Guest Post: Live Modelling

In this post, my former colleague and present friend, Jasmine Mulligan, Head of English at King’s College Guildford,writes eloquently about how live modelling helped the department to achieve the best English results the school has ever seen.

The first time I came to Kings, Matt, who was Head of Department, at the time was at the front of his room trying to get a discount from a watch company. He was typing, narrating his process as he wrote, and kids were helping at intervals, with interjections like “why don’t you try…?” or “what about…?” pinging back and forth. Matt was responding accordingly. I later learned this was called live modelling.

 In our department we work on the basis that ‘live modelling’ is always preferable to turning up with a pre-made model.  Live modelling is about being vulnerable, placing value on the process of crafting, and making overt the mysterious beauty of writing. 

 On an everyday basis, live modelling means turning up to the blank page and narrating how you fill it. In a classroom, that’s you up front, writing or typing in full sight of everyone in the room, tackling whatever task in live-time. The aim is to crack open the processes we, as successful writers, go through every time we construct a piece so that students can see what the great quality work they hope to achieve looks like under construction.

 The way you narrate this experience of writing is what makes the process so worthwhile for students.  Outwardly sharing your thinking process by making comments like “I’m thinking about changing this word because…” or “I might change the first sentence because…” helps students understand the way a piece of writing comes together. The kids will offer you support, too, by offering suggestions or alternative vocabulary. They might even scold you for your “clunky” opening argument that just “doesn’t show you off to your best” (yep, direct quotation).  

 The key difference is you’re not banging out a pre-rehearsed slice of your best work so you feel good about yourself. You’re cracking yourself open and offering a bloody chunk of the inner workings of your mind so your kids know this stuff isn’t magic. It is craft. It is effort. It will take time to get right.

 But this is not the only way we model. At Kings, we open ourselves to our students by modelling the value we place on learning, academic rigour and friendship, too.

 In our department we have actively placed value and emphasis on the modelling of academic talk. It is well-known that Matt will pause lessons to discuss aspects of the text the class are reading with the other adults in the room, and we are all prone to poking our heads into one another’s rooms to chat about texts we love while students are present. Students learn the sound of an academic conversation and mimic that in their own contributions, meaning they can analyse and question more effectively. We parade academia in order to show students constantly that we – and others outside of the immediate department – love literature, and they begin to see that they could love it too.

Reading aloud is a way of modelling, too. Open the doors of our English classrooms and you will see that most of the reading comes from the teachers, rather than the students. This is perhaps controversial, but as teachers we read with confidence, clarity, cadence and nuance. Students cannot hear the beauty of language if they’re caught up in the five syllables of whatever word they’re trying to pull together. More importantly, they often can’t work out what’s actually going on. By modelling competent yet passionate reading, we help our students hear the beauty of the text they’re studying and improve their comprehension of the stories we hope to immerse them in.

 Less tangibly measurable, but of great value, is the atmosphere of friendship and fun our English department has cultivated. We are notorious for debating too loudly, teasing, giggling in the corridors and guffawing in the staffroom. We are kind to each other too, so when of us feels a little off the kids see the others work harder for that person. Inevitably, these friendships spill out into the sphere of our students, and our little block at the back of the school has become a warm and loving place to be. Other departments this year have commented on the “buzz” around English. It is a buzz that comes from love, and it has made students enjoy being in our world. This, inevitably, leads to greater academic success.

 

University: Just a fail-safe?

At The Festival of Education last summer, I saw Jon Hutchinson present at a panel debate on the topic of a diverse curriculum. Something he said resonated with me. He said that ‘University should be a fail-safe.’ Of course, things get said, and things get taken out of context, so I contacted Jon for clarity and asked him what he meant:

“University isn’t the right option for everyone, but it shouldn’t be a false choice in which you have neither the tacit knowledge nor the academic qualifications to go. What students really need to understand is a) what university will involve b) get the grades needed to go and c) still be able to choose a different route should they wish. And a different route is fine. The ideas that it’s either university of you’ve failed the game of life is not fine.”

I like what Jon had to say, but the phrase, ‘University as a fail-safe,’ is something I wanted to make a mantra. It seemed wonderfully liberating; I felt, at the time, that if all teachers and school leaders came to see university as something to simply fall back on, it might totally change the educational experience and outcomes of those students who often get left behind because of the relentless focus on university attendance as a measure of success.

