Mr Laidlaw, Teacher of French

Alastair Laidlaw taught French at City from 1982 until he retired, as Head of French and Deputy Head of Modern Languages, in 2016. He then came back for an extra six years at the School as a French assistant. “Teaching does take over your life,” he says. “But it is tremendously rewarding. It keeps you alert to young people, keeps you young in spirit yourself – and you always have the holidays to recover.”

When did you fall in love with France?

My first visit to Paris in 1966. It was a school trip. I was 12. My French teacher took a small group of us to stay in the Lycee St Louis on Boulevard St Michel. He was 75 years old and very inspirational. He was very well connected: he had worked in the French Resistance alongside Samuel Beckett and was friends with President De Gaulle. We went to the Bastille Day celebrations and I shook de Gaulle’s hand.

I remember the night train from Glasgow to London, the excitement of the channel crossing and then arriving in France: the strange new sounds of the police and ambulance sirens; the mopeds; the smell from the bakeries, the pleasure of hearing French for the first time not on a tape recorder. I was elated. It was extraordinary for me: I had travelled a huge amount as a child: my dad worked in the colonial service, so I had grown up in Zambia and the Yemen and I had travelled on my own to boarding school in Scotland when I was nine. I was very used to travelling but arriving in Paris I felt so strangely at home.

What was extraordinary was that it was the same for two other boys on that trip – out of only eight of us. One boy went on to be a famous fashion designer and an assistant to Karl Lagerfeld. Another boy went on to become a secondary school teacher in France. So three out of eight of us formed a very strong connection with France.

On my second trip, after my O levels, I stayed with a French family and spent a lot of time talking to the very elderly grandmother; I didn’t especially hit it off with the son of the host family. And she remembered being on her father’s shoulders at the funeral of Victor Hugo in 1885. She was well over 100 - a smoker, as well.

When you organised school trips to France, was it common for pupils be inspired to quite that degree?

I did 52 trips and I think many in retrospect realise that their first trip to France had been quite life enhancing. I know two boys who were inspired by our trips and studying French film with me in the early 90s who ended up going to live and work in France, one in the film industry and one as a translator of literature.

We would run two trips a year, sometimes three. I went on German trips as well as French. One of the most memorable trips for everyone was to Berlin in October 1985. It was very, very cold and we crossed over into East Berlin; we had a special permit. That was such a powerful experience – you went through Checkpoint Charlie and the silence descended: very few cars, very few people on the streets. No-one would make eye contact with you. We let the boys wander around which seems unimaginable now with Health and Safety and Risk Assessment.

Which aspect of French life most inspires you?

Oh, everything! The first line of De Gaulle’s autobiography – “I have a particular view of France” – rings true with me, if in a much more humble way. It’s about the appreciation of food, culture, intellectual life, cinema… Being an intellectual is sometimes seen as a dirty word in Britian but in France there is a great respect for culture.

There is also appreciation for France itself as a country, with its many regional diversities. Most French people I know have visited a lot of France – I think the English don’t really know their own country so well and are maybe more likely to holiday abroad. I know very few English people who have even been to Scotland. I did try to persuade some of my tutees to feature a Scottish university on their UCAS application and those who did end up in Scotland often fell in love with it!

Are you a different person when you are in France?

Absolutely, yes. I am more confident, which may be surprising. Speaking French, I do become a different person. I am quite a reserved person, which may sound strange as a teacher – but I can be a performer in front of a class and put my reserved side away. But France brings out a more confident side of me - possibly because when I am there I am usually on holiday!

Are any pupils unreachable with French and French culture?

No – I think in the first couple of years they are all reachable. I always enjoy teaching first year classes. They don’t start with any prejudices; they have a lot of engagement and enthusiasm. That wears off fairly quickly, though! I sometimes think that the teaching of modern languages should be more intense at the start, more immersive. My great dream in the past was that modern languages might become like music lessons – you would sign up and be able to do modules when you were ready. But schools are not the ideal place to teach languages.

