I ARRIVED at an inner city school from teaching experiences which were, in retrospect, very sheltered. I found myself thrown into a world which was utterly new, tough, and sometimes openly hostile.
I discovered that little of what I had learned either at training college or university had much relevance. And when I looked for advice and suitable materials there was little or none to be had.
Reading the final paragraph of Mr Vs'instanley's thoughtful article in the Catholic Herald of November 5 I asked myself just how much it applied to the school in which I teach.
"Many of our schools," he said, "in some of the deprived areas especially, are performing valiant missionary work, but they often need to be given greater support and the only way to give the support that is necessary is by an understanding of what can be ex
pected of the individual schools after examining the resources available to it."
So I examined my resources.
As an education lecturer would say, the first resource is the class: the pupils and their backgrounds. But what happens when the backgrounds are so diverse that it becomes next to impossible to haul the variety of experiences together and make sense of it?
Where I teach, in a Catholic school situated in a redevelopment area of Islington, just off the Caledonian Road, the headmaster thinks we have 17 different nationalities in our classrooms. We don't have a racial problem: there are too many races for that.
The problems arc between West Indians from different Caribbean islands, or Africans from independent African states at odds with one another. Our racial conflict, such as it is, is between Spaniards and Greeks, Italians and English, Irish and Portuguese, as much as between black and white.
The different backgrounds lead to vast differences in behaviour. The friendliness of a West Indian would, in an English child, be intolerable over-familiarity. But the latter might have reasonable cause for complaint if he is punished for his insolence when his West Indian classmate appears to get away with much more.
In a Catholic school the Faith, at least, should be a source of unity. But that can no longer be presumed. As Mr Winstanley pointed out: "There can be a variation of between one-third and a total allegiance to the Faith.” A third, in Islington, is probably putting it at its highest. And even of that third, the variety of Catholic backgrounds is enormous.
Then there is a language problem. How does one cope with the problem of religious language — albeit indirectly with pupils who barely command the language of instruction, are struggling with two languages socially, and have a third on the school syllabus?
How does one talk of God as a loving Father when for too many of the boys "father" means little, or even has bad connotations. Some will know of no permanent father until they themselves are old enough for parenthood. And one can not talk of "parents" without adding hurriedly, "or guardians.
And this brings me to our second resource: the books at our disposal. There are many excellent RE syllabuses available, drawn up by dedicated, highly qualified and experienced educators, But that experience does not seem to have been gained in the sort of school in which I teach. The text books are mostly directed towards an English, middle-class audience.
The Westminster syllabus has a great deal to be said for it, but it presents its users with problems which had not, perhaps, occurred to its compilers.
One example it employs is the often-cited hook. "The Miracle on the River Kwai," It is a thoroughly fascinating story in itself, and one no doubt highly evocative for the syllabus's compilers and the teachers who use it.
But for pupils the World War has been reduced to the level of comic-strip, on a par with King Arthur or the Wild West, and just about as relevant: except, of course, if a member of the class is Japanese.
Even the Italians shift a little uncomfortably in their desks. Just how much empathy and imagination can we expect from even our most talented pupils?
Syllabuses are meant to be adapted. Teachers should choose what is best, leave out what does not help. But that takes time. And that leads to the third resource: the teaching staff.
Not even the best training can prepare them to cope with all the situations they are likely to meet, least of all for coping with pupils from such a wide variety of backgrounds, and now living in one of the capital city's poorest areas. Maybe we could cope better, given time. We could construct our visual aids, search out the right films, select the most suitable records. But the reality is far different.
It is not simply that our few free periods disappear in marking books or standing in for absent members of staff. There are court reports to he drawn up, social workers and probation officers to be contacted. Truants have to be chased up, and parents written to.
For the head of department, upon whom most of the responsibility for the syllabus must fall, the burden is even greater. He is dealing not only with qualified RE teachers, but with many who are unqualified, and arc confused and unsure of what they themselves believe.
We hear of vast numbers of teachers unemployed. But for efficient, imaginative teaching there are simply not enough to go round. The problem might be eased if there was enough ready-made material for the different intellectual levels and cultural backgrounds. There isn't.
It might also he eased by working more closely with the parishes, as we are often urged to do. Apart from the fact that tew 01 our pupils appear to have met a) priest other than the school chaplain, where is the time to liaise with the 35 parishes within the school's catchment area'?
1 have talked exclusively about the problems which face a teacher of religion. It is, after all, my subject. But mutatis mutandis the difficulties vary little in other subjects, or indeed in other schools in the borough of Islington.
If we are to have Catholic schools surely what should distinguish them from the others is the act of worship, and education in the Faith. To do those adequately we need money, we need manpower and, above all, we need thinking-time.
We do have our successes. Mr Winstanley speaks of "valiant missionary work." I would not put it quite like that myself, but I would not disagree. There scents to be although it is difficult to quantify — less crime and violence than in other ILEA schools in similar areas, less "aggro."
As one visitor remarked, the graffiti are "better." He meant, he added hurriedly, there are less of them. Either way, we took it as a compliment. There is some room for hope.