I wanted to know more. Someone put me in touch with Johnny Rich (@JohnnySRich), Chief Executive of Push talks. I asked Johnny quite simply: ‘What do you think about the idea that schools should see University as a fail-safe. His response was one of the most illuminating things I’ve ever read on the topic of university, social-class and academic vs vocational study. With Johnny’s permission, I include his essay here in full. And I’ll leave it at that.

I don’t think I agree with the idea of university as a ‘failsafe’, although I’m still not sure I understand what you intend by the word. So I’m going to use your line: ‘Aim for whatever you want to do, and if you don’t get it, well, at least you can go to University.’ That assumes that whatever you want to do won’t be best achieved by going to uni. Obviously, uni is NOT the best route for everything or everyone, but for the vast majority of the best paid and most secure jobs, it is – if not a prerequisite – at least a head start.

The evidence is pretty clear: on average, uni helps everyone regardless of background, earn more in life and have other benefits such as health and happiness. It doesn’t eliminate the social advantages some were born with, but it does narrow the gap a bit. For many student with disadvantage higher education is not only transformative, it is the only thing that could ever have provided them with that transformation. On average, uni would be the right thing to do, if you are able and so minded. 

However, the sticking point there is ‘on average’. There are some people for whom it won’t suit them or further their aspirations. I never try to persuade people to go to uni, but I do try to outline the advantages (and disadvantages) so they can make an informed choice for themselves. You need to consider the individual. As you have said, all guidance should be ‘Person first’. Or, more to the point, the person should consider their individual needs for themselves. 

Rather than ‘aim for what you want to do’, I tend to think about ‘what do you want to BE’. For all of us, the answer to that is that we want to be happy. What happiness means to each of us and what will bring it is different (and changes over time), but it might involve earning a lot (however much ‘a lot’ might be); it might be fame, security, a work:life balance, a family, power, a sense of doing something worthwhile etc. Each of us has a set of rewards we want in life and each career has the potential to deliver a different set of rewards. Finding a career that delivers the set you want is half the journey. 

The other half is to be able to offer to that career the skillset that the employer will want. Just as each career offers a different reward set, each one demands a different skillset. If you don’t have the suitable skillset, the job might be a good match for you, but you’re not a good match for it.  

It’s worth unpacking what that skillset actually is. It’s not just skills, but broad ‘employability’. Employability comprises the following in no particular order:

(1) Skills: 

(a) Hard skills, ie job specific skills, such as welding if you want to be a welder;

(b) Soft skills, ie transferable skills, such as communication, team work or numeracy, which are all useful in any job, albeit to varying degrees.

2) Knowledge, some of which is specific to the job (eg. a surgeon’s understanding of anatomy), but much of which is of the broader nature that you’ve written about (although to some extent, this comes up in (4) below) 

(3) Character, which comprises attitude, behaviours and personality (and includes important traits like grit, resilience and a growth mindset, but also determination, politeness and amiability).   

(4) Social capital, or how society perceives your intrinsic value (based on class, age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, height, accent, use of the right fork, etc). This is the often unwelcome component of employability because it explains why a person might get to be Prime Minister with a record of being repeatedly sacked when anyone from a disadvantaged background wouldn’t have been given a second chance. We cannot ignore it though, if only to recognise that in order to make it matter less, you need to ensure you have all the other components in spades. There are also things that one can do to build social capital – most importantly, the wider knowledge that you have written about is key to this and not in a bad way. 

Although these four components comprise ‘employability’, actually we are talking about something far broader than merely producing career fodder. We’re talking about creating rounded people: someone with a full complement of the four components is well equipped for making a life, not just a living. 

What role does university play in any of this? It’s easy to see that disadvantaged students might start out with even more limited employability than more affluent students. University explicitly sets out to build knowledge and often hard skills too. It also builds soft skills, although it tends to do this implicitly. It also builds social capital through exposure to a wider cross-section of society, establishing networks and broadening horizons. It might also build character, but it is arguable whether it does so better than the ‘university of life’. In any case, disadvantaged students tend to have a lower propensity to take advantage of the character-building opportunities (such as extra-curricular activities) that uni might offer. This is often down to money, circumstances and habits formed in school. 

