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3. English Teacher

Despite my uncertain start as a teacher, I did after a while get the hang of the job. This enlightenment owed much to the fortunate fact that Vauxhall Manor School was an excellent school. It was a place where a good number of the teachers saw the students — almost all of whom had working-class backgrounds, and many of whom were the children of people who had come to Britain from the Caribbean — not as problems because of who they were and where they’d come from, but as people bringing a complex, diverse cultural and linguistic experience to the school. This experience could, if properly recognised, interact with and enrich the curriculum. I don’t wish to be retrospectively dewy-eyed; there were teachers at the school who had the worst, the most negative, the most cynical view of the children; but they were few. I embraced the school’s overall ethos, and especially the ethos of the English department which I’d joined, immediately and with enthusiasm, and I learnt quickly there because of the friendship and professional support of older colleagues who gave me a sense of the political purpose of what we were doing. We believed that children of whatever background might, with the right encouragement, do things that would amaze us and them. As my friend Stephen Eyers used to say, ‘Anyone may be capable of anything.’ I knew that this was a cause worth serving.

None of this might have happened to me. The woman at County Hall who sent me to Vauxhall Manor on that day in April 1974 might have sent me to many a school which could correctly if cruelly be described as a sink school; there were plenty of them in inner London at the time. If she had, I might not have lasted in teaching beyond a term. I’m grateful to her.

I rapidly discovered that my immediate colleagues at the school were part of a network of like-minded teachers in London and beyond. The ILEA English Centre, the National and the London Associations for the Teaching of English, and the English department at the University of London Institute of Education were the organisational centres of this network of thought, and it was through the exchange of ideas and practices which they sponsored, through reading the books and articles which people there told me about, some of which they had written or were writing themselves, through hearing people talk at meetings and conferences and in pubs and restaurants, that I came to formulate and practise the approach to teaching which I shall try to set down theoretically here.

This approach takes as its starting point belief in and respect for the experience of the learner, an attitude which characterises the work of all the good and great teachers I have known, including my own two great teachers, Peter Hetherington, whom I mentioned in chapter 1 and who taught me when I was a teenager at Bedford Modern School, and Harold Rosen, Professor of English at the Institute of Education, who profoundly influenced me when I began to work in London schools. This belief is not of course to be confused with a sentimental admiration for and tolerance of everything a child says and does, however insignificant, banal or destructive. (Children, as my colleague Terry Minker used to say, bear a remarkable resemblance to human beings, for good and ill.) However, I don’t believe that a person can be even a good teacher, let alone a great teacher, without it.

Belief in and respect for the experience of the learner is more or less the same thing as recognition of the connectedness and wholeness of the cognitive and emotional state and the linguistic competence of the learner. A child who is being bullied at school or who is living with a violent parent will learn less well than a child, similar in other respects, not suffering in that way. A child who is enjoying a book he or she is reading, at the same time as absorbing whatever factual or fictional content the book offers, is gaining insights into grammatical, orthographic and rhetorical structures of written language, whether or not he or she has the metalinguistic terminology to name those structures. A child who senses, even occasionally, the joy of discovery and success in learning at school is agreeing to that extent to give a teacher the benefit of the doubt next time he or she asks the child to undertake a task. The joy of discovery and success has stimulated an appetite for more of the same; has increased in the learner’s mind the probability that more pleasure is available where the first pleasure came from.

