Adam Simpson, head of English at a Cheshire school, explains how he combines full-time teaching with part-time writing
“ONOMATO PO E.I.A. BOOM!, ONOMATO PO E.I.A. BOOM!” bellows a teacher to a classroom of unimpressed teenagers. His enthusiasm for the written word is struggling to get much buy-in from the disengaged mass in front of him.
This is the story of Shaun, a downtrodden English teacher who is eventually beaten by the system, as depicted in the TV drama Beaten, shown last week on BBC One (and now screening on BBC iPlayer) as part of a series compiled by producer and screenwriter Jimmy McGovern. It is a window into the state of Britain’s education system.
The writer behind McGovern’s latest screenplay is himself an English teacher, father-of-three Adam Simpson, from Chester.
Simpson, a part-time writer and full-time head of English in his real-life classroom at Christleton High School, is at pains to say the plot is not autobiographical and most definitely not based on his school.
“This is a school that is getting it right,” he says. “You will see our headteacher out every break and lunchtime and he still teaches. He walks the walk. There are not many like him left. Ours is a brave head because he is insistent that we will not be an Ofsted-driven school. We are a student-driven school.”
The drama, a series of five, is a rebuke to the current state of the education system. “Politics is what is wrong with education, league tables are what is wrong with education,” says Simpson: “When any institution becomes solely target driven that’s when there is a danger of corruption and that’s when you become totally divorced from any holistic idea of education beyond statistics, and it happens in a lot of schools.”
Simpson has been a teacher for 15 years and has taught in three schools. His experience has been of politicians who have “no idea what it is like at the chalkface” constantly interfering with education, putting overworked teachers under immense strain and pressure to meet targets.
In the TV drama this pressure is a constant presence as the character Shaun battles with anxiety, exacerbated by an unruly pupil and a demonic headteacher until it erupts into near violence.
Simpson says Beaten encapsulates the problems with his profession: the way in which teaching styles have steadily become more prescriptive, and how an obsession with tests has led to children being seen as “arbitrary data whose sole purpose is to inform league tables”.
“There is little to no trust in staff. Teachers are told to focus solely on data and numbers and to forget that behind those numbers are children. In English, for example, what the exams force you to do and what I rally against is to distil literature down to assessment objectives, distil creative writing down to exam-board-specified objectives. This completely sucks the enjoyment out of it and does not make for curious, explorative readers.”
Simpson, whose parents were both teachers (as is his wife, Catherine), is not alone in his concerns. The latest government figures show that in the 12 months to November 2016, more than 50,000 qualified teachers left state schools – a “wastage rate” of 10.5%. Overall, 2,620 more teachers left the profession than joined it that year. In a recent poll of teachers by the National Education Union, more than 80% said they had considered quitting in the past year because of heavy workloads. Government research shows more than five times as many male primary teachers are leaving the profession as their female colleagues. And three-quarters of teachers reported symptoms of stress, including depression, anxiety and panic attacks, in a YouGov survey last year.
But, despite its many issues, Simpson says he still very much enjoys teaching and plans to continue it in tandem with his script writing. “I want to show children the beauty of literature and writing – show them it can evoke a discussion without always having to worry about whether you’ve fulfilled assessment objectives,” he says.
He adds: “Literature gives the voice to the voiceless. Shaun is that person. He is not an embittered cynic, he is a decent man and a good teacher in crisis – representative of the frustrations many teachers face.”
Simpson, who has been writing scripts since he left university, built up a bank of work and then trawled through the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook for every literary agency that would accept unsolicited submissions. He then “stuffed a load of envelopes” each with a script and letter, sending them to about 20 agencies.
After some months he heard back from one and secured an agent. The script for Beaten was subsequently sent to LA productions, which has close links with McGovern.
Since then, one of his plays, One More Unfortunate, about a woman who is sectioned, has been staged at the Unity Theatre in Liverpool and he is currently working on a number of scripts including I Am Johnny Proudfoot, about an failed stuntman with OCD, and a short story called The Brain, about a severely dyslexic boy called Brian.
Simpson does his writing in the early hours of the morning and late at night, somehow managing to fit it around his job. He puts his “backside in his seat”, he says, and grafts, accepting that early drafts might be “rubbish”.
“It feels fantastic to see what you have written sat hunched over in the small hours transformed on to the screen.”