'Let kids leave school at 14 and work'

Peter Inson was as an East Anglian farmer before he discovered the thrills of teaching English - despite having failed Eng Lit as a boy! Now retired to rural Essex, he's got strong views about where we're going wrong in schools.

Steven Russell

Peter Inson was as an East Anglian farmer before he discovered the thrills of teaching English - despite having failed Eng Lit as a boy! Now retired to rural Essex, he's got strong views about where we're going wrong in schools. Steven Russell met him

MY wife tells me I can sound a bit like Victor Meldrew if I'm not careful, grins Peter Inson.

You can see why. After three decades or so teaching English in secondary schools - both state-run and private, in England and abroad - he's got firm views about education and Britain's confused view of children.

His pithy articles on where we're going wrong - and sometimes what we're doing right - grace the pages of national newspapers and The Times Education Supplement; and doubtless spark many a passionate staffroom discussion.

One of his ideas, for instance, would see the control of secondary schools placed firmly in the hands of parents and teachers. To secure a place for their child, parents would have to agree to serve as governors, if selected in a ballot. His blueprint would spread more of the private school ethos about respect and expectation around the state sector, he reckons, with family-on-family peer pressure helping deal with any youngsters wrecking other children's education.

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And then there's the interviewing of parents as part of the pupil selection process. He's all for it. Not so that schools can cream off the gifted and close the doors to the below-average, but because it establishes a bond of understanding and trust between staff and home. The interview would make sure parents and school shared similar philosophies and aims.

He was annoyed a couple of years ago when Mr Blair proposed outlawing the interviewing of pupils as part of school selection - to, says Peter, appease his left-wingers.

The London Oratory, a voluntary-aided school to which the Blairs have sent some of their children, used to interview parents and offspring. Moves towards a blanket ban were thus hypocritical: what was good enough for the masses was not good enough for the PM's family.

Presumably those dissenting left-wingers felt interviews were about establishing a family's wealth and influence: essentially, how the parents could benefit the school?

“It's a very useful red herring. It does happen occasionally; schools are foolish if they do it.”

Peter says getting the relationship between home and school off on the right footing is over-riding and crucial. The Oratory's web site puts great faith by it, stating “The school, its pupils and their parents should feel confident that the aims, attitudes, expectations and values of the school and the home are in harmony and that there is a covenant of obligation and respect between all three parties. Trust and responsibility are central to the relationship.”

Peter emphasises: “I know what drives parents into independent schools. They might talk about academic standards, but what they're really concerned about is that their children won't have their time and motivation wasted because there are children in the school who are indifferent and hostile, or whose parents are indifferent and hostile.”

He rages at the way we seem to accept, in state schools, pupils who bully, cheat, lie, steal and disrupt classes to the detriment of those wanting to learn.

No private school would tolerate such damaging distractions. Learning is cherished; teachers are there to teach, not to control a crowd. It's this united attitude, rather than superhuman powers or amazing teaching techniques known only to them, that allows staff to succeed in private schools, argues Peter.

Nearly a decade ago he spent two terms at Merchant Taylors' in Northwood, London: “a pukka public school”. Every pupil knew that teachers - and other adults, come to that - were there to help, guide, encourage, correct and, if it came to it, tick them off. He would walk into an upper-sixth class “and it was as if there was a vacuum there. Instead of me trying to quell a riot, if I didn't start teaching straight away there would be puzzled looks. It was work first and the chatter came later, when it was appropriate to relax”.

It's not about money per se, he says, telling a story about the metal lockers at Merchant Taylors' School, which was built in 1936. Old lockers are still in service because they've been respected and cared for. At the London secondary school where he was head, however, they had to budget to replace a quarter of their sixth-formers' lockers each year, simply because they would be deliberately or unthinkingly damaged, or forced open because someone had lost a key.

“You amortise anything over 60 years and you see why independent schools appear to be better off. They're not forever replacing stuff that's been destroyed.”

Britain seems to have a particular problem, he thinks. “We have a significant number of parents bringing children into the world without having an inkling of what's expected of them as parents. It's 20 minutes to make a baby; it's 20 years, minimum, to bring up another human being.”

Society focuses on people's rights - if I want to have a child I will - but we've lost the sense that we must take responsibility for the consequences of our actions.

If it were down to Peter, he'd make parents stand alongside their children when they appear in court - not to be charged themselves, but “to give some account of their stewardship of this other human being and to offer their help if they can give any help”.

And the parents of youngsters frequently getting into trouble should pay a small extra sum in tax, or have a portion of their benefits kept back, to help meet the cost to society. Both measures would focus minds on the roles and responsibilities of a mother and father.

Peter thinks the rot set in from the 1960s. Political satire rightly attacked the Establishment's hypocrisies, but after sweeping away the old morality - an awareness of what other people thought of you - “we didn't put anything in its place”. Now we have the cult of individualism.

Also doing damage is an increasing trend to see people as objects: “Things to be laughed at, mocked, ridiculed”. Some TV shows do that; and then we've got children filming assaults on mobile phones.