These general truths apply to all learners at all times and in all situations. As an English teacher in an urban secondary school, I came gradually to apprehend them, first implicitly and then with increasing analytical focus, by working the territory of children’s growing mastery of spoken and written language. This growing mastery was evidenced in their own stories and poems (oral or written), plays (written, improvised or both), talks, songs, letters, reports, critical essays; and in their developing enthusiasm for books — chiefly books of imaginative literature, whether high art or popular fiction — and, along the way, their admiration for particular authors. This is to put the matter optimistically. I could say the same thing in a more problematic tone, by admitting that I taught many children for whom the phrase ‘growing mastery’ as a description of their classroom work with me would be misleading; ‘struggle to overcome difficulties’ would be more apt. The important thing to recognise is the unity and continuity of effective teaching. I was fortunate in being led to this understanding from almost the beginning of my teaching career, whether I was helping a 15-year-old girl, already a confident reader, to embark on a piece of serious and demanding adult literature for the first time, or giving an 11-year-old girl, who had entered secondary school barely able to write, the intense pleasure of reading out loud to the class a coherent, interesting, properly spelt and punctuated paragraph of her own, and being applauded for doing so. The unity and continuity of effective teaching, as applied to English teaching, has for me its own local set of principles, and they are these.

First, the learning of language is principally but not exclusively an unconscious process. If it were not so, our lives would not be long enough for us to gain even the most rudimentary grasp of the language of our culture and community. Take any department of the scientific study of language; take phonetics or syntax or rhetoric or punctuation. The analytical study of these complex areas exercises the minds of expert and interested adults, whether as writers or readers of books, articles and theses on these subjects, as conference-goers, as members of learned societies. It exercises their minds as a never-ending quest for more sophisticated, more accurate, more elegant ways of grouping and distinguishing like and unlike things in these areas. The quest has been going on for centuries, and rightly, since language is perhaps the greatest of human achievements. Sometimes there are huge revolutions in linguistic science, as in other sciences; sometimes modern linguists make discoveries which they realise are close to discoveries which excited mediaeval or classical scholars.

All this is good. But what about me, sitting on my father’s lap at the age of three, as I describe in chapter 1, taking in — with his essential help — Amphibians of the British Isles? My father, educated man, scientist as he was, had no training as a linguist or a teacher. He would have hesitated if asked to name the grammatical functions of each of the words in the phrases and paragraphs he was reading, though he would have managed some. He could not have discussed with me the discourse structures which meant that the description of the habits and habitat of the natterjack toad was a satisfying, accumulating snowball of meaning as he read it, not simply a collection of disjointed, if true, facts about the beast. If, having read to me the sentence Natterjack toads hibernate in winter., he had stopped to point out that the i in hibernate is pronounced differently from the i in winter because, often but not always, i when followed by a consonant followed by another vowel is pronounced long (pine or mile, but be careful about pigeon, pivot or pity, something different is going on there, those second vowels [apart from the y in pity] are not concluding vowels, that’s the difference, remember that) and, often but not always, i when followed by a double consonant is pronounced short (pill or miss, but be careful about sign or might, something different is going on there, those silent consonants are there for etymological reasons, those are not straightforward sound/symbol correspondences, remember that); if he had been foolish or half-informed enough to do these things, my attention might have wandered.

The principle holds for all areas of language learning, at all stages. However, I wrote a moment ago that the learning of language is principally but not exclusively an unconscious process. Of course there is conscious language learning too, in every learner’s experience, at least in literate societies with formal schooling systems. I remember consciously learning the letters of the alphabet, and then practising writing those letters, in long strings of as, bs and cs, down to zs, across the page. To take a few other examples at random, from different areas of language learning and different stages of development, we may consciously remember being taught what is the ballad form in poetry, the meaning of the terms transitive and intransitive verb, how to set out dialogue and stage directions in a play script, or how to gain the reader’s attention with an arresting first sentence in a ghost story. These random examples might well be small features of a planned curriculum; and I do believe that an organised programme of progressively more demanding encounters with language in a diversity of forms, and of opportunities to use language, spoken and written, in a diversity of forms and for a diversity of purposes, is the right of every school learner. I am not a romantic, in the sense that I don’t believe that any old ragbag of language experiences, haphazardly provided, will serve the learner well, however respectful the teacher may be of the experience the learner brings into the classroom. Every school subject must have its planned curriculum; in the case of English, deciding the content of that curriculum has been contentious, as I shall discuss at a little more length below.

