Huw is a primary school teacher from Plymouth, UK, and has been teaching for almost 5 years. He is an educational activist and has recently become the Plymouth Branch Secretary for the ATL section of the National Education Union. We caught up with him to talk education activism, the National Curriculum, and arts and sex education in schools.
First of all, Happy Pride Month! Do you teach Pride to your students?
Happy Pride! Yes, I’m organising School Diversity Week at my school. This is a celebration of diversity (especially LGBTQ+) organised by the charity Just Like Us. I’ve been really pushing for this within school and now I’ve been given the freedom to lead on this and I’m taking full advantage! We have a number of events and workshops scheduled, including Drag Queen Story Time for the younger students! This aims to challenge gender norms as well as advocate being fabulous! We will be working with the older children to develop workshops around different relationships and gender identities based on what they feel is most needed. Passionate students are even organising a school pride festival.
As someone who is part of the LGBTQ+ community, the experiences of the students who are also growing up to realise they belong to this community must strike a very personal chord with you. Do you think that the school environment is in general significantly more accepting of LGBTQ+ people than it was 10 or 15 years ago? Have you seen much of a shift even just since you began teaching?
You’re right, growing up identifying as gay, I was desperate for support and understanding. I went to an all boys school which didn’t really help, the best way I can describe it as homoerotically homophobic! So yes, I make it my business to push for support, understanding and celebration of difference. I very recently came out to the students I teach because there has been a number of instances of homophobic language being thrown around. I have been teaching for almost 5 years now and this is the first time I have ever felt comfortable enough to come out to my students. I knew the students would be fine, sexuality isn’t as big an issue as it was when I was in school; my concern was how the parents, senior leaders and governors would respond. I genuinely believe that on the whole students are more accepting of the LGBT community, I believe gender and trans identities as well as the wider queer spectrum are the new frontiers that need our support.
As an educator and influencer, what is the most important thing you can do for your pupils? What are your top priorities and aims?
I want to make the world (both globally and their world) better and in order to do this I need to create a generation of creative thinkers who celebrate differences and respect one another. Like us, they will have to deal with the issues left behind by those who came before them: austerity, climate change, mass extinction, poor working conditions, poverty, to name but a few. I want them to be prepared to deal with that, to think differently and so they can leave the world a little bit less messed up than they received it.
It’s taken a long time to see myself as a role model, I was always looking for someone who seemed to have it more together than I did, someone more adult! But yes, I am a role model, to both the students in my care and my colleagues. Sometimes role models are seen as superheroes, they never show weakness or falter. That’s not the kind of role model I wish to be, I want to show them that I am human, I make mistakes, I’m not perfect and sometimes it’s all too much. I want to show them what they can achieve but also help them understand the journey it takes to get there.
How much of you and your personal experiences go into informing the way that you teach, and what you teach?
We all see the world through a lens created by our own experiences and sometimes you need to be super aware of your own opinions and sometimes prejudices. I really value creativity as this is something that terrified me at school (and still does), I never got the opportunity to explore the creative side of me until I got to university. I try to look at opportunities that develop students as people, as well as helping them to gain the needed skills to engage in life such as literacy and numeracy.
There was a case recently of a teacher in Oxfordshire who repeatedly refused to call a transgender pupil by their preferred pronouns because he claimed that it clashed with his religious beliefs. In this example this is obviously a horrendously discriminatory practice, but how far do you think it is appropriate to bring personal beliefs into your teaching practice? Where do you draw professional barriers in this scenario?
That’s a really tricky one, our beliefs are an integral part of who we are. However, when we choose to impose our beliefs on others, that is when things tend to go wrong. As a teacher, your first priority is the safety and wellbeing of your students. If a teacher decides not to call someone by their preferred pronouns then this can lead to issues around mental health and self esteem and it is clear that not doing this is in violation to a teacher’s prime directive! A teacher should be aware of their own beliefs and seek advice from others if they believe that they think they are getting too involved. Children should be taught to create their own views and beliefs but also to be open to being challenged and repositioning.
You have had an incredible five-year run of active involvement at in ATL National Conferences. Tell us a bit about this, and about your activism within the education system; what are the most crucial elements that need to change, and how can we realistically achieve them?
I have been an activist for 4 years within the ATL (Association of Teachers and Lecturers) Union and the National Education Union. I have spoken at conference on a huge range of issues that include: teacher recruitment and retention, workload, mental health and wellbeing, the importance of the arts and the curriculum. The most crucial element that needs to change is the privatisation of our schools. The introduction of privately run academies has lead to many schools being run as businesses, we should not be seeking to make profit from education! Teacher workload is also a huge issue in school and has lead to a crisis in recruitment and retention, almost half of new teachers leave in the first 5 years! I have seen many colleagues who have are great teachers leave the profession and it breaks my heart. The only way to change things is stand up together and say enough is enough, we should be challenging practice both on a local and a national level. We should support one another so we are all singing from the same hymn sheet regardless of whether you are a parent, teacher, teaching assistant or head teacher. Unions should be member driven and conference is our opportunity to guide the direction the union travels in. Through sharing of experiences, both good and bad, we begin to feel connected and this creates sense of solidarity. Knowing that you are not alone is the first step to developing the confidence to say enough is enough and take a stand.
