The 1939 film “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”, remade in 1969, was based on the novel of the same name by James Hilton. It immortalised the remarkable but fictional teaching career of Charles Edward Chipping, who, in 1870, took up his position at Brookfield School. In 1914 Chips is recalled from retirement, to become headmaster, after most of the school’s staff have enlisted to fight in the Great War. Although we may not have had the good fortune to have been taught by a Mr. Chips, most of us can recall a charismatic teacher, one who took a particular interest in us and made a lasting impact in our lives. This begs a lot of questions about how we educate today.
One of the country’s leading educationalists, Alan Smithers, Professor of Education at Liverpool University, says that it would now be virtually impossible for a Mr. Chips to emerge in State schools – suffocated and stifled as teachers are by the three ‘ts’ of testing, targets and tables. And he says that this is why “there is considerable migration by teachers from State schools to Independent schools.” It’s also one of the reasons why teachers have been leaving the profession. The number of teachers resigning from schools doubled between 1998 and 2001 – from 25,000 to 46,000. Professor Smithers said “We have to reinvigorate the profession by putting the fun back into teaching – which would allow today’s Mr. Chips to flourish in a state school.”
Putting fun back into teaching – rather than the Gradgrind stress and pressure which has replaced it – is something which an independent commission created by, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, recently recognised by advocating the creation of a new “Master Teaching Standard.” Sally Coates, who chaired the review group said that the new recognition “is designed to set out a powerful statement of what it means to be a really excellent teacher…These are teachers who will have the deepest impact on improving the lives of their pupils.” This will recognise the most outstanding teachers and elevate the status of the teaching profession. Welcome back Mr. Chips.
Putting a sense of vocation back into teaching is something which another great educationalist and former schools inspector, Gervase Phinn, has spent most of his life doing. Animated by his love of teaching and by his Faith, brilliantly communicated in his books and talks, he recognises the ingredients of an inspirational teacher. A colleague once said that his enthusiasm and encouragement of teachers should be bottled. One of his children’s poems – “The Day Our Teacher Went Batty” captures some of his mischievous gentle humour:
“We’ve been baking in class today,
Would you like my last jam tart?
It’s funny how clean my hands are now
They were dirty at the start!”
Gervase Phinn certainly knows how to put the fun – as well as high academic standards and appropriate discipline – back into teaching.
But as Professor Smithers has pointed out in some schools the spirit of Mr. Chips has never gone away. Recently I met some of the staff and children from one of them.
After speaking to some pupils of the excellent St. Philip Neri’s School in Kensington I was given a copy of the delightful book in which Ysenda Maxtone Graham tells the story of “Mr.Tibbits’s Catholic School”. Unlike Mr. Chips, Mr.Tibbits (despite his name!) was for real. In 1934, noticing a lack of provision in that area, and at the suggestion of Fr.Talbot, a priest of the London Oratory, Mr. Richard Tibbits, a Catholic convert, founded St.Philip’s. He bought a house, 6 Wetherby Place, just off Gloucester Road, and in the early days he not only taught the first pupils but used a rickety old car to ferry them to and from their homes.
In her lovely account, Ysenda Graham, the mother of boys who have attended the school, catches its eccentricities, characters, and values. She remarks that “there’s something about the atmosphere of the pace that warms your heart, in spite of (or even because of) the school’s size.” One of the school’s pupils, Harry Biggs-Davison – who began as a new boy in 1963 – is the schools’ third headmaster. On first entering Parliament, I served in the House of Commons with his father, the brave MP, Sir John Biggs-Davison – the subject of an IRA assassination attempt.
Ysenda Graham’s account brings together recollections of former staff, parents and pupils. Among its alumni are a whole cast of Catholic names: the Earl of Gainsborough and his younger brother, Gerard Noel; Christopher and Fr.Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ; Lord Longford’s Pakenham sons; Rocco Forte; and Michael Lieven. Other pupils have included Rory, David and Julian (now Lord) Fellowes, whose creation of Downton Abbey has made him a household name. He says that “my love of history was born during my Tibbits years, and I made good friends, too…in the end, my abiding sense of the Tibbits’s time was one of an ordered world.”
Someone who is familiar with St.Philip’s is the writer, A.N.Wilson. He’s right when he says that “teachers of this age group are helping to form and fill human minds. They have far more influence than university professors.” Ysenda Graham’s account of life at St.Philip’s is, he says, a combination of “poignancy and high comedy” and “the smile will never quite leave your face.”
Putting the fun back into teaching – along with the sense of satisfaction and achievement – is something which Harry Biggs-Davison’s school has done. Whether in existing schools, or through new free schools, today’s Mr. Chips and Mr.Tibbits – along with the new “Master Teachers” – need to reclaim the teaching vocation and do the same.