How I learned the truth about teaching

Spending two weeks at the coalface brings home to me the huge impact on teachers of changes in educational policy
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The Independent Online

There is something surreal about turning on the car radio on the way to work in the morning and hearing your profession picked over by politicians, experts, pundits and broadcasters

There is something surreal about turning on the car radio on the way to work in the morning and hearing your profession picked over by politicians, experts, pundits and broadcasters. I have an inkling of how one of Britain's most under-valued and poorly paid group of professionals must feel this morning because I've spent the past two weeks participating in a bold television experiment. As part of my policy to fight the ageing process by learning a new skill every few months, I agreed to be trained and then work full time as a primary school teacher.

I write this in a room strewn with paper, text books, lesson planning notes, files, diagrams, worksheets and other teaching aids, not to mention health and safety guidelines, letters to fill in when someone bumps their head in the playground, and a long printout of information about Hindu festivals which I have to turn into a gripping 45-minute talk to restless eight- and nine-year-olds by this afternoon. I have not arrived at work any day with less than three bags of this stuff, as I struggle to master the intricacies of the curriculum and all its associated activities. My day seems to start at 8am and involve homework every night.

What you teach and how you test schoolwork is a hot subject. This week, the charity Teach First has placed 20 people from politics and the media to teach for a day in a London school - their aim is to attract more graduates into a profession that has had more investigations, strategies and targets lobbed at it than almost any other.

The fruit of my labours at Abbey Meadows community primary school, in a working class area on the outskirts of Cambridge, will be shown as a three-week series on Five early next year. I am sure that the documentaries will attract a healthy audience, just as did the programme in which Clare Short taught in a secondary school. They will be watched, not because of my extraordinary pulling power as a television icon but because everyone in the country seems to have an opinion about education.

This week, Mike Tomlinson unveiled his long-awaited report on secondary education, and proposed a new series of four diplomas launched over the next 10 years instead of GCSE and A-levels. He also outlined more vocational courses for the non-academic, and higher levels for the cleverest students. The new diploma would have a level 2 for GCSEs and 3 for A-levels, which would have three further grades at the very top level, from A to A++.

Then the School Standards minister David Miliband popped up and said (as Mr Blair has also emphasised) that whatever changes are made, GCSEs and A-levels will remain. The Conservatives quickly pronounced that if A-levels were to be scrapped, they would reinstate them when they came to power. Yesterday, we were told Charles Clarke is pushing his new Education Bill through Parliament, to make sure it's law before a 2005 election. This five-year plan sets school funding linked to pupil numbers.

Confused? It makes last week's political row over pensions, with all its concomitant jargon, seem crystal clear! Once again, education, which is at the absolute heart of our society, has become a political football as two parties, both keen to impress dithering and disgruntled voters, seek to control the game.

Spending the past two weeks at the coalface has brought home to me just how huge the impact of succeeding changes in educational policy has been for the people we expect to enact them - teachers. Not only do teachers get a rubbish press, but everyone from MPs to parents thinks they should be telling them how to do their job, and insisting on inspections, tests and targets to police them every step of the way.

A serial killer probably faces fewer interviews and less "observation" than a primary school teacher. No wonder no one is rushing to join the profession, and supply teachers are being parachuted in from all over the world. I applaud the initiative of charities like Teach First, but let's be realistic: only the truly committed would opt for a job in a classroom. You spend years training and then get paid less than a train driver on the London Underground. It's a no-brainer.

It's funny how keen parents are to hand over to teachers every basic aspect of parenting that they have decided to opt out of instilling in their offspring. From holding a conversation, reading quietly, basic manners, and the use of the please and thank you words. Sometimes I wonder why many people do have children, when they pay so little attention to them. Surely a pet would have been a cheaper option?

Every morning, I have had to enact a ritual in the classroom in which the challenge of holding a child's undivided attention is paramount. It starts with the simple task of reading the register and continues through the literacy and numeracy hours, both rigidly structured. I have to tell my class what our lesson objective is, and then, by all sorts of devices, from communal work to individual tasks, we try and achieve it. If I raise my voice, I am deemed to have failed. And this is in a class of just 28, whereas I spent my primary school days in classes of 40. Stretching the cleverest while engaging the slowest is more difficult than conducting any symphony orchestra, I assure you.

I am not enough of an expert to comment on the intricacies of the curriculum I am teaching, but without an even more lowly paid classroom assistant to help me with the organisation of charts and books, who sits and helps the slowest half dozen or so, I would be sunk. But when I teach eight-year-olds about poetry or drama, it is all rewarding and fun. Science is a hoot, with a giant amount of mess as we make solids from custard powder to coffee dissolve in water.

It is plain that a teacher cannot replace a parent, but before the actual task of learning can start many children require an intense amount of time and effort to even be able to sit and work on one task alone. They lack confidence, crave your approval, and are a joy to know. But, given that teachers these days spend more time with many children than either of their parents, and are carrying out tasks parents can't be bothered to do, shouldn't all the political parties try to unite in the essential task of supporting the profession?

There is a very strong case for removing education from party politics - can't we sit around a table and agree on what we want to teach children and what qualifications we want them to have? It's about skills needed for a changing job market at the end of the day. It's also about equipping our children to function in the world, play a responsible part in it, and be decent to others.

The sooner the Department for Education is set up as a publicly funded body staffed by the best and the brightest in the land, regardless of their political allegiance, the better. As a result, teachers would be properly recompensed and the job would be correctly valued. The various merits of examination systems would be introduced and integrated in a cool, transparent and acceptable way, unfettered by parliamentary bickering.

Is it really so unthinkable and radical to want the absolute best for children, even if it means that we have to grow up a bit and let go of our old-fashioned preconceptions?