When you look at it like this, you can see how uni builds employability into a quality some researchers have called ‘graduateness’, which is clearly prized by employers. 

So, should uni be a failsafe or a first option? As I said, it has to be down to the individual and the gap between their skillset and that required by the career that might fulfil their reward set. Critical to this is the questions of ‘if not uni, then what?’ Around 50% of school-leavers do not go to university. Most go into jobs (usually just ‘jobs’, rather than ‘careers’). A few go into apprenticeships, training or other non-higher education. Too many become NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training). There’s not a sufficiently good other pathway (there absolutely should be!) and, unless there is a better option, university must surely look attractive to anyone with the grades and willingness to spend longer in education. 

Degree apprenticeships are a decent option, but they are few and far between, fairly limited in the choice of jobs, and subject to many of the same prejudices against the disadvantaged that exist at any level of employment. 

I haven’t touched on the fact that uni is an expensive option. It is and I believe the student/graduate’s contribution to the cost is disproportionate. (In fact, a think tank recently publishing a paper I wrote proposing an alternative.) That said, uni is pretty much free at the point of entry and you only pay when you earn a decent wage. In that sense, cost should not be seen as a barrier, although it might be seen as an impediment. 

 

An English (Department’s) Journey PART 2: Teaching Hard Stuff

In this blog post, another member of the Kings College (Guildford) English department explains one of the factors in this year’s amazing GCSE results. This time, we’re talking about teaching hard stuff.

Consistency and high expectations and two things that are consistently expected of just about anybody who works in a school. But is this necessarily true of the type of work we expect the kids to do? I’ve been teaching for 17 years with 4 of those in SLT and I’ll openly admit that it has been something that I am guilty of. A classic case of ‘Oh these kids won’t be able to do that, they’ll find it too hard and will give up!’ Thankfully over the past 2 and a half years, since stepping down from SLT and going back into the classroom, this egregious error has been well and truly removed from my practice.

I’ve only taught English for two years and this was due to my aforementioned move from SLT back to a classroom practitioner. I was asked to take on a ‘challenging’ group and try and get them to engage in English and achieve a modicum of ‘success’ (whatever that looks like!) – this was a group who were used to a low bar and consequently believed that this was all they could do.

As @Mulligan already highlighted in a previous blog the KS3 curriculum has been developed to push the students right from the word go. Focusing on learning key terminology and themes and mastering them before they get to Year 10. When discussing how a total English novice should approach his group, the same principle applied – consistently make it hard, consistently make it challenging and consistently expect the students to give their best. As someone who had used the ‘can’t do it’ excuse in the past in his own specialist subject I was bloody nervous. Turns out I shouldn’t have been.

By focusing on teaching hard concepts and content this ‘challenging’ group became more and more motivated. The focus on literacy and learning 4 words a week saw the students desperate to use a newly learnt word in their work. Students who previously would use the word ‘nice’ as their go to adjective used ‘diaphonous’ to describe a dress or ‘mellifluous’ to describe a sound. They wanted to know the difference between omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotence and they wanted to use them in their work.

This was also reflected in their approach to key texts. Yes, my group found Macbeth hard but they all wanted to produce great answers and had the vast majority knew the main plot points Act by Act. An Inspector Call was no different – the discussions we had based around class bias and has Britain really changed were amazing. A Christmas Carol saw us looking at the similarities between Scrooge and the Birlings.

By teaching ‘hard stuff’ and acknowledging it was hard the vast majority of students wanted to prove to everybody that they could do English. And do it well.

The result of pushing and teaching difficult stuff? 41% of the students gained a grade 4 or higher. From a group where 8% were predicted to achieve it (which shows the value of predicting anything!) And a teacher with radically changed perceptions on what can be achieved – if you make it hard enough!

