Campus havens, classroom hell 1

November 21, 2003

I'd like to share my experience of teaching in a typical secondary school in response to Tina Brown's article ("Get a job in academe? You must be joking", THES , November 7). In the county in which I taught there are excellent schools, most of which are remnants of the old grammar school system. I, however, worked in one that mopped up those poor souls who were spat out from the selective-school process. As a man of principle, optimistic about human potential and capable of "making a difference", I judged I was that saviour being sought by the government to teach in its schools.

Unlike Brown, though, I came with eight years' experience of teaching chemical engineering in higher education and an MA in the psychology of education. Surely, I reasoned, so equipped, the school, society and I could not fail to benefit? I lasted six weeks, five of which were to appease the headmaster as he searched for a replacement.

My school experiences included challenges to my authority in the most astonishingly creative ways. One pupil urinated intentionally in front of the class, and I was threatened by beatings, sometimes by groups of students. My charges also had conversations that would not be out of place on football terraces and overt play that indicated an astonishingly advanced sexual awareness for 12-year-olds.

Of course, if I had spent several months in this environment, maybe my perceptions would have changed. Such examples may illustrate remarkable progress in our youngsters' linguistic, social and creative development.

What genius it is when a 12-year-old defines a weed as "a drug that grows in an unwanted place".

Behavioural problems are perhaps not too surprising, and should be anticipated by any new teacher. What is surprising, and is a direct challenge to Brown's view about feeble academics, is the relative apathy of teachers to deal with such problems. The attitude in many schools seems to be one of excruciating tolerance, just to maintain student numbers, thus income, and thus jobs.

This, of course, is wrapped up in a self-deceptive blanket of altruism along the lines of "if I could just make a small positive change in their lives, then it's worth it". Meanwhile, the head and deputy head, when not chasing monetary scraps from one fly-by initiative to another, try to maintain an air of control and dignity amid the merry chaos. Yes, the skirts are being pushed up to regions of no-boys' land, and the mud-red blazers are not really intended to complement bright red lipstick, or disguise the blood stains from break-time antics, but we shall have uniforms! Yes, the post-16 centre does smell of urine, cigarettes and, occasionally, vomit and semen, but there will be a post-16 common room! In the meantime, the annual staff-turnover is in double figures and, like fallen soldiers in the heat of battle, there is little time for a memorial service because of the urgent need to replenish the front line with new troops.

To echo Brown, what kind of gutless, self-depreciating, boot-licking apathy does it take to tolerate such a desperate situation? Many of us have survived the comprehensive system and believe it is right for our own children. If I felt that I could make a difference, then I (like many other teachers who started with high ambitions) would have remained.

I shall, of course, miss some of the schoolchildren and am saddened by the thought of what they have to face and the opportunities that they will inevitably miss. But, before you round on academics and the problems facing them Tina Brown, please first look closer to home.

E. Alpay
Imperial College London

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