James Delingpole

What I learned from teaching at Malvern College

16 March 2013

If those who can do and those who can’t teach, then that must make me a totally useless git for I’ve just had a go at being a schoolmaster and I loved it more than any job I’ve ever done.

I did it at my alma mater Malvern College, where I spent most of last week being a ‘writer in residence’, taking everything from a geography class on (what else?) climate change to an English class at the Downs prep school on ‘How to write the next Harry -Potter’ to a history class in which we tripped merrily from the Cuban missile crisis to the battle of Salamis to the crapness of the service in former East German restaurants in the years following reunification.

Obviously, had I been a full-time teacher I wouldn’t have been able to range so freely. But I don’t think my experience was entirely inauthentic. I got to feel, for example, how utterly absorbing, compelling and demanding it is trying to hold a class’s attention for 50 minutes; and just how incredibly drained it leaves you afterwards. Suddenly I understand why coffee and biscuits in the sanctuary of the staffroom plays such a vital part in teachers’ lives: it’s like the whisky and the Pearl Fishers duet on the gramophone in the dugout where you recover just enough strength to be able to launch yourself over the top once more in periods three and four.


One evening, I tried grabbing a pint with one of the masters (though they’re not called that anymore) who’d been at the school since my day. First it was supposed to be at 8 p.m. — after my lecture entitled Sustainability is Unsustainable. Then it had to be moved till 9.20 because he had to referee one of the inter-house basketball matches. But it didn’t actually happen till closer to ten because one of the boys had his arm ripped out of his socket and we had to wait for the ambulance. This is life as a teacher: full-on, all day, most days, including — if it’s a public school — some weekends, from before morning chapel to beyond lights out. You don’t do it for the long holidays and you certainly don’t do it for the money. You do it because it’s more fulfilling than perhaps any job there is.

What I enjoyed most was the collaborative nature of the enterprise. Journalism is mostly just you and your lonely screen. Teaching, on the other hand, is you and perhaps 20 kids bouncing ideas off one another. At its best, it’s like being the conductor of an orchestra: you’re in charge, you decide the direction of travel, but the music that emerges is only as good as the weakest member of your ensemble.
Which is to say one or two bad players can ruin it for everyone. God knows how teachers cope in sink comprehensives, where I imagine you’re so busy with crowd management there’s no time for anything else. Even in a disciplined, structured environment like Malvern College, it’s hard enough: the challenge being not so much the brighter kids, who are likely to pay attention regardless of how dull you are, but the jokers and the slackers who, if you let them, can destroy the whole class.

I wouldn’t let them — and this was a side of my character I’d never noticed before. As a parent, I’m perfectly useless at discipline: my kids get away with murder. But in a classroom, I’m a man possessed, like I’m on some kind of holy mission: no one is allowed to daydream or whisper conspiratorially or make jokes which aren’t germane to the subject under discussion. We’re in this one together and we’re here to learn.

You don’t necessarily have to achieve this by being a martinet, though. What I found — much to my delight — is that the slackers and jokers can be more a help than a hindrance. You need the jokers to keep the energy levels high and to keep everybody entertained; you use the slackers to bounce off, as for example when one of the swots (there are usually two or three and they’ve always got their hands up) says something especially insightful and it’s gone right over half the class’s head.

‘That was a really good point,’ you say to the swot. Then you turn to the slacker girl at the back who’s giggling with her mates. ‘Maybe you’d like to repeat it for us.’ She can’t, of course, because she wasn’t listening. So having good-naturedly chided her for her inattention — you want to win over the slacker kids, not alienate them — you then return to the swot and invite him to repeat his brilliant point. And you don’t move on from that brilliant point till you’re satisfied that everybody, clever clogs and thicko alike, has got it.

What worries me about our current education system is that such methods are a luxury only teachers in the private system, the grammar schools, and in one or two free schools like Toby Young’s can afford. They’re only possible with a) a strong academic ethos, b) a firm disciplinary structure and c) commitment from pupils and parents. The first two any school ought, with good leadership, be able to manage whether inside or outside the private sector. But I don’t believe the last will ever be fully possible without a radical shift in the way our schools are financed. With education, as with the NHS, our system of having the service free at point of use means that consumers take it too much for granted. I’m a huge admirer of Michael Gove — by far the cleverest and most capable minister in this government — but if he’s ever truly to reform education in this country, it will only be achieved once all parents, in however small a way, are forced to contribute financially to their children’s schooling.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Harris/1201395549 Michael Harris

    I could put JD in charge of some classes in Birmingham schools that would make him doubt his sanity, turn to alcohol, or age prematurely. Of course he realises all this. Teaching in city (esp inner city) schools is a nightmare. That’s the reason that there is still a big shortage of city teachers, despite all those fabulous holidays, and other enticements. Teaching is slavery.We’re all heading for the grave-why speed up the process?

  • kantishna

    Good point about having skin in the game.

    When I was a teaching assistant in grad school I learned that teaching was a lot like coaching. My goal was never to let a student fail. That isn’t possible in most of lower education where some kids don’t want to be there and their parents don’t care. But high standards are always important. I learned quickly that by far most kids know what grade they were going to get in the class when they walk into the classroom for the first time. That realization led me to raise the content of the class dramatically because students will work as hard as they have to to get the grade they expect to get.