– @edgarbrun

An English (Department’s) Journey PART 1: Prioritising KS3

Two months after I joined Kings College (Guildford) in September 2016, Ofsted came in and judged the school to be ‘Inadequate’. It wasn’t long before the school (43% PP, largely white working class) was voted by one local, very widely read, newspaper, ‘The Worst School in Surrey’, and a national tabloid published our name on a list of the worst schools in England. By December 2018 the school became one of the first schools in England to jump two Ofsted ratings, from ‘Inadequate’ to ‘Good’ in such a short space of time. That August, English results in the school had risen from 43% to 53%. A year later, in August 2019, the English department- a rag-tag group of five, made up of two specialists, two non-specialists, and a trainee, found out that they had helped students secure the best results the English department had ever had, with 76% of students achieving a pass in either Lit or Lang and 53% achieving a good pass (5+). This achievement, combined with other departments’ sterling efforts meant that this year, 3 years after being declared the worst school in Surrey, Kings College secured it’s best ever GCSE results.

On results day, despite me moaning about teachers doing this in the past,I couldn’t help but show off about the English department’s achievements. 43 to 76% in just two years. I know there will be people reading this right now, saying that it’s remiss for us, as teachers, to take any credit for the results achieved by our students. If you think this, you are wrong. Of course students are hugely responsible for their success- and failure. But to deny or ignore teacher’s impact would be folly. After all, a class doesn’t get a 100% pass rate if the teacher doesn’t teach them what they’re meant to learn.

In this series of blogs, I’m going to do my best to explain, with the help of my colleagues at Kings, to explain how we helped the students to do what they did. As Head of Department, I recognise 6 factors (listed in no particular order):

  1. Prioritising KS3 over KS4
  2. A supportive headteacher
  3. Teaching hard stuff
  4. Making curriculum the thing
  5. Great teaching
  6. Relentless Modelling.

The first part of this series is written by English Teacher extraordinaire, @MissJMulligan and looks at the way greater focus on KS3 leads to greater success at KS4.

1. Prioritising KS3 over KS4

Our Key Stage Three curriculum is relentlessly challenging. We teach each core text over a term, with other key areas woven in. The texts are highly challenging not only in content, but in the discussions their themes provoke. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ ‘The Speckled Band’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ all feature in Year 8, and The Iliad is Year 7’s first introduction to English at Kings. In year 9 kids read either Frankenstein (yes- the full, unabridged version) or The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Shakespeare, too, features highly, with ‘The Tempest’, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ all studied during the three year course. 

Grammar, Vocabulary, Creative Writing, Poetry, Rhetoric and Non-Fiction are all interspersed with these literary works. This is coupled with the use of Direct Instruction; the overt teaching of four words a week designed to give students a better general vocabulary. 

Knowledge is power. Power breeds confidence. Teachers in our department have two or three core literary concepts/terms only that students must understand by the end of each text or topic. This has two advantages, but the first is that students build up thorough knowledge of core literary terms and their usage. A typical Year 7, for example, will be able to explain and identify simile, metaphor, verse, prose and soliloquy by Christmas.

Students are empowered by this knowledge. They communicate with big brothers about why “solitary as an oyster” is a simile and not a metaphor. They explain with nonchalance to guardians why verse indicates higher status than prose. They question the ordering of classical rhetoric and move the refutation where they fancy, because they speak with authority.

Put simply – they know they know stuff.

The second advantage of this knowledge-rich curriculum is that, without warning, feeling powerful starts feeling fun. Competence breeds a thirst for further competence and as confidence improves, students seek more for themselves.

This curiosity filters upwards. By GCSE, students have already grappled with key terms and texts others may first encounter only partway through Year 10 and have the confidence to articulate what they feel and know about a text.  They believe in their teachers and value their knowledge, and understand that sometimes, you need to just listen. They fear pen-to-paper less, because they have the words to show themselves.

But there’s a secret here. The best thing about KS3 in our school is that I love teaching it. I love that once I spent a month of our creative writing lessons slow-writing a short story with a class because the kids wanted to, and that’s OK with the boss. I love that I will never againdrag an eleven-year-old through a GCSE language paper as if that’s somehow useful. I love that when others cover my classes, they’re pulled up for misspelling learned vocabulary.

We give our students voices of their own so they do not shy away from challenge. By the time they reach GCSE, they have the words – and the love – they need to succeed. 

ME, ME, ME: The Spotlight Effect and Teaching.

Yesterday I shaved my beard off.