But once the need for a consciously planned curriculum has been fully acknowledged, it remains true that all conscious learning and teaching of language within that curriculum, if it is to be effective, must draw on the immense store of unconscious learning which has already occurred, without which there would be no further conscious learning, no analytical ordering of and detailed focus on parts of that great reality which the immensely powerful human brain, operating the big gears of unconscious apprehension and then generalisation, has already been tangling with.

The second local principle is an extrapolation of the first, and is more briefly put. The most effective way to teach is to show, not tell; or to show, then tell, not the other way round. The learner proceeds from accessible and pleasing models, in everything from early handwriting to composing essays which will be acceptable to A-level examiners, by seeing and internalising how other people have done it, and then doing it for herself or himself, not as an exact copy of others’ achievements, but as a production carrying her or his own signature within the tradition which he or she has joined.

Although, as I said in the description of my childhood in chapter 1, my overall experience of schooling was one of success and ease, there were within it some acute moments of difficulty, as for example in the first term of my first year in the sixth form, trying and failing to write essays about King Lear or A Passage to India, getting grades E and F with depressing regularity, because I had not grasped the curious compositional conventions which were — and to a large extent still are — regarded as the proper way to write about literature. Essentially, these involve the writer assuming a spoof objectivity about the work being discussed, so that he or she actually expresses opinions while appearing to convey received fact. Once my teacher showed me some examples of how it should be done, the E and F grades were transformed immediately into As and Bs. When, a few years later, I came to be teaching A-level English myself, it took me some time with my struggling students to remember to do the same thing. When I did remember, the benefit was immediate.

The third local principle concerns learners who are having difficulty, particularly as readers and/or writers. There has in recent decades been an explosion of interest in and concern for children with what we now call special educational needs. This interest and concern is in itself humane and good. However, with it has come, from some quarters, the desire to pathologise all learners’ difficulties, and — to extend the medical metaphor — to pseudo-scientifically announce a diagnosis and prescribe a treatment, say for any child who has difficulty reading. I willingly and immediately acknowledge that there is a small group of children, intellectually damaged, disabled or unusual in a variety of ways, whose needs are so extreme or specific that the teacher’s approach to their learning will need to be specialist. But there is a much larger group of children who, for reasons likely to be socio-psychological rather than medico-psychological, have not so far in their lives experienced pleasure, success and confidence as readers and/or writers. This lack causes them to resist further encounters with written language, which only bring them despondency, embarrassment and frustration. Children of this kind do not need exceptional, arcane teaching routines, in which elements of language (learned holistically and unconsciously by more successful readers and writers) are first decontextualised and then presented to the struggling learner as repetitive sets, to be apprehended and learned slowly and painfully in the low gears of conscious learning. Children of this kind need more privileged access to the same range of experiences of written language which successful readers and writers have had, in which the high gears are at work, in which the affective, the cognitive and the linguistic areas of the mind are in interactive and mutually supportive operation, engaging with real language and getting the rewards — small to begin with, perhaps, but felt and accumulating — which encounters with real language bring.

This is why, when 11-year-olds supposed not to be readers, having scored abysmally on any of the standardised reading tests which they had attempted, were offered in my and my colleagues’ classes the opportunity to write their own stories, taped or scribed or written themselves and corrected, then typed up and stapled into booklets which became part of the whole class’s reading repertoire, they suddenly showed themselves capable of reading their own booklets at levels far beyond their given ‘reading age’. This is why they then went on to read similar booklets written by others in the class or by children in other classes. This is why, first with help from a teacher or a classmate who was a more confident reader and then independently, they soon began to read printed books, so that before too long, as they said themselves, ‘they could read’.

