On the road with Estelle Morris

Fast-track teachers, recruitment drives, turbo-charged schools... Stephen Petty asks why education is obsessed with motoring when the best teachers don't necessarily drive the smartest cars
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The Independent Online

It's all about motoring these days. "Fast-track" teachers, "fast-track" 14-year-olds taking the GCSE bypass, rewards for teacher "performance", long recruitment drives down empty lanes. What else might we expect with an "Estelle Morris" at the wheel, a woman whose very name sounds like a cheery family saloon from the 1960s?

In the turbo-charged schools of today, more finely tuned, high-powered new graduate teachers and high-performance older models with a proven track record have been freed up to accelerate past all those other teachers stuck in the slow track – presumably held up in some kind of hideous traffic jam of their own making.

The many motoring analogies are no doubt well-intentioned, yet they are wholly inappropriate. The very best teachers tend to own the very worst of cars – often a howling, flaking and notoriously unreliable beast of a machine. The great teachers have consequently never driven in the "fast track", and all manner of motoring disasters would await any of them who did venture into it.

I generalise, but don't expect those sporting a swish, newish BMW and a sharp suit to be the best teachers; look instead towards those on the staff with jackets ingrained with the grease and grime accumulated from regular excavations under an aged Renault 5 bonnet, or at those with skirts or trouser-seats worn and torn by the daily eye-watering rendezvous between posterior and the protruding seat springs of a 1984 Honda Civic.

The reasons why beaten-up car equals "beacon" teacher are quite obvious. Every time the vehicle triumphantly poops and phuts its way into school, the teacher concerned feels totally relieved and relaxed, ready for anything a mere lesson might throw up after the early-morning shuddering at the wheel.

And faced with the prospect of getting back into the car after school, is it any wonder that the teacher with the under-achieving ignition system is so positive and enthusiastic all the way through the day, more than happy to delay the dreaded return to his miserable charge in the car park by perhaps offering extra tuition after school or helping with a club?

Their whole outlook is positive. Not for them any of that dull, negative talk in the staffroom about troublesome pupils. They endlessly discuss troublesome cars instead. Their talk is of smoke rather than of smokers, headlight crises rather than headlice crises, and no pupil seems quite so incorrigible when compared with this often brutal, unpredictable, and openly disobedient character.

Their car's moodiness helps them to understand problem pupils better, to appreciate that erratic behaviour in humans, as well as in cars, normally stems from a long history of neglect and maltreatment. Years of living in the slower lane themselves means that such teachers have developed advanced skills in patience and a soft touch on the gas pedal, enabling them to keep the slow and sluggish just about working when others would almost certainly head for breakdowns and explosions.

The corroding heap in the car park also serves as a valuable source of levity for teacher and class to indulge in, the teacher good-humouredly absorbing the disparaging comments about the vehicle while politely challenging the pupils about their own materialistic notions of the car as a status symbol. Admittedly, there is the occasional rather demeaning sight of teacher being push-started up and down the car park by mirthful schoolchildren, but it is a small price to pay for the bonding that takes place.

The teacher is a naturally attractive target for dodgy car salesmen. Their children soon make themselves known to the teacher with a "My dad says he can do you a deal on a low-mileage Ford Sierra". One sympathetic class in London went a step further and "provided" their teacher with a BMW, proudly disclosing one morning that they had parked it outside for him. The only drawback was that the keys were still with the real owner.

Teachers who do own smart cars are rarely smart in the classroom. Think of the choice that has been made here. Should he or she be apportioning so much of a modest income on shallow, metallic, motoring ostentation when any surplus money could go instead on inspirational foreign excursions that do so much to add to the personal and professional development, knowledge, well-being and worldly wisdom of the teacher?

The teacher with a wreck of a car who has spent a summer crossing Africa or gambling in Vegas is definitely someone the young will listen to, whereas the smart-car teacher is almost certainly a bore to colleagues and pupils alike. No doubt a couple of his pupils will share smart-car teacher's enthusiasm for the bulbous Jeremy Clarkson culture and "Car Monthly" magazine, but should students be encouraged to go down such a desperately sad road?

So forget the vacuous, motoring-magazine world of "fast track" and "performance" when deciding how to attract and reward the best teachers. Instead, base existing teacher's pay on age and decrepitude of car and draw the talented young into teaching by offering them something like a free old Citroën CV or Ford Anglia. New graduates will enjoy the retro irony of it all, and a few nightmarish years of ownership should give them the kind of perspiration and inspiration needed for wonderful teaching. The way ahead should be clear, but slow.

The writer teaches in Oxfordshire and drives a Ford Fiesta