It was joyous, for me, to behold the Adonis that looked back at me from the mirror, all smooth chinned and liberated lip. “This will make me feel better,” I thought. I care a lot about what other people think of my appearance (*Yes- I know I need to love myself but it’s difficult when you’re a 33 year old man with a head like a pachycephalosaurus, and ears resembling the handles of a certain domestic football trophy) and so, a few compliments about my new, more chiselled, less scruffy appearance would do nicely to help get me through the tiring last few days of term.

Nobody said a thing.

Now, I’m sure the people I work with ain’t horrible bastards; it wasn’t necessarily that they noticed my freedom from fuzz and just chose not to say anything. Rather, they just failed to realise an essential truth; that everything I do should be a huge deal for them.

Apparently, my egocentric tendencies aren’t that unusual. The Spotlight Effect, a term coined by psychologists Gilovich, Medvec, and Savitsky in their paper, The Spotlight Effect in Social Judgment: An Egocentric Bias in Estimates of the Salience of One’s Own Actions and Appearance (2000), refers to the way in which, ‘people tend to believe that the social spotlight shines more brightly on them than it really does.’ Basically, our whole experience of the world is framed through our own perspective and experiences. So, we naturally assume that other people see the world as we do: through our lens. Because of this, we tend to overestimate the extent to which people notice changes in our appearance, our mishaps, and our accomplishments.

Gilovich and his colleagues asked participants to wear a t-shirt with someone’s face on it, and enter a room with other students in it. Once the participants left the room, they were asked how many people they thought had noticed or could remember the face on the t-shirt. Each time, participants drastically over-estimated the extent to which people had noticed the face. What’s more, if the student was wearing a face they were embarrassed to wear (in this case the face was that of Barry Manilow –sorry Baz), then they over-estimated even further the extent to which people had registered the great man’s face, on their t-shirt. This has quite pleasing implications because it means that when we are embarrassed, we’re likely to have a more severely skewed idea of just how many students notice the gargantuan sweat stain emanating from our left armpit as we give assembly.

So, what does this mean for teachers? A few things.

1. BE BOLD

It means you can wear that new ‘zany’ tie, sport that new haircut, or try out that new neon yellow dress, without fear of ridicule from students and staff alike. So go on, if you think it will make you feel good, embrace the skinny tie your Mum said looked good on you at Nana’s wedding.

2.DON’T SWEAT IT

If you’re new to the classroom, or you’re having to present to some god awful panel, or you’re delivering CPD after school on a Friday, and you feel nervous, the chances and despite what you think, your whole audience hasn’t noticed your shaky hands, the tremble in your voice, or the sweat patches.

3. SLIDE AWAY FROM SLIDES

Perhaps many of us resort to overly slidey PowerPoint slides as a means of distracting from something about ourselves that we consider to be embarrassing: A bad haircut, a pimple on the nose, or a tightly-fitting shirt that reveals just a little too much of last night’s six-pack. Your students need more of you and less smoke-screen. Give them it.

4. MODEL, YOURSELF

Often teachers avoid live modelling in class because they become hyper aware of things their audience probably won’t notice, or care about: the odd typo, wonky handwriting, a bit of thinking time from the teacher before committing thoughts to the board. A seven second pause as you try to remember how to spell ‘excruciating’ might seem like eternity to you, but for your audience it might seem like…er…7 seconds.

5.SHINE A SOFTER SPOTLIGHT

Your students will fall victims to the spotlight effect too. They will over-estimate the extent to which people might react badly to their answering questions in class. Make your students feel less self-conscious by telling them about The Spotlight Effect, and building a culture where it’s safe-even desirable- to get things wrong every now and again.

Mental Health Awareness Week: An excerpt from ‘Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools.’

Our book, Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools contains a whole chapter looking at boys’ mental health. In the chapter we offer a range of suggestions as to how we can improve boys’ mental health. In honour of Mental Health Awareness Week, here are two of these suggestions, taken directly from the book.

