The Staff Room: an insight into education in the district by Catherine Jackson

Catherine Jackson from Badsworth. New columist for the Pontefract and Castleford Express.'p307a436
Catherine Jackson from Badsworth. New columist for the Pontefract and Castleford Express.'p307a436

The other day I was rather ruefully regretting the absence of Mr Gove. Strange, you may think, for a man so unpopular (maybe too tame an expression?) among the teaching fraternity.

It wasn’t because I approved of the apparently senseless changes and ‘improvements’ he was making. No, it was because I was missing having something to write about.

Mr Gove, the former education secretary, I was going to tell you, had never been a teacher. His policies came from his own ‘wise ideas’ and from the ‘experts’. Yes, we need experts, I would have said. They are vital, but we also need those who are at the chalk face, those who know what it is really like to teach, day in and day out.

I had looked forward to writing about the ridiculousness of not being able to teach American literature, that our children would miss out on the likes of Steinbeck, Hemingway, Harper Lee, F Scott Fitzgerald and Arthur Miller. They would miss out entirely on a wealth of writing, styles, themes and ideas.

I was going to offer the idea that Mr Gove was perhaps jumping on the bandwagon of another political party which seems to be gaining some substantial headway at the moment – a party which has gained from the desertion of some of his colleagues and which seems to focus on Britain being best in everything. I wanted to talk about the problems of being too insular in our approach to the education of our children and the wider benefits gained from reading about other cultures, by writers from those other cultures. As teachers, we have been encouraged to do this for many years. I wanted to say that we must be allowed to have some sort of choice over our texts and authors in order to teach according to the strengths and weaknesses of our own pupils.

Where was I going to find such rich material from here on in? The man who turned many a quiet opinion-less teacher into a strongly opinionated one, had been ‘asked to step aside’?

It is rather interesting that the new education secretary, Nicky Morgan, who is also minister for women and equalities, an MP since 2010, has been noticeably quiet since she took office earlier this year.

It makes you wonder whether she has been told to keep her head down and avoid rocking the boat so that screaming headlines do not jump out at us all and unite the teaching profession in outrage.

With huge changes about to be brought in, and already being implemented, I think she is very wise. A shake up from time to time is probably not a bad thing, but certainly not all the time.

Well, back to my concerns about where my new material was going to come from. It seems I need not have feared. Very recently, shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt said a public oath, a sort of Hippocratic Oath, for teachers, would reinforce the “moral calling and the noble profession of teaching”.

The idea of the oath was modelled on a system in Singapore, an education system which, incidentally, is completely different from our own.

Needless to say, this did prompt some lively mockery on Twitter. “I promise to fall asleep before 8 every evening and never see the end of any film”, said one. “I pledge to work 60 hour weeks before I’m forced out with complete exhaustion”, said another.

I can certainly understand the desire of Mr Hunt to raise the status of teaching in this country, but as one observer stated, that has to start with the government, rather than the teachers. A colleague of mine said they thought it was ‘simply a gimmick and very, very disappointing that this is the best Mr Hunt could come up with.’

Then, just last week, just when everything was calm and quiet, came another little gem, a nugget of gold. We were told we all needed to check the teeth of our pupils. So in and amongst ‘Macbeth’, or working on spelling and punctuation, I shall be pausing to make sure teeth are sparkling and clean.

‘When shall we three meet again…?’ Hold on children, just let me check your teeth for decay. Open wide and toothpaste out.’

‘In thunder, lightning or in rain…’ I am, of course, being flippant – this is a suggestion for primary age children – but really? In the words of RC Sherriff, who wrote ‘Journey’s End’, ‘It all seems rather silly, doesn’t it?’