I think modern languages teachers, particularly at CLS, do a very good job at sparking enthusiasm and promoting the idea of the language as part of a culture and civilisation and not just a school subject. French is not a school subject. Modern language teaching is theatre with audience participation. I thought about this a lot during lockdown when we were doing it online – it’s never the same online because you don’t get the full range of facial gestures and the presence of the person, the movement, the looks, the turning to write something on the board. All those things plant the language in your memory – like a live performance.

Wouldn’t Spanish be an easier gateway for children learning languages than French?

I would never say that Spanish is easier per se… But French isn’t easy to learn – the pronunciation is difficult, the spelling system is a nightmare and it is difficult to replicate the sounds of French if you don’t have an ear for it. Communication can break down quite quickly in French if it’s not accurate.

But I would regret if French were replaced as the first language we teach at CLS – it has been taught in England since Elizabethan times… they are our closest neighbour, it’s a beautiful language, but it is difficult to learn and to express yourself authentically in the language.

Which jobs did you do before you became a teacher?

My first job out of University was with the British Council. I worked in the small exhibitions department in these beautiful offices in Mayfair. We would compile displays on, say, Lewis Carroll or medieval cathedrals and send them off round the world. It seemed an ideal job. I loved it.

I thought it would last forever but they moved me to a department where I had to process applications for summer schools. I didn’t enjoy office work. At nine in the morning, five o’clock seemed a long way off.

But one day, I walked out of the office and ran into a friend from University; she was doing a PGCE and she thought I might enjoy it. She put me in touch with her tutor and it all happened very quickly. I resigned my job and then spent six months doing interesting things: in the books department of Readers Digest, where we produced some amazing books – and then, before I began my PGCE, I worked in Harrods for a few months. I had a staff discount, developed a taste for well-cut suits and served some famous people – Ingrid Bergman was buying a men’s Burberry raincoat. She was with Lauren Bacall!

What was the culture in the staff room like when you joined CLS in 1982? Was it a community?

Yes, very much so. I can’t tell you how much I was supported and encouraged by senior members of staff, in particular Roy Reardon who had just been appointed Head Of Modern Languages and who was a superb linguistt.There was a great sense of community and support. Some of the senior members of staff were real mavericks – eccentrics with quite a subversive streak. They refused to use textbooks or follow the syllabus. I don’t think people dare teach like that now.

The head of English was Peter Coulson – the Theatre Studio is named after him, of course –he was so engaged with teaching, so intense, that when he talked to you, he would ask about what you were doing in real detail. You felt wrung dry after a conversation with him. His classes found him exhausting too! In a good way.

I joined in January; not an easy time of year to join. The previous teacher, Pat Whitmore, had been head of CCF and had moulded his French classes to his military discipline, too. The pupils were terrified of him. I met Julian Barnes recently at a CLS alumni event and he said Mr Whitmore was a terrifying man. That being said, though, Julian has gone on to be a great Francophile, as well as a great novelist…

In that first term, I was in fear of several of the classes and unable to get them on my side. Having just been released from the iron discipline of Mr Whitmore, they were feral! I was just a new teacher, 27 years old. Worse, the class included two sons of senior members of staff! What were they reporting back about me to their parents?!

I knew I wasn’t useless – I was moving towards more modern methods that we had been shown on the PGCE course, doing things differently to the senior teachers in their 50s and 60s; but there was still the emphasis on grammar and dictation at the core of what we had to do.

What is your method for dealing with disruptive pupils – is there a silver bullet solution?

I’ve never resolved that! You just have to try and engage them. I think that’s always been my strength. They know I love my subject and I’m pretty good at it. They respect you for that. If they see you are on top of your subject, they will listen to you.

I think pupils are easier to teach now than they used to be, As the classes became my classes I started to relax. I was so much in awe of the senior members of staff at first. I felt very junior – I wondered how long it would take me to get the same total confidence they had. I think it took about ten years.

Why are pupils easier to teach now? Is it to do with changes in ideas of masculinity?