Mary Warnock, in her famous report on children with special educational needs, estimated that my small group of children with extreme or specific needs constituted about 2% of the total school population, and that my larger group constituted about 18%. I believe these percentages still to be broadly right. Returning finally to the 2%, the specialist approach which I acknowledged to be necessary is likely to consist in the nature of a teacher’s address to the learner, or in the use of technology which is now available to help children with such difficulties; when we come to the actual encounter between a learner’s brain, however damaged, disabled or unusual, and knowledge mediated through language, spoken or written, the 2% is still part of the 100%, not in a universe of its own. Those children need to gain pleasure, to grasp and make meaning, in and from whole, real language, just like the rest of us.

These were and are my three key principles of English teaching. I came to understand them, and then to be able to articulate them, over a period of perhaps three years from my first hapless encounters with children in the summer of 1974. I did this, as I have said, because of the supportive, collegiate, exploratory culture of which I had become a member. I was beginning to apply the principles in the context of the political idea that all children had the right to the same opportunities and experiences which I and my colleagues, most of us products of a selective and sometimes a privileged education, had had ourselves.

I was for seven years a classroom English teacher (five at Vauxhall Manor School and two at Hackney Downs School). During the next eleven years, in various capacities, I was an adviser of teachers, in inner London, in the county of Shropshire, and on two national curriculum-development projects. I helped to run courses and conferences, I gave talks, I wrote, edited and contributed to books and articles about English teaching and the role of language in learning.

Between 1974 and 1979, a group of us at Vauxhall Manor, teachers of a variety of subjects, studied the relationship between language and learning in our classrooms. We were particularly interested in the role of the spoken language in pupils’ learning. We used the technology of the time (reel-to-reel videotape recorders and cassette sound recorders) to collect examples of pupil and teacher talk. These recordings we transcribed and studied. We also studied pupils’ writing, their improvised drama, one girl’s hard-won eventual success in learning to read, the linguistic and dialectal diversity represented in the school’s population and its relationship to the school’s demand for standard English. These studies were typed up and printed as a series of home-made papers. The papers were eventually collected and published in 1982 as a single volume, entitled Becoming our own Experts, with the help of a generous no-interest loan from the Schools Council (a long-dead organisation, later superseded by more bureaucratic, more centrally controlled government agencies in charge of the curriculum). The edition of 4,000 sold out within two years. The publication caused considerable interest and enjoyed a little fame in the worlds of teacher education and educational research for some years, in that it showed that classroom practitioners could reflect productively on their teaching, and teach better as a result. If a group of people in one school could do this, why not a group in any school?

In 2012, my friend and colleague Stephen Eyers and I put the text of Becoming our own Experts onto the internet, at, believing as we did that although much of the content of the book is of its time and place, the spirit of enquiry which it represents, the notion of the teacher as an autonomous self-critical professional, not simply a deliverer to learners of educational content pre-formulated elsewhere, is independent of time and place.

In 1982 I also published The Resources of Classroom Language, some of the content of which is replicated in Becoming our own Experts. It was my individual statement of the importance of paying careful attention to the language interactions in my classroom, and of the benefits of doing so in terms of my effectiveness as a teacher.

At Vauxhall Manor, our group of teachers had been influenced by the wisdom and experience of Rachael Farrar, who was the director of the ILEA Oracy Project. (The term ‘oracy’ had been invented a few years previously by Andrew Wilkinson, to represent for the spoken language what ‘literacy’ represents for the written language.) Rachael later contracted lung cancer, and I was asked to help her, in the time which remained to her, write a report of the project’s work. This we did. It appeared in the same year, 1982, as How Talking is Learning.

In that year too Helen Savva and I published a book for secondary-school students entitled Investigating our Language. It presented aspects of language as a phenomenon (language’s earliest origins, how babies learn to talk, the history of change in English, linguistic and dialectal variety across the world, the relationship between language and power) in terms which, we hoped, fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds would enjoy studying.

Between 1985 and 1987, I worked on the National Writing Project, a government-funded project whose aim was to improve the quality of the teaching of writing in all areas of the curriculum in schools in England and Wales. I wrote support materials for teachers, worked with teachers in their classrooms, and gave talks around the country about the writing process and the teaching of writing.