Talk with boys using their language

Despite the dominant narrative of male emotional mutism, often men and boys are talking about mental health, but we’re failing to notice that they are because they’re not using the language of mental health we’re listening out for. Men, encouraged to stifle any emotional outpourings from a young age, lack the vocabulary of mental health: so, whilst it wouldn’t seem unusual for a female to say, ‘I’ve been feeling really anxious,’ or, ‘I’m worried I might be depressed,’ the opposite is true for a male, who has been encouraged from birth, to display stoic fortitude and strength at all times. Male use of clinical words such as ‘anxious’, and ‘depressed’, which directly refer to mental health, are not part of the male lexicon because to speak those words would be to speak of weakness. There is a further issue, as Robertson and Baker note, that even phrases like ‘I’m feeling unloved,’ or ‘I have butterflies in my stomach all the time’, which avoid medical terminology, are still feminised and therefore less likely to be used by men. An Australian study, conducted by Fiona Shand et al, surveyed men on the language they used to express suicidal thoughts and depression. The top 5 words or phrases men used to describe feeling suicidal were:

The top 5 words or phrases men used to describe feeling depressed were:

Whilst you won’t get many teenage boys using the phrase, ‘down in the dumps’, what we do see here is the use of acceptably male words (‘stressed’ and ‘tired’ is what you should feel after a day of all that manly work) used euphemistically to express feelings associated with a serious mental health issue.

As teachers we need to be mindful of the language boys use and the very real possibility that when a boy tells us he’s ‘tired’, it might not be because he’s had too much late night X-Box – it might be that he feels he’s had too much life; when he tells us he’s ‘stressed’ it might not be that he’s fed up with revision, it might be that he’s fed up with living. As teachers we need to ensure we take note of the frequency with which boys use these terms, and take note of the contexts in which they are used: I’m tired because I stayed up late is very different to I keep falling out with my friends and I just feel tired of it all.

Provide men to talk to

Whilst students ascribe very little importance to a teacher’s gender in terms of learning, a study in Australia found that where personal matters are concerned, students would prefer to talk to someone of their own gender. In my previous school, the pastoral team – that is, the body of teachers responsible for helping and supporting students with issues not directly related to their subject learning – was largely female. Noticing that this was also the case with pastoral teams on a number of school-based television documentaries, I took to Twitter to see if this reflected a wider trend. Here are the results of a poll, in which 413 people responded:

Overwhelmingly, the staff whose job it is to counsel and console children tends to be female. It’s important that school leaders make a concerted effort to ensure boys know that in their schools, on their pastoral teams there is a man with a kind smile and a sympathetic ear. A boy who is anxious about his penis size, or confused with his sexuality, or fuming at the fact that Lucy in 9B told her friends about the love letter he wrote her, may be desperate for a man to discuss this with. If the shoulders to cry on are always female, we could be doing some boys a huge disservice.

You can order your copy of Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/aw/d/0815350252/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1555932583&sr=8-1

Bibliography

Robertson, S. & Baker, P. (2016) ‘Men and health promotion in the United Kingdom: 20 years forward?’ Health Education Journal, 76, pp. 102-113

Shand FL., Proudfoot J., Player MJ., et al. (2015) ‘What might interrupt men’s suicide? Results from an online survey of men’. BMJ Open. Available at: https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/bmjopen/5/10/e008172.full.pdf (Accessed: 14th August 2018)

Martin, A. J. & Marsh, H. (2005) ‘Motivating boys and motivating girls: does teacher gender really make a difference?’ Australian Journal of Education, 49:3, pp 320–334.

An English Journey through ‘An Inspector Calls’.

Published in 1934, English Journey details JB Priestley’s 1933 tour of England, a trip commissioned by the left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz (who would later commission Orwell’s copycat travelogue, The Road to Wigan Pier), who was eager to expose the grim realities of working-class post-war Britain. Perhaps to Gollancz’s alarm, English Journey begins optimistically: it is with childish awe and excitement that Priestley observes the Ocean Liners at Southampton, comparing them to Medieval Cathedrals in the way that they are testament to the ambition and accomplishments of mankind.

But, as the days and miles pass, and as Priestley heads further North, away from the private clubs and champagne dinners of London, towards the industrial communities of the North, what begins as a seemingly sentimental jaunt around the country, quickly descends into a record of decimated neighbourhoods, impoverished individuals, and futures devoid of hope and comfort.

Thirteen years later, An Inspector Calls is performed on the London stage for the first time. English Journey, the experiences related in it, and the biographical insight it provides into the thoughts, motives, and political beliefs of its writer, bolster any contextual interrogation of An Inspector Calls and for those studying it at GCSE, I outline the following essential takeaways.

