London Letter: Do we have the wrong idea about teaching and elitism in Northern Ireland?

Cool isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you think of an English public school headmaster, but Anthony Seldon, head of Wellington, and Tony Little, head of Eton, are teetering dangerously close to it being an accurate description.

The old stereotype only goes as far as their plummy voices, or if we’re being pernickety, then Little’s perfectly coiffed moustache deserves a mention.

As an Irish woman from a modest background, I found myself feeling both shocked and surprised at a great deal during The Sunday Times Festival of Education, which was held at the cinematically beautiful Wellington College where each term costs up to almost £10,000.

Perhaps most startling was that these headmasters of posh, elite public schools weren’t quite the stuffy, groaning antiques I imagined them to be.

For many, the idea of elitism carries negative connotations and an inherent unfairness, discrimination or haughtiness. However, Little says that the word ‘elite’ needs to be reclaimed, and that it should be solely about the pursuit of excellence, which he says can only be a good thing. That defence is a hard one to argue with; why should the determination to be great be stifled or interfered with?

And what a jaw dropper to hear that these men happily have teachers in their schools that don’t have PGCEs, when young people are scrambling to get on to courses year on year, believing it’s the only way to teaching success.

Rod Liddle, interviewing Little, suggested that teaching is a career some people turn to when their other options are no longer viable. This would support Seldon and Little’s notion that the best teacher isn’t necessarily the one that has a special qualification; Not when there’s a process in which quite frankly anyone with average ability can complete a course, become qualified and be seen by the system as the right person for the job.

Nowadays it seems that aspiring teachers are examined and overwrought with work just as much as the pupils they will teach in future. Catholic schools in Northern Ireland ideally want teachers who can teach GAA. Why? What if some children in the class are more interested in knitting, golf, mechanics, cooking, netball or film studies? Why should the school pick a specific “extra-curricular” skill to be taught to everyone?

Before they even get into a teacher training college, students are expected to complete an impressive litany of placements which show off their enthusiasm for their career choice. However, mandatory exercises such as these become very much ‘tick the box’ toil as a means to achieving the end goal – getting a much coveted place on a course. However, this is hardly an overly exciting prospect in Northern Ireland when there are reportedly 7500 currently unemployed teachers.

I would bet that other working class people, or those outside the private school system, who heard Seldon and Little speak about this issue would agree that they have a point. How wonderful it must be to have the freedom to look for a great teacher who hasn’t been shaped and manufactured in a production line.

I’d suggest that their ideas about education are less elite and more based in common sense. Plus, how could Seldon express anything other than common sense when he’s mates with Bob Geldof who closed this year’s festival? A scenario which is, in itself, just a tad cool.