This is the original longer version of my Guardian blog published on 28 August 2014
By 1997, I had completed eleven years as Head of the English Department in a large rural comprehensive school. Overall, I felt pleased by what had been achieved, but I wanted a break from the myriad daily tasks of dealing with colleagues, students and parents, all the while trying to teach my own subject on a virtually full timetable. I also wanted to do something more academically rewarding – such as researching and teaching in a university.
Over the years I had worked in this school, political interference in the curriculum had become an increasing irritant. For many years, we had followed the AQA A level Literature course, which required students to submit eight essays and an extended project on the texts they had read. The students enjoyed the opportunity to research in their own time and to write creatively as well as analytically. It was a pleasure to work with them and to see their writing develop. The unwarranted decision in 1993 to reduce A level coursework to a token 20% was a blow for thousands of teachers and students across the country. Equally disturbing was the development of a culture of targets that positioned teachers merely as operatives in the examination industry and students as figures in league tables. Our students and staff always exceeded our targets, but I often wondered what I would have done if we had consistently missed them.
The breaking point for me was an Ofsted inspection. This had a very different feeling from the HMI visits to which I had become accustomed in my earlier career. HMIs had an air of critical friends who earned teachers’ respect. They would spend an entire period in one classroom, sometimes take part in the lesson, and speak to the teacher at the end. The Ofsted inspectors seemed less able to relate to the teachers and pupils or, indeed, to each other. They had been supplied by agencies working for Ofsted and had not previously worked as a team. They took over the careers suite for a week, temporarily disabling a functioning part of the school. Each morning at 8.00 they assembled, darkly and formally clad, for their briefing by the lead inspector. I had determined to be proactive and to collect examples of students’ work for the inspectors’ scrutiny. On the first morning of the inspection, I approached the careers suite carrying a large red plastic box of exercise books. Through the window I could see fourteen or fifteen people, mostly middle-aged men, sitting around a rectangular arrangement of desks. Several of them had their elbows on the table, fingers together, mirroring the lead inspector’s posture. I felt like a schoolboy outside the staff room, and did not enter. I later found an opportunity to speak to the lead inspector and to give him the sample of student writing. At the end of the week, the English inspector, whose experience was largely in international schools abroad, recommended we try to improve students’ vocabulary – an extraordinarily bland recommendation that was disconnected from any coherent subject pedagogy and showed no recognition of the efforts we made to increase students’ cultural understanding (and thus their vocabulary) by a richly contextual study of literary and media texts. The English department got a good report from the inspectors, but they were formal and distant and I didn’t trust the basis of their assessments.
So it was time to go. My year eleven set – fourteen boys and two girls – told me that I would miss them, which was true. (They had turned to the inspector as I strained to impress and told her: “He’s not usually like this, you know.”) I enrolled as a PhD student at a regional university to undertake a longitudinal study of student literacy. For several years I returned regularly to the school to interview some of my former students about their media use in relation to their everyday lives. After nine years’ work, I gained my doctorate.
The research took nine years because I became very involved in university teaching. I liked the teaching and I needed the money. Initially, teaching small classes (rarely more than 15 students) at undergraduate level was very satisfying. In some ways, though, working in higher education was an opposite experience to school teaching. Whereas school required too many daily contacts and decisions, university required me to do no more than prepare and teach my classes. My colleagues worked and researched at home whenever possible, and there was little of the constant talk about students and education generally that characterises the school staffroom.
One discussion I had fairly frequently, however, was with university colleagues who felt that students coming up from school should have a better grasp of academic writing. I argued that the referenced academic essay is a specific genre that has to be learned in use, and offered to run a weekly essay-writing workshop. Initially intended for Humanities students, over thirteen years this became increasingly popular and was attended by students from across the university. This workshop was the most satisfying aspect of my university teaching: it filled a clear need and was appreciated by the students, and allowed me to work creatively and develop my relationship with them. It also gave me an academic specialism that has resulted in publication and other academic activity.
The least satisfying aspect of my university work was experience of the low status accorded to hourly-paid staff (who do a significant amount of the teaching in many UK universities). I never knew until late in September whether I would be required to teach during the following academic year, and my part-time colleagues and I suffered from not being recognised as full members of staff in various ways, such as our invisibility on the university website. After gaining election to the executive of the local branch of UCU (the lecturers’ union), I tried to ensure that the university offered permanent appointments (as is required by employment law) to lecturers who had worked on temporary contracts for four years or more. The union branch also gained agreement that all lecturers should have access to a desk, phone and computer, and should be represented on the website.
Although I found the transition difficult and initially wished I hadn’t left school teaching, I found my way through academia and created a niche for myself in a way I could not have predicted. In a sense, I didn’t leave teaching – I just changed the context and gave myself scope to develop my academic and professional interests. Any such move must, I think, be taken for positive as well as for negative reasons. It is always best to take the road that offers opportunity.