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Last Updated: Friday, 28 September 2007, 23:22 GMT 00:22 UK
Books that inspire educationists
By Mike Baker

children with books
Which of them will most influence their perceptions?
I know this is the party conference season and you might have expected some serious political analysis but - hold on! - before you click off to another page let me assure you I am not going there!

Yes, I did consider discussing with you the merits or otherwise of Gordon Brown's pledges on education but, to be honest, we have heard much of it before.

And at this stage in the school year, with memories of the summer holidays fading as fast as the daylight at the end of the school day, we all need a bit of inspiration to get us through to the end of the term.

So I want to talk about the books that have inspired people in education.

I was prompted to do this after being asked to name the book that encouraged me to get involved in education journalism.

The request came from Teachers TV. In association with the National Union of Teachers, it is running a survey asking people to vote for their favourite education books.

At first I was stumped. Was there a book that had inspired me to spend almost two decades writing and broadcasting about matters educational?

I went to the competition website to see what others had nominated.

'Salutary lesson'

It was immediately clear that people involved in education take their vocation very seriously.

Yes, there are a few frivolous ones. For example, someone has nominated Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox, because it "made me smile".

And there are several inspirational novels, not necessarily about schools but usually with a broader theme about learning and childhood.

These include: Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Hard Times by Charles Dickens.

There are also, as you might expect, novels with school settings, like Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

This appealed to one teacher who saw it as "a salutary lesson in both how to captivate children and how power may so easily be abused".

Overwhelmingly, though, the books that have attracted most nominations and votes are serious education manuals.

Getting the B******s To Behave by Sue Cowley presumably does what it says on the tin! It certainly indicates where teachers feel they need help - and I assume the B******s are the pupils not their colleagues.

Nevertheless, it seems a slightly odd choice for an inspirational book.

Brutal prep school

Other top-rated books suggest, reassuringly, that teachers are fascinated by children's minds and their development.

So we have titles such as: Children's Minds, The Hundred Languages of Children, and How Children Learn.

So, what should I choose? After all, despite coming from a family of teachers, I have never picked up a piece of chalk in earnest.

But there is a writer whose portrait of his own schooling has remained indelibly fixed in my memory, ever since reading it at the age of about 14.

It was picture of a brutal, squalid, heartless, private prep school education in the early 20th century.

This almost inspired me to become a teacher

The author was regularly beaten for persistent bed-wetting, something he felt powerless to prevent.

He recalled with great perception what it felt like as a child to be caught up in this adult-run world, recalling "a sense of desolate loneliness and helplessness, of being locked up in a hostile world... where the rules were such that it was not possible for me to keep them".

The mix of clear, hard prose, vividly observed incidents, and unstinting personal involvement encouraged me to read everything I could find by this writer.

Incidentally, it was a 100% coursework alternative to O-level English literature (a bold pre-GCSE experiment by my school) that allowed the time to study this one writer in depth, an experience which was so much more valuable than cramming two or three set texts for the traditional examination.

And it was in his essays and journalism that I found my inspiration. He made me realise the importance of language, not just for literary purposes but also for political freedom.

His descriptions of the distortions of language by politicians, fanatics, and officials illustrated his message: that "if we do not have a strong, clear language then we cannot think clearly and democracy will suffer".

This almost inspired me to become a teacher. Indeed, in my late teenage years I was torn between becoming an English teacher or a journalist.


In either role I would have felt the influence of this writer. This got me thinking about the similarities between journalism and teaching.

At their best, both are about trying to give people the thinking skills and the knowledge to make sense of the world for themselves.

At their worst, they are both about dishing out what my inspirational author, recalling his school history lessons, called "a series of unrelated, unintelligible but - in some way never explained to us - important facts with resounding phrases attached to them".

You may by now have guessed the identity of this author.

The piece about his school days was "Such, such were the joys" and the essay on the importance of language was Politics and the English Language.

He was George Orwell, who was at times both schoolteacher and journalist.

Recently, I had the pleasure of observing a brilliant teacher, taking an English language AS-level class, as he provoked his pupils into ask searching questions about the use of language in books, magazines, and newspapers.

That, I am sure, would have pleased Orwell.

And, while I lacked the commitment or patience to be a teacher, I do hope there may be an element of learning in my chosen trade of journalism.

So my nomination for an inspirational book for those in education is: George Orwell: The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters.

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