Victims of 'coasting', around 1952

Listening to the BBC recently I heard a discussion about incompetent teachers. “And then,” someone said, “there are those who are coasting…”  I have found ‘coasting’ in various places recently – it is becoming a buzz-word, which is to say a gash label in lieu of meaning.

I was taught by teachers who were coasting.  The school staff had two generations: those who had got through World War 2, and those left over from WW1. Of this older group I well remember Bum, Sniffer, Taffy, Old Tom and Uncle Norman, nicknames stuck on them by generations of schoolboys. Several carried wounds of various sorts from the war.  Sniffer had been gassed, and Tom still had bouts of malaria from his African service. Uncle Norman was struggling with Bright’s Disease (probably nothing to do with his fixed and glittering stare).

The Chemistry teacher’s confidence had apparently been shot or shelled away.  The Science Lab had rows of continuous worktops, each with a sink, a Bunsen burner and a space underneath for a tall stool. When every boy in the class hid in the stool space just before the class began, he scanned the empty room, assumed they had gone elsewhere, and went off to look for them. On another occasion he was demonstrating the mingling of two heavier than air gases. Someone had switched the class jars, so in fact he was pouring air into air, but he continued to describe the colour of the invisible precipitate, as if this kind of thing often happened, and it was best to ignore it.  Maybe generations of schoolboys had repeatedly played the trick. (I wasn’t in the Science group: the story was told to me by my school-friend, David Austin the cartoonist).

The art teacher, Old Tom, had me round to tea, in an apologetic way, and showed me his water-colours: well crafted landscape sketches, very sweet and with minimal content. He said ” I get them through Art ‘O’ level – that’s what their parents want.”

I was an anomaly – a boy who painted landscapes in oils, heavily influenced by Paul Nash – not a modernity he normally had to cope with.  He was always kind and helpful to me, but he didn’t have anything else to give.  Not his fault. The Art School, a bike ride away, was where real art happened, and later on I had great support from people there, staff and students. But Tom didn’t know them, or they him.

All of these teachers were approaching the end of their professional careers, and were working out their time, doing what they knew how to do.  They were committed professionals; they tried to do a good job, and some of them worked way over the odds – Sniffer gave much of his evening and week-end time to games, to which he was devoted. The point was that they had endured tough times, they were growing old, and coasting was not scrimshanking. Of course they didn’t have the drive of the younger generation of teachers – that was very obvious at the time. But my English teacher Shel, a truly great teacher, and one of the younger group, told me that he regularly had to sit and rest for an hour or two when he got home, to recover from exhaustion. Apart from exhaustion there are occupational conditions: primary teachers with bad backs due to repeatedly bending down over low desks, and so on.

If good teaching demands commitment, energy, invention, empathy and show, as well as a substantial cache of knowledge, it is also demanding and exhausting. Teachers wear out. Some manage to be great for a whole career: others flag, and a few break apart. It’s the rare teacher of whom you might say “Age could not weary her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety.”

All educational establishments (like other organisations) are a mixture, with their quota of ‘coasters’: teachers run out of steam as their bodies decline, and nothing can be done about this. Some things can be done to mitigate its effect, but those in charge of the system are usually too fixated on structural change in the organisation to

think hard about the implications of the human condition. Most ministers of education are in the job for a very short time: the average, from 1945 to 2007, is two years.  (See the helpful chronology by D. Gillard at Just as they develop an initial grasp, they are moved on, so the Civil Servants pursue their groundswell policy, underneath occasional surges of Government interest. (In more arcane areas, Art Education, for instance, ministers never have the time or knowledge even to grapple with the arguments;  Ministry policy in the second half of the Twentieth Century was to reduce the number of Art and Design students, seen, without reference to evidence, as a drain on the economy, and that was about as close to the area’s problems as ministers got).

There could be a better use of the human resource. To look at just one aspect of it, teaching is a monastic event. Teachers study their subject and do their teacher training. Once they have taken their vows in their twenties, they are supposed to continue to transmit what they have for the next forty plus years and to replenish their stock unaided. Retraining, refresher courses, paid study leave, are rare.

Teachers’ triumphs exist at one remove, belonging to their pupils. They do not own their success, unlike, say, pop-stars or orchestral conductors. Generally, if the students did well it was because they were bright: if they did not it was because they were badly taught.  Some individual teachers are respected but as a class teachers have low social esteem, and they are easily found to be in the wrong. You might say, well. at least they aren’t Social Workers, who have minus social esteem before they start.  But if you wonder why teachers get worked up about their pensions, you might also ask “What else in the world have they to look forward to?”