In Shropshire between 1987 and 1989, I combined the task of promoting effective English teaching with the administrative responsibilities of an officer in a local education authority: making appointments, inspecting schools, advising head teachers, supporting school governors.

Between 1989 and 1992, I worked on the Language in the National Curriculum Project, which the government had set up as an instrument to instil or re-instil in secondary English teachers and all primary teachers in England and Wales an understanding of a Latinate model of sentence grammar. The group in which I worked, led by Ronald Carter of the University of Nottingham, produced materials for teachers which so displeased the government that it disowned them and refused commercial publishers permission to publish them officially. The materials were nonetheless distributed unofficially in their tens of thousands, and enjoyed by many teachers, because they offered a broader account of the knowledge about language which it is useful for teachers to have (including knowledge about sentence grammar) than that which the government had envisaged. I contributed to the production of the materials.

So the eighteen years between 1974 and 1992 were busy and productive ones. In the course of that time, I went from being a wide-eyed idealist, imagining that nothing could stop the simple force of good ideas translated into effective classroom practice for the benefit of our pupils, to being a sadder and possibly wiser man, aware that, however honestly intellectual progress is made, that progress is fragile when there are malevolent forces at work which see political advantage in reversing it. Ground gained is not necessarily ground won for ever.

The 1970s and 1980s were years of optimism in the English teaching circles in which I moved. We were determined to make the curriculum more relevant to children’s lives; classrooms would be places where children’s own experience would be valued and made a part of that curriculum; children’s spoken language would be encouraged as a mode of learning; both talk and writing would be practised in a rich diversity of forms; we would show our students literature which previous generations of teachers had thought them too stupid to understand; under our guidance, children would become makers and shapers of language, and therefore of their lives. The purpose always was to raise standards, to include the traditional English teacher’s concerns about correctness in writing and about teaching a canon of literature within a new excitement in broadening and diversifying students’ experience and mastery of language, in particular making sure that working-class and black and ethnic-minority children, who constituted the overwhelming majority of those we taught, were given the opportunity to share in that experience and gain that mastery.

The major institutional obstacle to the fulfilment of such thinking in secondary schools was the examination system. So we set about trying to change examinations, so that spoken as well as written language was assessed, a wider range of texts was studied, and children produced a far greater diversity of kinds of writing than previously.

In 1989, the Thatcher government introduced a national curriculum for England and Wales. I supported and support this reform in principle, on the grounds of equality of entitlement of all children to the same range of experience and knowledge. Those of our way of thinking chosen to be members of drafting committees, or who worked informally with committee members who then took drafts to the committees, did our best to see to it that the national curriculum for English manifested at least something of the vision I’ve described. This work needed stamina and some political cunning, for the Thatcher government’s vision of English in the national curriculum was, from the outset, the opposite of ours. It wished to impose on the country a version of English teaching based on the sentimental public-school or grammar-school memories of some ministers and their advisers, in which — to caricature only slightly — rows of silent-until-spoken-to children would be shown the mysteries and beauties of a small number of pieces of great literature, would write neat essays on subjects such as ‘A Day in the Life of a Penny’ or ‘Travel Broadens the Mind’, would learn how to parse a sentence according to a Latinate model of grammar (a model discredited for the analysis of living languages by the most influential contemporary linguists), and would confine their use of continuous spoken language to formal debates on propositions such as ‘This House would Welcome the Return of Capital Punishment’.

It was here, in the narrower, cruder associations of the word political, that I realised what a political arena English teaching had become. I had for fifteen years been expending my energies, as had scores and hundreds of like-minded colleagues, trying to bring about more success in English classrooms across the country by applying and promoting methods which would work for the majority of children; methods which were in some respects extensions of, and in other respects sharply different from, the methods which had for the previous century served the minority well enough and lamentably failed the majority. We were hauling the children of our nation away from the state of affairs which had prevailed in the early 1960s, when eight out of ten left school with no paper qualification whatever. What could be more admirable than that? Who would not recognise the worth of that endeavour, whatever their political allegiance?

