Carnegie Education

Forty-one years in Primary Education 1978-2019

Dr Chris Ford, Course Director for Undergraduate Primary Teacher Education, looks back on his experiences in primary teaching.

Children in primary school

Monday 4th September 1978. Nine in the morning. Children filed in to meet their new teacher. This class of 7-11 year-olds was, in effect, the entire ‘junior department’ of a newly built open-plan school. Quite a responsibility to trust to a young teacher in his Probationary Year. (Not sure, in later years as a Headteacher myself, that I would have deployed quite like that, but that’s how it was.) Lesson-planning done; displays around the ‘base’ completed. All ready!

Five past nine; register taken, introductions made. So far, so good. Then, two children turned up with a second register and a Tupperware container. The Dinner Register: I hadn’t a clue what to do. It had taken three years to get me trained and five minutes in the classroom for it all to fall apart!

NQTs of today, take heart! The ‘disasters’ that will befall you in those opening weeks aren’t disasters at all. Ride them out. Learn quickly. Laugh a lot (especially at yourself). Enjoy the amazing experience of young children discovering the world around them and within them. So long as they stay at the centre of your thinking, your own self-doubts are insignificant. After all, you came into teaching for them. That’s why your hard-earned professional development; your own ideology; your own theoretical understandings matter so much. Treasure them. Build on them.

My own initial training was undertaken in the context of a shifting society. The Sex Discrimination Act (1975), the Race Discrimination Act (1976) and the Warnock Report (1978) propelled us all into a career-long agenda of contributing to a more inclusive society. Our schools were places of safety, which would celebrate the worth of every child; where each valued individual would develop self-esteem and personal pride.

Had I retired two years ago, I would have said with confidence that the defining feature of my generation of teachers was not curriculum reform but, rather, our moves towards inclusion and equal opportunities. Then, along came a rush of revelations of institutional prejudice and sexism on a grand scale, dragging in its wake the #MeToo movement of 2017.

Had we failed after all? Straight-forwardly: no. Schools and society are nothing like their 1978 counterparts. The door of opportunity is rightly open for very many more, regardless of sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, ability and age. But education and social reform don’t work on a tick-box ‘job-done’ basis. Great steps forward? Yes. But, job finished? No.

New chasms of challenge, failure and prejudice open up in each generation. Newly Qualified Teachers must lead their pupils to a better place, now, in the 21st century. So, what will be the defining feature of the next 41 years? The scourge of social media? The loneliness of poor mental health? It simply can’t be predicted. So, young teachers, be ready to respond to the need for reform, whatever it might be.

But remember for whom you work. Maybe a final word from the document that inspired my generation a life-time ago will remind you that, whatever you do, whether it be social reform or curriculum change, it will only work if you truly keep children at the centre. In all of my 41 years, no words were ever as true as these: I’m proud to have lived my life by them.

At the heart of the educational process lies the child. No advance in policy, no acquisition of new equipment will have its desired effect unless it is in harmony with the nature of the child; unless it is fundamentally acceptable to [them]. Plowden (1967)

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