Cecilia Townley teaches RS in Surrey. She talks to people on trains.
I remember, on my teaching practice, when I announced I had secured a job at an independent school, and ‘down South’ to boot, some colleagues refused to speak to me. A bit harsh when you’re 21. One colleague declared rather haughtily that she had worked for 18 years in what she described as ‘the roughest part in this city’, serving her time there, before she felt able to upgrade to a nice comprehensive in a smart suburb. But a private school, she almost spat the words at me, she would never countenance.
‘Okay. Did you enjoy your tough school?’, I asked. ‘No. I hated it’, she replied angrily, ‘every minute of it.’
I wanted to tell her I didn’t think teaching should be about serving time; it’s not a prison sentence, it’s a career. I wanted to tell her I was born into that ‘roughest part’, and my parents had their sights set on moving us out of it at their first opportunity.
But I didn’t tell her any of that. In her head, I was posh, snobbish and above myself. I didn’t tell her I wanted to work in a school that worked, and where children wanted to learn, regardless of the sector. I didn’t tell her I thought it was outrageous that sink schools exist in our country, where children go to fail, and teachers have their spirits sapped. It was 1997, Blair promised us a commitment to ‘education, education, education’. I was a first time voter, and it all seemed so possible and hopeful. My own entire education had been under the Tories. I’d never been so optimistic for change for the better. Hell, I was young!
I also didn’t tell her that I was afraid of posh Surrey and wealth and entitlement. I was afraid that my hybrid northern /west midlands accent would be ridiculed, that I wouldn’t have the right clothes, the right connections. I certainly didn’t have the right old school tie. I didn’t tell her that it was the first job I had applied for, and that I had sat in the Headmistress’s office at the interview, as she was offering me the job, trying to tell her twenty reasons why it wouldn’t really be the right place for me.
18 years later I’m still in Surrey and still in the independent sector. Have I sold out? I wonder that. I still vote Labour. But should I work in the maintained sector that I believe in so strongly, and want to be successful for every child? My own children go to state schools, so it’s even more important to me. Private schools’ charitable status remains a contentious issue. I think there’s a lot that independent schools ought to do to justify this status. It’s something I’m working on. Education isn’t a priority in this election as far as I can see, but it should be. It’s still my wish to see every school an excellent school, well disciplined, with well trained teachers, who above all, want to be there. Recruitment is one thing, retention is another.
I’m happy where I am. I love my job, my students, my colleagues. I love the freedom that working in an independent school gives me. I’m not bound by government whims; I like that. I think it’s important that there are independent voices in education, contributing to
the national debate. My school employs a range of teachers from different backgrounds, but all committed to their students. I don’t feel like a token prole! I feel valued. But how do I square working amidst such privilege with my politics? I don’t think it’s a teacher’s place
to be aggressively political. I’m a RS teacher, and likewise, it’s not my place to teach religion in a confessional, catechetical way. But no one teaches in a moral vacuum. I discuss ethical and religious issues every day; I’d like to think that I am a voice that advocates social justice and inclusion and understanding of diversity, from a religious point of view, but also morally, politically and socially. I’m teaching. I hope that’s enough.