My naivety was short-lived. Effective English teaching is in fact a whole, complex set of practices which, when I was a classroom teacher, included: the good sense to say nothing, to draw no lessons, as a child wept gently in the corner of the room when I read aloud how Billy Casper discovered his hawk, dead, towards the end of Barry Hines’s novel Kes; and the skill of showing children how to punctuate speech in written stories. Despite this fact, it was convenient for the Thatcher and later the Major governments, whispered to by advisers in shadowy think-tanks and cheered on by supporters in the right-wing newspapers, to invent for the public a fictional image of my colleagues and me as a kind of fifth column, an enemy within, a group whose secret mission was to use the classroom to promote leftist ideologies, and who were in the process bringing about a catastrophic decline in standards of language, literacy, culture and even manners in the young. By a curious twist of political language, the phrase our attackers coined to deride us was ‘the educational establishment’.

In 1992 I joined Channel 4’s schools broadcasting service. I worked there and at two other educational broadcasters until 2011 (see chapter 5). Shortly after that, I was drawn back to the world of English teaching and language education, because in the interim the continuing negative influence of ignorant but powerful politicians and their advisers had done such damage to the profession that it seemed urgent to help to articulate some kind of opposition. I wrote a booklet for the United Kingdom Literacy Association called Teaching Reading: How To, criticising the government’s obsessive insistence that there is one and only one legitimate and effective method of teaching young children to read: a method known as synthetic phonics. My long-time friend and colleague Mike Raleigh then suggested to me that we should write and publish a series of booklets, taking a similar tone to Teaching Reading: How To, which would do three things: remind teachers of some of the best that has been thought and written about English, language and literacy over many decades; offer robust criticism of aspects of curriculum, methodology and assessment in English as they have been imposed on schools in England in recent years; and, most importantly, offer practical alternatives. The series, under the title English, Language and Literacy 3 to 19: Principles and Proposals, was published in 2015 by Owen Education, the educational consultancy which Mike had founded with his colleague Peter Dougill, and the United Kingdom Literacy Association. The ten booklets cover all aspects of English, language and literacy teaching. I wrote six booklets; Peter Traves, Andrew Burn and Angela Goddard wrote one each; I collaborated with Mike Raleigh and Peter Dougill on the summary booklet introducing the series. In 2017, Routledge published abridged versions of the contents of the series in two books, Curriculum and Assessment in English 3 to 11: a Better Plan and Curriculum and Assessment in English 11 to 19: a Better Plan.

Alas, I have no great hopes for the impact of our efforts in the face of government diktat. To take specific examples, I cannot stop the government requiring that children aged five and six learn dozens of abstract spelling rules, in the mistaken belief that the early learning of abstract rules will produce better spellers; I cannot cure the government’s myopia about synthetic phonics; I am powerless to reverse the wrong-headed idea that grammatical terms and categories should be taught in advance of grammatical competence, rather than arising from that competence; I must accept as fait accompli the government’s downgrading of the importance of the spoken language in learning.

All I can hope is that in any political story there is always the official version and the unofficial version. In this case, the official version belongs to people with the power but without the knowledge (politicians, their advisers, journalists in reactionary newspapers). The unofficial version belongs to people with the knowledge but without the power (teachers and supporters of teachers). Ignorant governments may and do attempt to impose their will, but the difficulty for any government wishing to bring about change in as detailed an area as the curriculum of a school subject is that it is obliged in the end to rely on the knowledge and experience of those who are actually expert in that area. Decades ago, the great majority of those actually expert in the area of language, literacy and English teaching knew that the Thatcher and Major governments’ regretfully retrospective vision for English teaching in the nation’s classrooms was unworkable. The same was true for some aspects of Labour’s approach to curriculum change between 1997 and 2010, although most teachers did simultaneously appreciate the fact that Labour poured far more money into education than the Conservatives had, and did not make a sport of undermining public confidence in the profession, as the Conservatives had. The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government of 2010 to 2015 was peculiarly malevolent towards educators of my persuasion. Whereas we had been, for Thatcher and Major, ‘the educational establishment’, we were now, while Michael Gove was Secretary of State for Education, ‘the blob’. All his reforms affecting English teaching took us backwards.

