Remember the teacher who said ‘Sometimes ambitious children need to slow down’? Here’s what happened next…

by Stephen Tall on August 28, 2012

Six months ago, a brief spasm of furore erupted following an article published in the TES by Jonny Griffiths, a maths teacher at Paston College in Norfolk. As I noted in this post at the time, it ‘appear[ed] to show a lack of aspiration in the state sector for children to excel’, and was alighted on as a prime example of how state schools let bright kids down.

A few months passed, and I received an email from… Jonny Griffiths. It occasionally happens, with a Google-search resurfacing an article I’d more or less forgotten about, and the subject contacts me to dispute/discuss it. As I started to read, I braced myself for his complaints: that I’d misrepresented him, that I didn’t understand his point, etc.

In fact, the email from Jonny Griffiths was a simple, pleasant inquiry asking for permission to quote my blog-post in its entirety, as he was “putting together a short ebook as a defence for my article”. This was my immediate reply:

Dear Jonny (if I may),

Thanks for your email, and I’m very happy to say yes. Your email prompted me to re-read it, and to realise that the whole thing must have been a pretty gruesome experience for you. I was a state school kid who worked hard (at times too hard) to get to Oxford, and was the only one in my year to apply or go there. It worked out fantastically well for me. I do appreciate that won’t be everyone’s experience.

With best wishes for the book,

I admit the minutest, briefest of concerns did cross my mind that my words might be used against me some way. But, I reckoned, even if that happened Jonny would have been well within his rights to answer back his critics, including me. Besides my article was reasonably balanced: I thought the tone of his article failed, but that to extrapolate the failings of state schooling from it was overblown, considering he teaches at an Ofsted-rated outstanding school and some of his pupils willingly defended his reputation.

And as it turns out, of course, Jonny Griffiths’s account is thoughtful, searching and entirely reasonable. You can judge for yourself by following this link:

Michael: A cautionary tale for writers in the 21st Century

It really is worth reading. And no, that’s not my little-bit-of-guilty-feeling talking.

Interestingly, I was one of only three people who gave permission to have my piece quoted in its entirety. I’ve no idea why the others either declined or ignored the request, but it strikes me that it may be that some journalists are very happy to dish it out and rather more reluctant to come face-to-face — even by correspondence — with those whose lives they’ve casually collided into. While writers easily move on to the next article, the written-about have to continue living with what’s been assumed about them.