  • http://twitter.com/simcloughlin Simon McLoughlin

    The author makes some sweeping generalisations about the UK education system. Having written that he is a product of the private education system, has he formulated his opinions following research carried out in the state sector, or through information provided by Mr Gove’s policy advisors? He is very quick to laud the difficulties of being a “schoolmaster” at a school which charges £30,000+ for tuition, but the challenges faced by teachers in these schools are very different to those in schools in challenging areas. As a teacher in a school whose catchment area encompasses one of the most deprived areas of the UK, I know for certain that paying for education would not change attitudes. Children and parents are excited by engaging and interesting learning opportunities. They appreciate enthusiastic and empathetic teachers. They thrive in a community where learning is valued and where children are happy. Paying for education would lead to a consumer-led system, where these priorities would be abandoned for “customer service” obligations. Education is not a service. It is a right. Rights are free. I look forward to the author’s write-up of his experiences in a thriving, positive, happy and successful state school, where education is free, as it should be.

    • Joshaw

      “Rights are free.”

      In some miraculous way.

    • http://www.facebook.com/michele.keighley Michele Keighley

      Right’a are not free – they are paid for by responsibilities – that you cannot realise that is one of the problems.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Harris/1201395549 Michael Harris

      The point is, you should be free to pay to escape the State system, like politicians do…

  • http://twitter.com/bootleian John Connor

    If good journalism is about objectivity and balance, then I look forward to James’ piece about his experience in an inner city state comprehensive in special measures. I’m not holding my breath, however. Try it in a school where children are used as human shields for their drug-dealing fathers, or act as carers for invalid parents. Let him enthuse them with Dryden and the heptarchy. But what do I know? I’m just an enemy of promise. By the way, anyone who refers to children as “thickos” should never be allowed near a classroom.

  • http://twitter.com/thresholdweller John Glenn

    Gosh, what a splendid article. Please, please follow it up with another where you spend a week in a school that serves an average catchment area. Perhaps, you could also examine the elements which Ofsted would expect to see in a Good or even Outstanding lesson, and reflect on whether these are demonstrated in your lessons. Were all pupils engaged? What learning actually took place? What about different abilities or learning styles?…. This could be the beginning of a wonderful and more socially useful career.

  • beloved2

    Amazing that Delingpole can’t write a tiny article about his experiences teaching at his own school without all these demands that he go and teach somewhere else. He may have a point. What is parental accountability in countries where universal education is a right?

    • http://twitter.com/thresholdweller John Glenn

      I have no problem with James Delingpole writing an article about talking to children for a week at his old school. However, he appears to be making generalisations from this experience about the school system and education in this country. When he writes “I’m a huge admirer of Michael Gove — by far the cleverest and most
      capable minister in this government — but if he’s ever truly to reform
      education in this country,……..”, those who are invoved day to day begin to be concerned. One senses that Michael Gove shares James’ views, as well. I loved Michael Gove as a reviewer on Newsnight and he can speak entertainingly, but he makes decisions based on his narrow experience, which result in others having to spend time, energy and money untangling.

      • beloved2

        Dear John. James Delingpole is not a teacher. He is a journalist who has written a nostalgic article about returning to his old school. He is unlikely to repeat the experience elsewhere. He admires Michael Gove. Ahem. Well he is the Secretary of State for Education who is driving the broadest review of education since 1944. I do understand that his reforms cross many vested interests, perhaps including your own. Nevertheless his ideas are well rooted in educational research and resonate with the views of many parents. Time for less knee jerk protest when someone says something you disagree with and a tad more reflection.

        • http://twitter.com/thresholdweller John Glenn

          I think of Michael Gove as an ideas man who finds nuts and bolts boring. I have been the Chair of Governors of a small Primary School for many years and the nuts and bolts are rather important to me. The practicalities of running things used to concern many in the Conservative Party – pragmatism rather than ideology – but I don’t think that Michael Gove of of that strand. I agree with your last last sentence. Perhaps we could both reflect on that.

        • http://twitter.com/thresholdweller John Glenn
          • beloved2

            I have read it John. Thank you for drawing it you my attention. Along with the teaching unions, some of the designers of teacher training and curriculum development are fiercely opposed to Michael Gove’s reforms. I don’t have a problem with getting children to learn poetry, tables and basic facts by rote. It was the way I learnt myself. I know a good deal more poetry and history then my children who were educated in a more liberal age. I don’t have a problem with academies or free schools, because I quite sincerely believe that in London at least, develoving schools to Local Authorites was a mistake.
            I expecially don’t have a problem with ending automatic increments. If I was in charge I would end the policy for Civil Servants too.The automatic increment has been abolished in private sector pay for at least 30 years. It is a very sad thing to say, but the views of academics who have been controlling ‘the nuts and bolts’ of education in the UK do not impress me any more. Go Gove.

  • http://twitter.com/nightynurse Baz Ryan

    Good God, what a colossal plonker. Beyond parody. Perhaps he might try a week in an ordinary comp full of proles for a really ‘authentic’ experience. I’d pay good money to watch his lessons….

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