Richard McComb talks to Phil Beadle, 'the most famous teacher ever' who is sick of educational elitism.
For someone who likens himself to a squiggle, Phil Beadle is sharp around the edges.
He is good humoured and generous to a fault but rub him up the wrong way and you will get cut, very badly. Beadle is not a sadist, and most definitely is not a disciplinarian, but one gets the impression he would rather enjoy drawing blood from a foe; and he has got plenty of them.
Fame has come later in life than anticipated by this 42-year-old former rock/soul/indie singer and not in the musical manner he had planned – he'd say ineptly – from his south London home. Philip Beadle, the artist formerly known as Philip Kane, is now the unlikely pin-up boy of the nation's staff rooms. Named Secondary Teacher of the Year in 2005, he found media exposure on the Channel 4 show The Unteachables in which he set out to prove that the 'Am I bovvered?' generation were not only bothered, but were also teachable.
Today, Beadle has a platform for his educational ideas and personal neuroses courtesy of a column for The Guardian; he would probably love to write one for The Sun (it would allow him to 'effect greater change' - and it would pay better); and as these two polarised journalistic institutions suggest, Beadle is loved and loathed in equal measure.
Actually, that's not quite true. A persecution complex goes with the territory in Beadle's line of work and he would have it that his detractors far out-number his supporters. It might, however, be the case that his critics, to use this teacher's penchant for earthy linguistic expression, are simply more gobby.
Beadle is one of the star turns at the Birmingham Book Festival, and will be appearing at South Birmingham College's Digbeth campus next Wednesday. He will be imparting the unconventional wisdom contained in his self-help teaching manual for despairing parents, titled Could Do Better! Help Your Child Shine at School. A consistently lively read, the book allows parents to determine which of the seven multiple intelligences their child excels at, because he or she will excel at one; it just might not be the one that was expected.
The theory of multiple intelligences was developed by an American psychologist, but don't let that put you off. Beadle points out: "The notion of IQ is worse than useless, since it only really measures one very specific skill: the ability to crack codes."
He believes this system of assessing intelligence has been "writing people off as mental defectives for nearly a century."
Having identified your child's intelligence, the theory holds that a child's education will come on leaps and bounds if teaching is tailored to his/her sensibilities.
For example, children, often boys, who possess bodily/kinetic intelligence excel in physical intelligence, co-ordination and dexterity. They'll take your breath away on the dance-floor at the school disco and will take on all-comers at playground keepy-uppy.
However, they also tend to fidget in class and, in that legendary teaching indictment, are 'easily distracted.' Beadle suggests teachers should get such children up off their chairs and use action and movement in learning strategies. Is Dwaine bored reading Macbeth? Get him to clear the desks, create a blasted heath and act like a lunatic witch.
Beadle will be doing exactly that – getting members of his audience up off their bums – at his book festival 'gig' (old rock habits, and terminology, die hard). He will have people clambering over chairs in one of his unorthodox grammar lessons, on prepositions, a topic so dry mere mention of the word induces thirst.
Then there is punctuation kung fu. Children are taught the function of full stops, commas etc by giving the punctuation corresponding kung fu-style actions. So, class, prepare for speech marks: "Stand on one leg in a pose nicked from The Karate Kid, extend your arms diagonally to the skies and wiggle your index and middle fingers in an approximation of speech marks. Make the noise, Haeeeee!"
I can see how preposition chair-leaping and David Carradine punctuation would appeal to children, but I question how such activities go down with staid teachers.
"It generally goes down like an absolute storm," says Beadle. "It taps into how paltry their own school education was. It can be an emotional experience. They all come out saying, 'I wish our school had been like that. I wish the teaching I got had involved that kind of work'."
Beadle is a black belt in 'that kind of work' because, in the world of corporate management-speak, he thinks outside the box; and it helps that he is a squiggle.
The system of psychogeometrics holds that there are five personality types: squares, triangles, circles, rectangles and squiggles. Identify the shape/personality, tap into its strengths, and you will be blessed with academic achievement, according to the theory.
Squares, for example, are methodical personalities whereas squiggles are way out there.
"I am squiggle, absolutely," says Beadle. "I went to a course when I was teaching. There was a room full of people with very starchy shirts and ties. I was in a pair of combat trousers and beat-up Doctor Martens.
"They were all, unsurprisingly, squares and triangles and there was only one person in the room who was a squiggle and I was picked out and bullied by the tutor. That happens to squiggles."
