Lucy Kellaway: why we went back to school
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At about 7am on Monday, 46 middle-aged bankers, lawyers and other miscellaneous professionals will turn up at the school gates for the first day of their new working lives.
In their old jobs they variously had status, power or money. Now they are starting again at the bottom, training to be teachers in what are politely known as “challenging” London secondary schools. They will be earning less than £25,000, have mentors who may be less than half their age, and be so shattered at the end of each day that they will have to crawl home to lie down.
Chris Forsyth, who used to be a partner at Freshfields working in intellectual property law, is viewing Monday with terror. “My son says, ‘You’ll be useless. The kids will walk all over you.’ ”
But he’s not as anxious as I am. I’m worried about my own transformation from pampered columnist to maths teacher — how will I remember 200 names when I can’t remember my own children’s? — but also worried about the other 45 trainees. As this whole mad caper was my idea, I feel responsible for everyone else. Most of all, I am anxious that this experiment works so that more people like us will do it too.
It all started last autumn when Katie Waldegrave, a social entrepreneur, and I set up Now Teach. We were sure there were lots of fiftysomethings who wanted to teach, but no one was seeking them out. Of the 35,000 who started teacher training in the UK last year, almost none of them — a mere 100 — were over 55. Given that teachers, on average, last barely five years in the profession, and given that many driven 50-year-olds will work into their seventies, this makes no sense at all. What is madder still is that the subjects where the teacher shortage is worst — maths, science and languages — are things many of these people are good at.
We raised some money and decided to give it a go. We hoped to find at least eight guinea pigs of a certain age to train in London in the first year, with a view to making Now Teach national in about five years’ time.
As I write this, I am looking at the group photo of the first cohort. There are more of them than we thought possible — and between them they fought off 1,000 others for a place. They aren’t all in their fifties — the youngest is 42 and the oldest 67 — and they aren’t all bankers and lawyers.
I sit in the middle and to my left is Simon Harkin, a former diplomat who won an Ebola medal for his work in Liberia. At the back is Lucy Moore, who was chief executive of a large NHS hospital trust. Next to her in the horn-rimmed glasses is Richard Silverstein, who used to work at Nasa. Basil Comely, former head of Arts at the BBC, is sitting at the front. And somewhere at the back by the window is Kitty Ussher, who was a Labour MP.
Looking at their faces, staring at the camera with the steady assurance that comes to middle-aged professionals, I wonder why on earth are they doing this. And will they be any good at it? Will they — will we — become formidable teachers who will educate children about our subjects — and about the world, too? Or will we be useless at controlling the kids and alienate experienced teachers, only to quit at the first sign of difficulty?
Some observers expect the worst. Since we launched last autumn, 29 documentary film-makers have tried to persuade us to turn Now Teach into television. As reality-TV producers are not generally drawn to things that go smoothly, they are anticipating the tears of former lawyers/derivatives traders and want to capture them for the nation’s enjoyment.
In November I got an email from a woman who left journalism at 50 to train to teach. Within two years she had quit, and has not worked since. She was broken by rioting pupils, shoddy management and rampant box-ticking. She concluded: “Think hard before you play Pied Piper for others to leave jobs to enter a world you presently know nothing of.”
I emailed back to reassure her that we weren’t leading bankers to their death in the classroom — we were only working with excellent schools (mostly run by Ark), where there was no rioting and where the training and management were strong.
Either way, it was too late. My pipe was out, and people were following in great numbers. Within a couple of hours of publishing an article in the FT announcing that I was retraining as a maths teacher and urging bored bankers to come with me, 100 applications had poured in. They all wanted a change from what they were doing. They wanted to be more useful. Among the first was from someone who was ex-Bain (consultancy) and had spent 21 years in investment banking. He wrote: “I’d like to leave something better behind me than richer shareholders and richer partners.”
Disaffected bankers, lawyers and management consultants came in force. But so did doctors, academics, a clergyman, film-makers, police officers, soldiers and athletes. Neither did they all hate the corporate world. Gareth Stephens, who did 30 years in the City, said, “I always loved my work. But I thought, how much time do I have left on the planet? Do I want to go on and on doing the same thing?”
Most of the cohort had something that drew them to teaching — apart from a love of simultaneous equations or the plays of Molière. For some, it was in the blood. They had (like me) a parent, or (again like me) a child who was a teacher. Some had been shocked into it by a bereavement, others had had their own lives changed by education. Phong Dinh, whose family fled to the US from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, was set on a path to law school by the wonderful people who taught him. For a few, the decision was more political than personal. Richard Silverstein was so despairing of the way Britain was going post-Brexit that he decided that the only way of making anything better was through education.
The person who came closest to how I felt was Lara Agnew, a documentary film-maker. “I’ve spent my life commenting on the fabric of society,” she said. “I want to be in the fabric of society, not outside looking on.”
All of them have given up a good deal to do this. One of the bankers told me in a matter-of-fact kind of way that his teaching salary would be 99 per cent less than what he used to make in a good year as a trader.
But this isn’t the case for most of them. One man is borrowing money from an ancient father and others are busying themselves with spreadsheets to work out how to reduce expenditure to their relatively straitened circumstances.
Some of the sacrifices are more idiosyncratic. Every June for a decade, Howard Smith, a former derivatives trader, went on a pilgrimage to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker. This year he came second and left with winnings of about £100,000; next year he won’t be able to go at all — he’ll be teaching probability to 14-year-olds instead.