Advanced democracies need populations of broadly informed, enquiring, confidently literate citizens, and need particularly to pay attention to the educational achievement of the children of its socio-economically poorer families. Our democracy was and is far more likely to achieve that desirable end by embracing the vision of classrooms which I first encountered in 1974, a vision which still holds good in thousands of schools throughout the land, despite reverses which the use of government power for reactionary purposes has brought about in many aspects of curriculum content, teaching methodology and assessment of pupils’ performance in English.

I mentioned Harold Rosen and his influence on me earlier in the chapter. Harold was born in America in 1919 and came to the East End of London with his mother at the age of two. He attended elementary and grammar schools there. He studied for an English degree at University College London between 1937 and 1940, followed by a post-graduate teacher-training qualification at the University of London Institute of Education. He was a schoolteacher in various London schools from the late 1940s until 1958, when he began a long and influential career in teacher education. From 1962 to 1984 he worked at the London Institute of Education, where he had trained, rising to become head of the English department and a professor of the university. He died in 2008.

I knew Harold for the last 32 years of his life. I was never formally his student, and yet he was — as I wrote earlier in the chapter and as I told him not long before he died — one of my two great teachers, because he showed how to combine intellectual effort with political purpose. He knew that a person’s achievement is only meaningful to the extent that it changes the lives of other people, the lives of organisations — like schools — and the life of society as a whole, for the better: a principle which holds for even as great a talent and as significant a contribution as his own. I never met anyone who more completely lived the idea that the point is not simply to interpret the world, but to change it.

Harold’s life in education exemplified his conviction that theory and practice, thinking and doing, are interpenetrating. He understood and taught that education is a supremely practical business, not a ‘pure’ science. In the years that I knew him, by which time he was already an eminent academic leading a university department of education, he was constant in his insistence that those whose job it is to help teachers teach better should apply their mental effort to that task, and not go off on intellectual frolics of their own.

In 2015 Betty Rosen, Harold’s widow, suggested to me the idea of bringing together a collection of his writings. The need for such a task lay in the nature of the thinker and doer that Harold was. There are academics who write, and leave behind them impressive doorstops of books containing their thoughts and findings. That is fine, and many of those academics have made important contributions to the advancement of knowledge. Harold had the intellectual equipment to pursue a conventional academic career of great distinction, but that wasn’t the choice he made. His output of educational publications was large, but he put his greatest efforts into collaborations with colleagues, always addressing the needs and concerns of practitioners. That decision was a natural consequence of his socialist understanding of how to bring about change in organisations and systems: it has to be done by collective endeavour. So his writings were scattered in books written as joint efforts with others, in professional magazines and journals, in pamphlets, in speeches given at conferences, in notes for lectures and seminars.

Over a three-month period in late 2015 and early 2016 I read or re-read everything Harold had written that I could find. I grouped the educational writings into three loose categories: the politics of language and English teaching; the role of language in learning; and story (in the latter part of his life, Harold wrote extensively about the role of narrative in learning and in our lives). I wrote a biographical introduction to the collection, and shorter introductions to each piece. Harold had also written his own stories and poems, mainly about his childhood and youth in the East End. Some of these I interspersed amongst the educational writings.

Betty and I weren’t sure, when I undertook the work, whether it would be conventionally published. Betty was willing if necessary to pay for the collection to become a website. We were delighted when Nicky Platt at the University College London Institute of Education Press said that she would publish it as a book. (The London Institute of Education had recently become part of UCL.) We launched Harold Rosen: Writings on Life, Language and Learning 1958-2008 in March 2017 at UCL. About 200 people were there. I gave a speech about Harold’s life and work, and read extracts from the book, which weighs in at a chunky 582 pages.

