I'm surprised any children go to school

Whatever happened to that legendary breed of charismatic teacher like Jean Brodie?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It may come as a surprise to teachers and truancy officers that, despite the Government's tough line with parents who allow their children to skive off school, the latest truancy figures are well up on last year's and climbing steadily - but it doesn't surprise me a bit. For the record, last year 696,328 secondary school children skipped half a day of school, 15 times. Most of them said they did it because school is so boring.

It may come as a surprise to teachers and truancy officers that, despite the Government's tough line with parents who allow their children to skive off school, the latest truancy figures are well up on last year's and climbing steadily - but it doesn't surprise me a bit. For the record, last year 696,328 secondary school children skipped half a day of school, 15 times. Most of them said they did it because school is so boring.

I sympathise: I know what they mean. I've given up going to termly parent-teacher meetings for pretty much the same reason. If teachers address their classes with the same weary resignation that they talk to parents about their child's erratic homework, failure to concentrate and predisposition to ask irrelevant questions in geography, the wonder is that any children go to school at all.

Whatever happened to that legendary breed of charismatic teachers like Jean Brodie who inspired her girls to appreciate art and poetry and go off to fight in the Spanish Civil War - admittedly on the wrong side, but at least it was better than hanging round Edinburgh. When my oldest daughter was wondering what A-levels to do, I went to the obligatory parents' meeting to meet her potential teachers. Afterwards, I remember telling her that I had no idea what subjects Mrs Von Schlipper taught but, whatever it was, my daughter should learn it because Mrs Von Schlipper was an inexhaustible fount of fascinating information and, even more important, had the ability to disseminate it entertainingly.

Mrs Von Schlipper, it turns out, taught Russian and she is the principal reason, I suppose, that my daughter has gone on to become the BBC's Caucasus correspondent in Azerbaijan which, from a mother's point of view, is not unlike going off to fight in the Spanish Civil War - but that's another story.

I knew immediately Mrs Von Schlipper was a good teacher because, in the space of five minutes, she gave me a blow by blow account of why Russians, to survive (this was 1990), have to adopt split personalities like Jekyll and Hyde. All the parents around me, I recall, were asking the staff whether it was better for their daughters to do all science subjects or demonstrate their intellectual versatility by adding Arabic, say, or history of arts.

Why do Russians have split personalities, I asked Mrs Von Schlipper, a mountain of a woman with room under her coat for a dozen doppelgängers, gimlet eyes, and a harsh foreign accent of indeterminate origin. Communism, Stalin and the secret police, she opined, had forged the Russian personality, forcing the average person to become an anonymous cipher in public, unsmiling, unfeeling and above all unnoticed by authority. It was only when he got home, locked the door, closed the curtains and shut out the world that he became a different creature entirely, a man of unbridled passion and infinite variety, a poet, a philosopher, a prince. Gosh, I said. Five minutes with Mrs Von Schlipper was better than an evening at the Old Vic.

Along with Miss Brodie, Mrs Von Schlipper has become the pedagogic touchstone against which I have measured all teachers since, and I'm bound to say that none of them come up to her standard. Why don't you do geography O-level, it's so easy, I remember saying to one of my sons. "Because Mr B is such a boring old fart,'' he said. "All we do is go on field trips to Dorking and look at hedges.''

Before I'm inundated with grammatically perfect hate mail from the academic fraternity - you know the joke about St Peter being summoned by a knock on the pearly gates. Who is it, he says? "It is I,'' comes a voice on the other side. "Another bloody teacher,'' says St Peter - let me quickly say that I know it isn't the teachers, but the system that's at fault. Teachers don't have time to prepare fascinating lessons any more, they're too busy filling in league tables and assessment forms, and sending out disclaimer forms for parents to sign to exonerate the school from blame should their children fall under a hedge and break their legs on next week's field trip to Dorking.

Three of my daughter's friends who had always wanted to teach took the relevant degrees and courses, and became history, maths and physics mistresses respectively. The most dedicated lasted five years, the other two dropped out after less than three. I believe they're all working in the City now, earning fortunes. They all said that teaching is no longer working with children, it's filling in forms. I learnt nothing at school, but that, I suppose, is because I went to 10. I kept getting expelled, but that again is another story.

Comments