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Artillery Row

Why I quit teacher training

Perhaps my interview ought to have prepared me: “This is a safe space”

I applied for a teacher training course because, naïve as I was, I wished to teach. I wished to impart knowledge, for in my arrogance I considered myself better qualified than most five-year-olds, and in my ignorance I deemed knowledge a strength. I wished to kindle curiosity, focussing on what unites rather than divides us. I wished for a world in which all children, no matter their background, would receive an excellent education. I may as well admit it: I believed in equality of opportunity. How swiftly the PGCE disabused me of such notions.


Perhaps my interview ought to have prepared me: “This is a safe space where nobody will judge you.” Bath Spa University certainly took an original approach to conducting interviews, and yet, as the nervous candidate, I rather enjoyed not being assessed on my suitability. Maybe the pre-course tasks could have served as a warning instead, Julian is a Mermaid being one of the set texts. Yet as I said, I was naive.

Even the thought of Social Justice Seminars did not much faze me. Having attended a comprehensive (under OFSTED special measures), graduated from Oxford and then spent half a year at a school with high levels of deprivation, I knew so little of the world. I assumed Teaching For Change would address the real inequality in the educational system and the difficulties suffered by working-class children. I thought of the precarious home-life of children I had worked with, children living not merely in material poverty (for that does not preclude emotional support) but without any affection or intellectual stimulation, children for whom as little as a smile and a word of encouragement made such a difference.

The Social Justice lecturer began the series with a Critical Thinking Session, a title I underlined in my notebook, expectant. “Some people say we should treat everyone equally, but they’re wrong because everyone’s different.” Hmm, thought I, perhaps he means that some children are more naturally gifted at, say, mathematics, whereas others require extra help. But since the extra help is offered to all who need it, surely it is still a question of treating people equally? It is still equality of oppor— “EQUALITY OF OUTCOME, NOT OPPORTUNITY”, read the next slide.

We were at liberty to mock Trump, but left-wing figures were a little different

How had I never considered the simple solution to academic inequality: marking up anything below standard. I thought back to the Year 4 boys whose grubby scribbles were miles behind the girls’ synonym-filled swirls. Well, why shouldn’t they get the same mark? Everyone’s a winner. Oh, re-marking was only for girls? Especially black girls. And that reminded the lecturer: “For most of us, saying All Lives Matter is a pretty awful thing, but maybe we should try to understand why people are ignorant enough to say it.” What with all the virtual nodding, I did not dare type my bemusement into the chat.

Perhaps I was a racist. The mere fact that I thought black girls capable of achieving the same academic success as their white and male counterparts, without cheating, positively reeked of racism.

In break-out rooms, we were asked to reflect on our privilege. Misunderstanding, I talked of how grateful I was to have had supportive, well-read parents: while I devoured Jane Austen, many of my peers could barely read, even in Year 11 top-set English. I was interrupted by a privately educated girl who gave us a lecture on her white guilt, until she in turn was interrupted by a lady from Turkey: “It’s a privilege to be here. As a woman in the UK, I have many opportunities now.” Clearly, she had not understood the assignment either.

The British Values module was equally eye-opening. Free speech is crucial to democracy, so we and our pupils were at liberty to mock Trump — in fact, nothing could be braver — but criticising left-wing figures was a little different. I didn’t quite catch the reason, but we should always expect to lose our jobs as a result of hate speech.

Stephen Hawking at least had had the decency to be disabled

Further revelations included: teacher-led learning is harmful; children should not be set based on ability; we should not prioritise standard English; and it was selfish of the Christians to set up the first schools since they were merely looking for converts. “Indoctrination,” said the Marxist lecturer, “has no place in the classroom.” There was much theory, but also some practical advice: Islam is terribly nice, but do avoid getting the children to colour-in the prophet.

In the science seminar, we were asked to list female scientists. Several virtual hands. Black female scientists? One or two. Lesbian black scientists? Disabled, lesbian black scientists? No? Shame on the national curriculum! Newton, Darwin, Einstein, why, they were all straight white men. Stephen Hawking (the star of the next slide) was acceptable; he, at least, had had the decency to be disabled.

After one of the rare training days in the physical realm, I took aside a few of my peers — those whose nods had been slightly less vigorous — and confessed my doubts. It was one thing to change the future, I began, but could one change the past? They smiled sympathetically; it was a lot to take in and we were all limited by our own lived experiences. They even made a concession: banning all of Dickens might be a step too far.

Sometimes I wonder how many children I would have traumatised had I not quit my PGCE. I think of one assignment in particular which marked the trainee teacher on how well he/she/they championed transgenderism in his/her/their classrooms. “We cannot change the laws,” the lecturer told his disciples, “but we can control what happens in our classrooms.”


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