Beadle, who regards himself as an 'autistic bore,' is pleased he has left his music career behind: "A 40-year-old man wearing leather trousers is deeply, deeply unattractive." One of his albums, Songs for Swinging Lovers, a soulful compendium of love and menace, sold 300 copies worldwide, mainly in Rotterdam. Philip Kane retains a small, but dedicated following in Troms, Norway, "the gateway to the Arctic," where he is bigger than the Nolans.
"There is kind of an unpleasant irony where I have achieved a degree of fame for my day job which I never achieved in the thing I was actually any good at," says Beadle. "Last week, I was on Steve Wright in the Afternoon on Radio 2. There is an awful sadness that I will go on to these radio shows that would never have listened to my bloody records."
Unfortunately, Beadle believes his rock 'n' roll past and the career of an educator are mutually exclusive. "My work as a singer was fairly adult and fairly dissolute," he says, laughing with a gravelly chortle that speaks of too many fags behind the bike-sheds.
So these days he doesn't tend to talk about sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and alcohol: "Sex? Don't do that any more. Drugs? Don't do them. Rock "n" roll? Don't do them. There's still a bit of alcohol involved."
I think I know the answer but it is fun to ask, there being nothing better than watching a squiggle squirm. "So was there a lot of that in the past?"
Again, there is that disarming, slightly panicked laugh.
"How do we cope with this?" says Beadle. "Well, I think I lived the life that one would expect of a singer/songwriter."
The answer is diplomatic, not a description usually associated with this classroom firebrand. Modesty is not one either.
When I ask Beadle why he creates such a violent reaction, some of which he says has been 'very, very nasty,' his answer is illuminating: "I think it boils down to jealously in that teaching is a graduate profession with 500,000 people working in it. I am the teacher who has attained the highest profile that any teacher has ever had, really.
"If one teacher from that graduate profession sticks their head above the parapet they are going to get it shot off."
Some of his detractors have called for Beadle to be struck off by the General Teaching Council. He is now officially freelance, having left his last school to pursue his media career. However, Beadle, who is married with three young children, thinks he might have to do some supply teaching.
"Telly work is nowhere near as well paid as people would assume and it takes a long, long time to come round. Shockingly, I have got about three weeks before I have got to go down the supply agency, which is going to be emotionally quite taxing. More or less every single person in the education system has got a view of me and there are a lot of them with very, very seriously negative views.
"I am going to turn up and be very anonymous in the staff room, but it is not going to work."
(Beadle, incidentally, is a "square" when it comes to grammar and will he horrified to read the tautology in the last sentence.)
He makes no excuses for his experimental teaching style, which has involved getting pupils to quote verse to a field of cows. "My philosophy is that the most ridiculous, outrageous idea that you have is probably the best one. If your immediate response is, 'I can't do that' that is probably the one that is going to ignite kids" passion and interest, therefore their learning."
And if all the world's a stage, the classroom is the front row. Beadle believes the disciplines of teaching and performance are intrinsically linked. "It is six hours of being on stage every day," he says.
"You have to be able to manifest charisma; whether you have got it or not is another thing entirely. But as a stage performer you manifest the tricks of a charismatic person and that is a tried and trusted way of getting the attention of the class."
Maintaining the interest of Year 9 is also crucial. But how can this be possible when children as portrayed by the mass media and in TV school dramatisations seem hell-bent on getting an Asbo rather than a GCSE?
"My approach to discipline is making the lesson so bloody interesting that no one has got any interest in playing about," says Beadle, whose voice at times can sound disturbingly like Johnny Rotten.
"Kids only mess about because they're bored. Therefore, don't bore them, they won't mess about. Works."
It seems a bit simplistic. Can that always be the case? "Entirely," says Beadle, who is as emphatic as he is empathetic.
"I am not what you would describe as a staunch disciplinarian. In the last five years at school I didn't set a single detention. The reason I didn't set a single detention is because I didn't have to.
"And detentions don't work, by the way. They just make the kids hate you.
"I had a very good piece of advice from a very experienced teacher when I had just started. He said, "If you're not enjoying their punishment, it's not working."
"It's true. Detention will only work if the teacher is really enjoying it. There has to be a slight element of sadism.
"This sounds unnecessarily arrogant but there was always a palpable sense of excitement outside my classroom. At Year 10, they line all the kids out and read out their names and their English teachers. There would be 180 kids all praying they would be in my class."