1.Priestley’s experience of the First World War informs his contempt for Mr Birling

In EJ, Priestley visits his hometown of Bradford for a reunion battalion dinner. The occasion prompts Priestley to remark that

The men who were boys when I was a boy are dead. Indeed, they never even grew to be men. They were slaughtered in their youth; and the parents of them have gone lonely, the girls they would have married have grown grey in spinsterhood, and the work they would have done has remained undone.

Priestley goes on to say that his childhood friends, victims of the war that killed so many, were ‘killed by greed…by old men gobbling and roaring in clubs.’ It’s tempting to think that Priestley’s relentless efforts to present Birling as an arsehole stem purely from a contempt for the ruling classes on an economic and political basis, but this suggests that Priestley’s contempt goes far beyond that. One gets the sense that for Priestley, men like Birling are not only responsible for the poverty and deprivation endured by the working classes in post-war Britain, but are also responsible for the slaughter of so many working class men in the first world war.

Priestley’s musings also invite us to look at the younger Birling male in a different light. Will Eric’s ‘public-school-and-Varsity-life’ protect him from the fate suffered by Priestley’s childhood pals? Or is the deplorable behaviour he exhibits in the play, a desperate attempt by Priestley to justify the inevitable fate that Eric will inevitably suffer, as a young man of Britain, in the ‘Great War’ that will begin two years after the play’s action ends.

2. Priestley knew the Midlands and he knew factories

Priestley’s decision to set the play in an ‘Industrial City in the North Midlands’ was based on an in-depth knowledge of the area and the processes of the factories within it. In EJ he describes how the landscape of the Midlands ‘unrolled before you like a smouldering carpet. You looked into an immense hollow of smoke and blurred buildings and factory chimneys. There seemed to be no end to it.’ Interestingly, considering the way they are presented in AIC, the factories that intruded upon the landscape of the Midlands and beyond impressed Priestley. He dedicates substantial amounts of ink to marvelling over the way factories produce typewriters, hosiery, and even chocolate. And yet, for all this, he is distinctly aware of the differing impacts of mechanisation on the lives of those who ran factories, like Birling, and factory workers, like Eva:

[there is] a great distinction between the fortunate few who are outside the machine and are capable of making changes in it, and the great mass of ordinary workpeople, mostly women, who are inside the machine, simply part of it. This distinction is so great that you feel that there two sets of people ought to belong to two different races.

Mr Birling (and the class for which he is a metonym) are outside the machine: he can raise prices and drop wages. He can forgive disruption and punish it. Eva, however, is someone inside the machine: a vital, but easily replaceable-and dispensable-cog. His observation that factory workers and factory owners are like people from ‘two different races’ explains the motivation behind Mrs Birling’s attempts to distance herself from Eva when she talks about ‘girls of that class.’

3. Priestley is an obsessive dramatist

AIC abounds in Stage Directions. In fact, Priestley’s fastidiousness in outlining exactly how he wants the play to look, the characters to talk, and the lines to be delivered may explain why productions of An Inspector Calls are so uniform in appearance and delivery. In the past, I have always theorised that Priestley’s meticulous approach is an indicator of his absolute determination to convey his message. But actually, EJ suggests that political motive isn’t the only thing driving force behind Priestley’s pedantic insistence on exactly how each line of the play should be delivered:

The theatre gets you. The play binds you, body and soul. There seems to be nothing else worth talking about…The whole life of the city, except so far as it touches your theatre, is nothing. You and your colleagues might be members of a secret society, working feverishly to strike a sudden blow at authority…The real questions are: “Will Bert manage that five seconds fade out all right?” and “Is Miss So-and-so going to get that move right at the end of Act Two?”

Priestley’s maddening technical attention to detail isn’t just about striking a blow against authority; it’s also inextricably linked to that ‘tide of excitement, sometimes roaming into hysteria, which inevitably rises when a play is being produced.” Priestley just wants to be perfect at something he loves. What’s clear in EJ is just how dependent he is on theatre as a means of escape. With every visit to a new town he discusses with verve and enthusiasm, the state of theatre in that particular location. It’s worth baring in mind this enthusiasm, when discussing AIC’s stage directions. They are the product of a political man, but also a political man with a hobby.

Bibliography

Priestley, JB (2018) English Journey, Great Northern: Bradford