours in the job. She has encapsulated so many of the problems that are faced day to day, and everyday."