So why are there so few Mr Beadles in our schools?
"I think there are probably three or four in every school," he says. "It's just that those people are not the alarming self-publicists that I am. They actually have integrity."
Integrity or not, Beadle believes parents and teachers should cherish the creative impulses of children, including their predilection for dialect. Parents of children who have recently started at secondary school will know the joys of street speak. Don't worry: it doesn't mean your son is becoming a Yardie.
Beadle says: "A child has to develop a school voice and a home voice. It is a survival mechanism. Yes, if your daughter comes back and calls your wife a blonx batty'd ho (a fat bottomed prostitute) it is going to be depressing, but she needs to learn that the playground voice and the home voice/lesson voice are different.
"What I would say about dialect is that the exam system is prejudiced against working class kids, in that working class kids who speak in dialect form and don't speak in the Queen's English find reading and writing more difficult than kids with a BBC voice.
"Down here in Catford, for instance, every kid spells something s-u-m-f-i-n-k. Your pronunciation feeds into your ability to read and write and working class kids, because of dropped hs and different, flatter vowel sounds, can find decoding the written work more difficult."
So the education system is stacked against working class children? "The education system was designed by middle-class people for middle-class people," says Beadle.
He is stinging in his criticism of grammar schools, branding the 11+ examination as "immoral to the point of child abuse".
And then he's off with his views on the way working-class white children have been sidelined in British education. It is passionate stuff.
"The reason I am speaking up for white working-class kids is because they are the lowest attaining social and economic group in education. They should be the Government's highest priority. If the biggest socio-economic group is also the lowest attaining it is going to have a huge impact on the way the education system is perceived.
"I am basically a one-man pressure group for the right of white, working-class kids to see their culture represented in schools as a culture – and of being of value."
Beadle "absolutely respects" initiatives to increase the performance of working class black and Asian children and is abhorred by claims that his stance might suggest he is a flag-waver for the BNP. "I wouldn't make a very convincing racist," he says. And he doesn't, because he isn't.
"In British education, we are very good at protecting kids' inalienable right to positive representations of their own culture. However, we have forgotten to extend that right to the kids of the white working class," continues Beadle.
"They are the only cultural group within the country whose culture is not seen as being of any value. You can imagine how that impacts upon self-image. I have sat through assemblies where you get Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks, which I am emphatically behind; but the qualification is that the only white person they hear about in the whole term will be Adolf Hitler. You watch the kids squirm. There needs to be positive representation of white working class culture in schools."
Beadle despairs at the way schools "apply corporate guilt for colonialism." 'Now, this little white kid didn't do it (oppress the indigenous population).' The education system has no right to make him feel guilty for his ethnicity, just like it has no right to have any child, of any ethnicity, feel guilty.'
I'm guessing Beadle didn't think too much about the idea of a collective apology to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. "Oh, grow up," he says.
There is a wide sweep of Beadle bugbears – selective education, single sex schools and private education feature prominently. For these reasons, you may not approve of him; which is just as well, because he wouldn't seek your approval. He just does what he does – rather magically some would contend – and gets results.
And who could argue with this piece of Beadle advice on preparing for exams: "Every year, in the last lesson before my students go on study leave, I'll lay out a ruler and an exam paper on every desk. Each student is then asked to pick up the exam paper with their right hand and to dangle it between two fingers, while grasping the ruler in their left fist. They are then to bring the ruler to the backside of the exam paper and, at the teacher's request, to 'spank its arse'.''
Beadle's point is that confidence counts for everything in the gladiatorial atmosphere of the exam room.
And then there is this other tip: tell your child that their best is good enough. It's hard to fault.
"A kid can't go into an exam completely stressed. If they do there is a very good chance they are going to lose it. In order to relax children, letting them know that whatever they do in that exam, provided they have tried their hardest, the result is immaterial.
"If they have done the work, then whatever grade they get you will be proud of them."
I don't like to ask Beadle if he would offer the same advice to the thousands of Birmingham school children who are in countdown mode for next month's 11+ exams.
Best just to get on with it – and spank its arse.
>> Phil Beadle will be appearing at South Birmingham College, Digbeth Campus, High Street, Deritend on October 3. Tickets, priced #9, are only available in advance. Box Office: 0121 303 2323. Could Do Better! Help Your Child Shine at School, by Phil Beadle, is published by Doubleday, priced #12.99