One of Peter's remedies would allow pupils to leave school at 14.

“I wouldn't want them leaving in large numbers, but for those for whom school is particularly irksome I would say: 'It's not doing you any good and it's harming other people. If you go out into the world, you might just learn enough to realise that education might be a good thing, and you can learn for yourself: you can go back to it later.”

For some, a chance to be with adults and learn the discipline of the workplace would be better than being in a classroom with lots of other disaffected teenagers. Those who opt out of school but fail to find an alternative role would remain the responsibility of their parents.

Schools would thus become places for those pupils prepared and able to learn.

A teenager in a real job should enjoy a sense of shared purpose and feel their self-esteem rise as they see their efforts making an impact.

Those who would decry his idea should, says the former head teacher, remember the cost of failure: many thousands of pounds a year to keep a child in care, for instance, and the possibilities of teenage parenthood, unemployment and jail.

He tells the story of one bored troublemaker, then 15, who wangled a spell of work experience by fibbing about his age. He worked for three days a week - with his parents' blessing - and, finally, virtually full-time. Charlie's now 18 and a decent young adult.

In the days before schools were gripped by paranoia, staff could turn a blind eye to older pupils going off to do seasonal work on farms or at agricultural shows. It was clearly an important step towards the world of full-time work.

Peter wouldn't care to be a 21st Century teen. There's too much to deal with: inadequate home backgrounds, pressure from other disgruntled youngsters, insidious advertising targeting children virtually from the cradle and promoting unsustainable lifestyles, and pressure to succeed in life before they even leave school.

It's a theme he explores in his self-published novel dunno, which he wrote while working at an international boarding school in Switzerland and launched in 2004 by giving away free copies on the Underground.

Now that he and wife Jean have returned to their native Essex, he's aiming to relaunch the book and perhaps catch the eye of a mainstream publisher. Peter feels the issues grow increasingly relevant.

The tale is about a disaffected 15-year-old trapped in a miserable existence: money is hard to come by and there's grief from bullies, teachers, the police, his mum and her violent boyfriend.

Then, by chance, Jon meets some adults who help him see things differently and take control of his life.

One London magistrate who read the book by chance said she was “putting a copy into the Retiring Rooms at both the Youth Court and Family Court where I sit as I think all magistrates who deal with young people would benefit from reading it”.

Peter laughs as he describes how his “sort of Genghis Khan approach to the business of parenthood” is balanced by being “perhaps a soft liberal” as far as teenagers themselves are concerned. “I do meet lots of younger people who fill me with hope for the future,” he insists. It's just those meddling adults who tend to mess things up . . .

Peter Inson is signing copies of dunno at Waterstones' Culver Square store in Colchester on Saturday, May 31, from 10am.

What do you think needs to happen to make schools better? Write to Letters, East Anglian Daily Times, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN.

TEACHING is the best job in the world, reckons Peter Inson - but he didn't go into it straight from school. In fact, his heart lay in agriculture.

Born in 1947, the son of a teacher, he grew up in Seven Kings and then the Romford area. That corner of Essex was - still is, he says - quite agricultural. Young Peter fell in love with farming.

At the age of 15 he found himself milking a small herd of cows, 20-odd, at Collier Row before changing into his uniform and cycling off to grammar school at Wanstead.

Oddly enough, Peter failed only one O-level: English literature! (He'd retake the exam, and pass it, at the age of 26.) He went to agricultural college at Writtle, then farmed pigs and did contract-milking near Chelmsford.

But the early 1970s were difficult times for pig-farming, especially for folk who hadn't inherited a family farm, and Peter got out of the industry in his mid 20s.

Peter trained as a teacher at Brentwood and got a job in Hornchurch, then went to Barking Abbey. Next stop was a deputy head's post in Lancaster, where the seven years there were the best of his career.

Returning south, he became head of a big comprehensive school in west London. The three years there were tiring and demanding, but rewarding. However, there were many changes in the governing body, he says, and at the end it seemed his face didn't fit. Peter admits he felt wretched for a while, and unsure about returning to teaching, but in September 1998 he stood in as head of English at a Buckinghamshire prep school for half a term and he realised it wasn't yet time to leave the classroom.

He taught for short spells at other independent schools. Then, out of the blue, came the job of head of English at Le Rosey, a bilingual boarding school by Lake Geneva.

Pupils were invariably from affluent backgrounds. Once, a girl came back to school from Geneva in a taxi, saw a fellow student had bought the same ballgown, and promptly took a taxi back to the city to buy a replacement dress.

Peter was there five years, returning to England in 2004 and doing some supply teaching. A cash award from the Arts Council allowed him to develop his writing, and he also marks International Baccalauréate papers.

He and his wife have two grown-up children - a daughter working for Christian Aid in London and a son who is a freelance sports journalist in Rome.

The couple moved to Mersea Island, near Colchester, last October. Jean knew the area as a child and her parents had retired to the area. Both were happy to swap London for rural calm.

“Where we lived, you could wake at night and guarantee you would hear a siren,” says Peter.

Web link: www.peterinson.net

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