The amalgamation of ATL and the National Union of Teachers to create the National Education Union which represents almost half a million educational professionals allows us to have a voice that the government can no longer ignore. We need the government to trust in teachers, stop meddling with the curriculum and invest in education.
Over the years campaigns have sprung up pushing for the ability for primary schools to make their own curriculums. How do you personally feel about the National Curriculum? Do you think that schools have total control would be the right move?
The curriculum is an interesting one, I have only lived in the age of the National Curriculum (NC). The introduction of the national curriculum means that schools are more consistent, however I think that the NC should be a guide and not the be all and end all. In my school, we follow the NC for maths and English because the children take SATs in these subjects. However we have scrapped everything else in favour of a project based learning (PBL) approach. PBL should be skills based and not content based; for example, we have recently completed a WW2 project which gave the children to choose an area of WW2 that they were interested in, research it and make something that was shared as part of our living museum. We has all sorts of projects produced from projects around women’s role in WW2 to a ⅔ scale German Panzer tank made out of cardboard! Projects like this give children the opportunity to develop their research, planning and making skills which they can transfer to a number of situations in life.
You recently met with the Department of Education at Westminster to discuss how to make Sex Education more inclusive. Can you tell us some more about that? Why is this something you feel strongly about?
Yes, I attended some training around Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) through the Sex Education Forum and this is something I am very passionate about. My sex education in school was appalling, in reality we were told how not to get a girl pregnant. As a gay man, this has never been a problem. We were told nothing about consent nor what a healthy relationship should look like. I want to make sure that this is not repeated. RSE is still not compulsory in all schools, the fundamentals of sex and human reproduction are part of the science curriculum but this is often taught in a very clinical way and fails to cover the emotional aspect of sex and relationships. I believe that RSE and PSHE are the most important subjects that students are taught and yet they get the least amount of time in the curriculum and quality of provision varies greatly.
So much learning happens indirectly, outside the classroom as well as in. Do you think that schools could do more, especially at Primary level, to support and encourage “non-traditional” learning? Is this important?
Definitely! However, first we need to stop assessing students and schools purely by their SATs results in year 2 & 6. This assessment is purely exam based and fails to take into account the child as a whole. Non-traditional learning and experiential learning are what gives children context in which to hold content. Too often concepts are abstract and lack meaning for students, it is important to make their learning relate to their world.
On that note, it seems that Arts Education funding is being increasingly cut and the subjects sidelined. What is the real-life impact of this, and how important is it to preserve the space for self-expression and creativity during such a formative stage in pupils’ lives?
As in the wider world, the arts in education have been facing huge cuts. The introduction of the English Baccalaureate (Ebacc), which effectively makes a minimum of 7 GCSEs compulsory and failed to include any creative subjects, has lead to a number of schools cutting their creative provision. The Ebacc creates the illusion that creative subjects such as art, drama and music are worth less than other subjects. Even in primary schools, the arts are being sidelined as a result of increasing importance being placed on English and Maths in SATs. I have seen children who excel at art, drama and DT be removed from these subjects to attend English and maths interventions. It is hugely important to fight for creativity in schools, making and creating is just as important as reading and writing!
What are the very best and also your least favourite things about teaching?
I love working with children, every day is different! They are easily my favourite thing about teaching! The only downside of teaching is that it is not just a job, it becomes your life. I often struggle to switch off and this can impact on other areas of my life. Not only do you work long hours (often over 50 hours a week!) but you never really stop thinking about it. There is always something that you dwell on and often you are powerless to do anything about it. This has a negative impact on my mental health and my life out of school.
What can teachers’ unions and school governance bodies do to improve things for teachers?
Teachers’ unions need to unite to speak with one voice, we have been divided for too long! They also need to offer solutions not just highlight problems. They need to work on both a national and a local scale and they need to empower educational professionals to stand up for their wellbeing.
Governance bodies need to start listening to teachers and acting on what is being said not what they think is best. We need a period of stability on which we can rebuild. We need them to take steps towards tackling teacher workload and make teaching a desirable career once more.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. The education of our future generations is such a crucial and often thankless task so we would like to extend a deep ‘thank you’ from the bottom of our hearts for all the work that you do, and the activism you do which enables real change to happen. We admire your work and your drive very much!