It was clear from the start — even to my partial eye — that many of the 1,000 applicants were going to be catastrophes in the classroom. One chief executive of a consultancy firm applied, claiming that he had a strong urge to teach. The following day he sent an email withdrawing his application. He had told his wife over supper what he was planning to do. She pointed out the flaw in his scheme: he didn’t like children very much — not even his own.
Many of the applicants had not set foot in a school since they attended one themselves 30 or 40 years earlier, and so were sent off for a week’s immersion. This weeded out all those who had a fond vision of themselves as Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. It also got rid of those unsuited to the rigidity of school life. One man was told to leave after his first day — he had sat at the back of class checking his emails and then proceeded to go to sleep.
But for many others, time in school had the reverse effect. Richard Lewis, a 64-year-old consultant, emailed exultantly: “This is the best fun I have had since I bought my new motorbike . . . and I’ve only been here for four lessons. I want to do this all the time!”
Those who survived the week were put through the same assessment as any 22-year-old entering the profession. I sat in on some of the early interviews, wincing as former corporate titans failed to jump through hoops set out for them by people three decades their junior. A senior partner of a magic circle law firm was asked to think of a time when he had received negative feedback and explain how it had made him feel. This floored him. “Gosh”, he replied. “That’s a hard one. I haven’t received any feedback at all in living memory. It’s me who gives it to others . . . ” He didn’t make it. Lots of others didn’t make it, either — they came over as too arrogant, too inflexible or entirely out of touch.
If getting through the assessment centre was hard, it was easy compared with what generally happened next: a lesson in front of a real class. “I have no problem giving a presentation to 1,000 people, but 30 11-year-olds is another matter,” one candidate told me before proceeding to give a car-crash of a lesson.
My own ordeal in class nearly came unstuck on technology. Having spent the past two decades despising PowerPoint, I was forced to learn how to use it — slides seem to be the backbone of every modern lesson. A 20-minute lesson took me 30 hours to prepare and all might have gone smoothly were it not for the fact that the screen was interactive — I kept inadvertently touching it, and lost control of the slides altogether. The children writhed and giggled, and in the end a teacher took pity on me and marshalled the slides herself.
Getting accepted by a school wasn’t the end of it. There were the government’s Professional Skills Tests to pass, which involved sitting in a grim office building with sleeves rolled up to ensure we weren’t cheating, and proving we could spell “definite” and “exaggerate”.
But the hardest part of all was finding my old O-level certificates. I had no idea where they were or how to get duplicates; I couldn’t even remember the name of the exam board — only that it no longer existed. No one seemed to have a record of a girl in 1975 having taken any exams at all. With no certificates, I couldn’t teach, and it looked as if all was lost until a remarkably patient person from my old school spent a morning in a basement somewhere and eventually came back victorious.
In the end, all of us have passed tests, showed certificates and are ready to go. Privately, I have my hunches about which of us will be best at this. But these are almost certain to be wrong — even experienced headteachers are at a loss when faced with Now Teachers.
Rebecca Curtis, principal at Ark Elvin in Wembley, says: “I’ve never interviewed anyone like this before. They are all articulate, and give interesting responses to questions. But put them in the classroom and they find everything surprising. It is so long since they were at school themselves.”
While most heads have, at least in theory, been keen on the idea of having elderly trainees in their schools, some have been more doubtful. One headteacher explained: “Teaching is exhausting. It’s a young person’s game. I’m afraid people in their fifties won’t be able to hack it.”
This strikes me as not only feeble, but ageist and probably illegal. No one questioned Theresa May’s ability to become prime minister on the grounds that she was 59 — and her days must be even more knackering than those of a trainee teacher. My guess is my generation will be proved to be pretty tough.
If nothing else, we will bring diversity to the staff room, where most teachers are youngish and female. By contrast, we are mostly oldish and two-thirds male — and stick out so much that various trainees were mistaken for Ofsted inspectors at the schools they visited. There is a delicious irony here: these corporate men have been used to being the ruling class all their professional life but now are going to be the persecuted minority. When I pointed this out to one, he looked uncertain for a moment, but then laughed. “Bring it on,” he said.
Last month I visited the Ark teacher training summer school, where most of the group is being trained — alongside much younger trainees. (A minority will be training with me at Mossbourne Community College in Hackney, with a few more at Holland Park School and elsewhere.) I watched the first session in which everyone had to play an ice-breaking game called backpack bingo.
I suppressed my habitual aversion to such pranks, and looked around the room to see the Now Teach trainees obediently shouting “bingo!” along with the younger ones. They were getting on with it. And so must I.
Watching them, I realised what I am giving up to train to be a teacher, as well as income, time and autonomy: a life-long tendency towards cynicism. This has served me well for 32 years as a journalist, but now I fear that it is going to get in the way.
I am still nervous about Monday. I’m sad to be giving up most of my role at Now Teach to become just another trainee. But after a summer putting myself through the new maths GCSE course and trying to do 38 times 27 in my head, one feeling has replaced all the others. I’ve spent long enough talking and writing about becoming a teacher at 58. I want to get started.
Lucy Kellaway appears at the FT Weekend Festival in London on Saturday at 4pm.
Photographs: Julian Germain
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