education

Re-educated by Lucy Kellaway review – straight to the top of the class


I expected to like Re-educated, the new memoir by Lucy Kellaway, who at the age of 57 and to the bafflement of friends and colleagues, resigned from her cushy perch as a columnist for the Financial Times to retrain as a teacher. Reinvention stories are always fun and rarely feature anyone who can’t be spun as still young, plus I like journalist narrators. The surprise of the book, then, isn’t that it is good, but how good – and thrilling, and fascinating, and moving. To my amazement, I found myself swallowing hard halfway through the story and remained on the brink of tears for the entire final third.

Nothing dramatic happens, or rather, nothing dramatic beyond the dramas that attend most people’s lives as they age. We meet Kellaway in 2013, in her early 50s, just as her marriage is deteriorating, her ageing father is fading, and after decades as a journalist at the FT, she is facing burnout and mid-career malaise. We learn that, in the 70s, her late mother was an inspirational English teacher in north London, and that she is obsessed with property. Somehow all these factors co-mingle in Kellaway’s mind to inspire her to do something radical. Five years later, she has quit her job, ended her marriage and moved from the large, period property in Highbury where she and her husband raised their four children, to live alone in a modern house in Hackney. It is from here she begins a new life as a teacher.

As Kellaway herself points out, books about ageing tend to be terrible; either too maudlin, or too evasive and jolly. The joy of Re-educated is a briskness of tone that doesn’t forestall introspection. In fact, I found the book a great deal more honest than a lot of ostensibly more literary memoirs. It is rare, in any story, to find a narrator who can confront her own limitations without sneakily presenting them as adorable virtues. Kellaway doesn’t do this. She is, one senses, as appalled by herself as some of her new colleagues are by her during her first weeks on the job. When Kellaway starts teacher training, she is monstrously bigheaded, over-fond of her own opinion, sceptical of authority, hostile to being managed, and can’t work any type of technology. In other words, a typical career journalist.

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This is a book about having one’s assumptions – about oneself, and others – thoroughly and swiftly dismantled. The school Kellaway joins is a large comprehensive in Hackney, where the majority of kids come from economically disadvantaged homes. It is a school where the emphasis is on discipline and rigorous exam-training, neither of which fits into Kellaway’s ideas of what a good school should be. In the 70s, when she attended Camden School for Girls, the emphasis was on creativity. Slowly, Kellaway sees the limitations and class biases of this particular mindset.

“Progressives like my parents,” she writes, “would have denied that education was about knowing things. They would have said it was more about skills, about learning how to think, and, most importantly, learning how to think originally. I would have accepted this myself until I started teaching.”

After a few months in the job, with her inadequacies starkly on display (“‘I’m not being funny, Miss. But I could learn this better from watching a video,” offers one child, helpfully, after another disastrous lesson), she understands that ignoring the curriculum to model herself after Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society does the kids a disservice. “The best way of helping Alicia,” she writes, in relation to a struggling pupil, “is not to try to make economics a fun show, it’s to get her to pass her exam. If it is a teacher’s job to open doors, those doors, under the present regime, are GCSEs.”

To underline this point, Kellaway writes about the experiences of her own son, Art, who attends a private school in London and gets poor grades in his A-levels. Everything turns out all right, partly because, after the shock of the failure, Art pulls himself together. But things also work out because his educated, wealthy, middle- class parents know how to work the system. (They discover you can get into Nottingham University to do engineering even with two Cs, if you do a foundation year first.) These contingencies aren’t reachable for most of the kids Kellaway teaches; if they fail – thanks to her self-indulgent teaching, or for any other reason – the likelihood is they’ll receive no second chance.

There’s another narrative in the book, which follows Kellaway and her business partner, Katie Waldegrave, as they set up Now Teach, a non-profit designed to recruit teachers from middle-aged professionals who are fed up with their first careers. This is fascinating, too; the ranks of bankers and lawyers who secretly want to be maths teachers. Some drop out when they discover how hard it is to walk into a room where you’re not automatically the boss. But many succeed, at a stage in life when it is assumed starting from scratch is impossible.

The point, writes Kellaway, is that “career” is the wrong word for people like her, who enter teaching after decades of success elsewhere. She has no ambition, other than to be a better teacher; when she’s offered more money to do a job with a small managerial load, she turns it down. This is a privilege, of course. Kellaway and the teachers recruited through Now Teach are financially secure. But it also frees them up to focus exclusively on the kids.

It is mind-bendingly hard. In those early days in the school, Kellaway is constantly being humbled by the extent of her ignorance. In a staff meeting, she bristles when a fellow teacher priggishly upbraids her for using the term “low ability” in relation to her bottom economics set. “‘Can I suggest,’ she said in a sugary voice with head held to one side, ‘that you be careful about using the term ‘low ability’?” The woman advises Kellaway that the correct term is “low prior attainment”, to which Kellaway retorts, internally, “What total PC bollocks. Whose interests were served by this soppy pretence that everyone is equally able, when this was so evidently not the case?” But she changes her mind on this, too. “Even though ‘low prior attainment’ doesn’t trip off the tongue, the more time I spend with teenagers the more I see the problem with attaching an ability label to them.”

There are lots of reasons to read this book, which has the fineness of detail, sharpness of humour and grace of a novel by Penelope Lively. But it’s this business of changing one’s mind – the thing most of us least like to do – that I admired the most. That and the feelgood conclusion that it’s possible to change course and be happy. “I’m exhausted, but not especially stressed,” writes Kellaway after another tough day. “This is something odd about my new life: even though it is far more tiring than my old one, it doesn’t stress me out in quite the same way. I think this is because it’s not actually about me. It’s about the students.” Walking home from school, she goes over the events of the day. “I did some bad things and some good things. And that, it seems to me, is good enough.”

Re-educated: How I Changed My Job, My Home, My Husband and My Hair by Lucy Kellaway is published by Ebury (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply



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