So I have paid my dues to one of my great teachers. The other, Peter Hetherington, is — I’m very glad to say — still vigorously alive. I’ve thanked him privately and publicly for what he did for me back in the 1960s, and for what he’s done for me since, particularly as unerring critic and enthusiastic encourager of my poems. In chapters 1 and 2 I mention the publication of the poems, on this website and in book form. At the launch in October 2017 of the two books, My Proper Life — Poems 1975–2017 and Bring Me the Sunflower — Translations and Imitations, I gave a speech, in part of which I thanked my schoolteachers, and Peter in particular. I will end this chapter with what I said of them.

‘It’s a great honour to me that no fewer than six teachers who worked at the secondary school which I attended in Bedford are here this evening. I don’t need to tell this audience about the transformative influence which good teachers have on young people’s lives. I was fortunate to come under the influence of three of the six, and — at the risk of embarrassing them — I’m going to name them.

Chris Carmell taught me A-level French, and his witty and erudite teaching made the study of Voltaire, Molière and Sartre a profound pleasure. Chris also played trad jazz trumpet (and still does — you can watch him on YouTube), and occasionally favoured us with stories about his youth in Paris: the clubs he played in, the bars and restaurants he visited. His love and knowledge of French language, literature, culture, food and drink evoked in me an urgent desire to get over to that country as soon as possible: a desire which, 50 years later, Helen and I continue to satisfy.

The first section of Bring Me the Sunflower contains translations of some of the poems of Victor Hugo. That section is dedicated to Chris, with my enduring thanks.

Ken Pearce taught me O-level Latin. I’ve found that people who learnt Latin at school, in reminiscing about the experience, record emotions ranging from agony to (very nearly) ecstasy. My good fortune, as a 15-year-old, was to be taught by a man who could actually make the concept of the semi-deponent verb entertaining; who gave to the hunt for the main verb in a Latin sentence something of the thrill of the chase; whose admiration for the wonderful economy of Latin as a carrier of meaning, as opposed to the more prolix necessities of English, has been an example to me in my own writing.

Later, Hugh Proudfoot, who is alas no longer with us, taught me A-level Latin, and showed me into Virgil’s sad and beautiful philosophising and — as a pick-me-up — the sexy exhilarations of Catullus. 50 years later still, Ken was kind enough to look over my efforts at translating Virgil and Horace from the Latin and Sappho from the Greek. He didn’t grade the work on this occasion, but he did pronounce himself more or less satisfied with it, to my enormous relief.

The Latin section of Bring Me the Sunflower is dedicated to Ken and to Hugh’s memory, again with my enduring thanks.

Peter Hetherington taught me English for the four years I attended Bedford Modern School: O-level, A-level and preparation for university. It’s no exaggeration to say — and I’ve said it in Peter’s hearing before — that he gave me my intellectual life. Central to that was, of course, his deep knowledge and love of English literature, which infected me immediately. But I also mean something wider. I mean that a boy who had a loving, supportive but religiously dogmatic family upbringing was shown the possibilities of a wider world of reason and critical openness to the diversity of human experience. Peter taught me, without ever being explicit about it, that there are more things in heaven and earth than had been dreamt of in the particular side-chapel of evangelical Protestantism in which I had grown up; and that it is our responsibility, and ours alone, as to whether the world goes well or goes ill in the areas where we have the chance to make a difference.

It’s a great joy to Helen and to me that, after decades of seeing Peter occasionally, we’re now in close and regular contact with him and Monica. Additionally, over these last ten years or so, he has been an essential critic of almost every poem I’ve written and translation I’ve done, hanging in there with me until the thing is more or less right, is as good as it’s going to be. The whole of My Proper Life is dedicated to Peter, simply because, at the beginning, he showed me what a proper life could be.’