Yes, there has been a change for the better. Most CLS pupils are academically very ambitious and open to teaching. They are interesting, inquisitive and irrepressible. Sometimes, they can be infuriating, of course, but you know they will pull out all the stops when it matters. They won’t let you down.

How did the move to the new building in 1986 change school life?

I can’t tell you how exciting it was. Coming here… you had spacious airy classrooms, good acoustics, fantastic views of the river. The old school didn’t lend itself to effective teaching – the classrooms were dingy; the windows were very high; the acoustics were terrible; there was no library to speak of; we didn’t have a Modern Languages suite, you were lugging your tape recorder across courtyards… We had one phone for the whole staff, one Banda spirit copier – with the lovely smell of the ink – one typewriter and plenty of boxes of chalk to use on dimpled old blackboard. That was it.

But here! The Modern Languages department had its own rooms. We had new books, new resources, extra members of staff. Russian was introduced – there was a real sense of new, positive energy.

In that period, the way we were teaching was moving on in a positive way too, away from an emphasis on grammar and literature towards a more audio-visual approach.

When GCSEs came in, there was a new emphasis given to the oral exam and the writing took a back seat. So there was a lot more engagement from the teacher – you were no longer relying on a chapter in a book. It was fun. It engaged the whole class. It was a breath of fresh air. 

The numbers of students taking language degrees have really dropped in recent years – does that concern you?

Yes, I worry for the future of modern languages at university. I don’t think Brexit helped and STEM subjects have been promoted more and more heavily which has taken pupils away from other subjects.

When I was graduating, modern languages degrees were quite sought after – you were seen as being good at communicating and, having spent a year fending for yourself abroad as part of your course, you were seen as more mature and more employable. I think that’s changed.

A S Levels [one-year post-GCSE course] benefitted modern languages a lot. A lot of boys having done well at GCSE chose to do an extra year of French. I think it’s very regrettable for modern languages that they got rid of it. We have far fewer people taking French A Level now – they don’t want to commit to the full two years and, often, they are intimidated by the prospect of having to do the extra literature.

What do you look back on as a high point of your teaching career?

In 2001, I had a sabbatical and one of my tasks was to go to France and set up a work experience scheme for Sixth Form pupils. They would have a nine-day trip to Le Mans - a lovely place, the ideal destination - staying with a family and having French lessons in the morning before working in shops or offices in the afternoon. The families were very welcoming. The work experience wasn’t always exciting but you had to speak French and be surrounded by it.

In my early years we did a lot of lower school trips too, taking bus loads of second and third formers for five days in Le Mans or Tours or Angers or Lille. It took a lot of time to organise – we would start in November, having to collect all the money, chivvy the parents along. That’s all much easier now.

The trips to Le Mans were fun for the staff too. The boys would go and stay with their host families in the evenings and we would go out to a really good restaurant – there’s nowhere else in France where you can eat as well. The restaurants there are the best.

Did those trips give you a greater sense of achievement than achieving good exam results?

Yes – because we involved the boys in real French life. No matter what kind of family they were staying with. Some of the families were of quite modest means – which was no bad thing for some of our boys to experience.

In terms of academic achievement, though, I always had a soft spot for lower sets in the 4th form – to get a boy who is struggling with French at that point and they end up doing French at A Level and then at University – that’s a success story. I had at least four or five like that.

How did you do that?

Oh, the usual methods! ‘French is fun, you’re good at it, come on!’ Top sets could often be hard work as you felt you were treading water for a year (many could have passed GCSE a year earlier) but nervous about straying too far from the syllabus.

You enjoyed a second career at CLS after you had retired – how did that come about?

I came back to work as a French Assistant and had the privilege of continuing to work with my former colleagues along with a group of dynamic and enthusiastic Assistants for six years. I was encouraged to take the role by my colleagues and by Robin Edmundson, Head of Modern Languages. 

The pressure lifted and what better way to prepare for retirement than to spend the days doing what you had always dreamed of? Days devoted to speaking the language one to one with motivated students. I enjoyed every minute of it and feel very fortunate to have been given such an opportunity at the end of a long and happy career.