If there is any optimism, surely it is female
By Trevor Clarke
John Rubinstein has taught A level maths for 30 years and is the Principal of Woodhouse College in North Finchley, an outer suburb in north London. Woodhouse is a high performing sixth form college for 16-19 year old students, co-educational with around 60% female and a broad multi-cultural intake. John shares with us his background and interests, an insight into daily life as the Principal, and his concerns about underfunding, the dated education model being fit for purpose in today’s world and the future prospects for the UK economy post-Brexit.
Tell us about your childhood in Hull, your parents, and what shaped you into who you are today.
My dad was a history professor at Hull University. He was also a keen walker and was for a time national chair of the Ramblers Association, so we spent many a weekend and holiday walking over dales, moors and hills. After my parents divorced, we would see my dad on alternate weekends, often going to see Hull City play, hence my lifelong passion for football in general and Hull City in particular. I am still a keen walker, and last year I did the coast-to-coast walk, over 200 miles from the Irish Sea on the west of Cumbria to Robin Hoods Bay on the coast of North Yorkshire. My mother was a social worker, who worked very hard supporting local people in need. She remarried a local writer, Alan Plater, who was quite well known at the time (he wrote Z Cars and The Beiderbecke Connection, amongst other things), and they moved to London and bought a house just off the Holloway Road, which is where my mother still lives today, just down the road from me in Crouch End. I never imagined I would come down south and thought I would stay up north all my life, but my girlfriend got a job down here so I followed her down, only to split up 6 months later. I never made it back up north.
My partner Caroline is someone I have shared 27 years with, and I have learned from her that relationships with other people are the secret of life, the meaning of life.
Who have been your greatest influences in life and why?
My friend Mark, my next door neighbour from when I was 5 onwards, taught me a lot about life. He taught me to appreciate music and he taught me joy. He is still my best friend 50 years on. My partner Caroline is someone I have shared 27 years with, and I have learned from her that relationships with other people are the secret of life, the meaning of life.
You have a first class honours degree in pure mathematics, and have taught A level maths for 30 years. Is a mathematical mind in the family genes or unique to you? What drives your interest in maths?
Music ran in our family. My grandfather was a composer and led an orchestra in Ohio (my dad is American), and many of my extended family are American. But there's a few mathematicians now too: my daughter just graduated with a first class maths degree, and my nephew is a mathematician too. Maybe music and maths are related?
Why do you believe that maths is important and how is it relevant in our everyday lives?
I don't really. I see maths as fun, as a game. I am very much a pure mathematician. Just as English literature doesn't have to justify itself, neither should maths. Thousands of people do crosswords and sudukos and other puzzles every day just for the fun and the challenge of it, and that's why I love maths. But there's no denying that the study of maths makes you smarter. Want to get smart, kids? Read a lot and do maths, that's the answer.
Can you tell us a little about your out of work and family life, and your personal interests?
I live in Crouch End, north London, with my partner Caroline and three children, although one is now interning with a start-up company in Liverpool. The kids all went to local schools, and the two girls both came to Woodhouse College. I run a lot – I have done the Crouch End 10 kilometre run now for 13 years in a row. I enjoy half marathons but have only ever done one full marathon (London) because they take up too much training time.
You were a part time Ofsted inspector for 14 years. How would you describe the changes you have seen in that time and your view of the future direction in education?
Massive changes have taken place. At first, inspectors judged the quality of teaching. They wanted to see all-singing, all-dancing performances. Then there was a change of emphasis from the teacher to the students, and inspectors tried to measure learning instead of teaching: that's not easy to do, of course. Stare at a student listening to the teacher: are they actually listening? Are they learning? So now there has been another shift onto progress. How much progress are students making compared with their starting level? That's a good thing, and liberating for teachers because they can teach in any style that's effective, but it is still hard to measure. Statistics are always open to misinterpretation and abuse. But I do think that Ofsted inspectors are good people who mean well, most of them. The future of education is less certain. Sixth forms, whether in schools or colleges, are criminally under-funded and that is leading to the loss of minority subjects, like languages, and a lack of support for vulnerable students. The current obsession with grammar schools is a red herring.
We have lots of girls doing chemistry, biology and maths, at least 50%, maybe more. Lots of girls want to be doctors and pharmacists. But physics remains male-dominated.
Why do you think that there is still a gender difference in educational and work choice decisions, with boys still the big majority favouring maths, physics, engineering, science and technology and what can be done to shift that balance with many more girls taking up those subjects and careers?
We have lots of girls doing chemistry, biology and maths, at least 50%, maybe more. Lots of girls want to be doctors and pharmacists. But physics remains male-dominated. I guess schools need to do more to make physics/engineering careers appealing and accessible to girls. But I also think physics is badly taught in many schools, and that deters more girls than it does boys.
Please give us a little insight into the daily life of being the Principal of Woodhouse College
A little bit of everything, every day. I have a lot of contacts with students. I still teach A level maths, and have a lesson most days, and I am currently a form tutor too. I wander around the college talking to students, and my door is always open – every day, students come and see me, asking advice about university choices or permission to put on an event. Sometimes they come because they are upset; I get through several boxes of tissues a year! I spend a lot of time with staff too, and I really enjoy my meetings with the senior team. They are very serious, highly focused, but we have a laugh too. I like planning change. For example, I am currently working on next year's timetable: we are increasing the amount of time per A level subject per week in the classroom and also expanding extra-curricular opportunities, and I am working out the best form that might take, which is challenging, detailed and fun
How do you see the future of further and higher education and the transition from education into employment?
I am pretty depressed following Brexit. It is hard to be optimistic about the prospects for the UK economy. Everything seems to be fixed until 2020, all our funding rates and the way education works, but everything could change in 2020, or sooner if there's an election.
Are we equipping and educating students today with the right knowledge and skills for a fast changing technological world? How is the education system adapting to the changes and what more needs to be done?
At the moment, our education system is still pretty much the same as it was 50 years ago. We still have exams based on writing essays, based on memory of learning over two years. We don't reward creativity or teamwork or emotional intelligence or any of the qualities that are increasingly needed in the new world. Many of our students are smart and funny and quick, but these are not academically prized talents. The trouble is that exams are, on the one hand, more important than ever as a means of deciding who gets the top university places and the top jobs but, on the other hand, less fit for purpose than ever. And schools are measured by exam performance so they teach to the exam more than in the past. The whole system needs a radical shake-up.
The world is being shaken up with some momentous changes coming. How do you see the future, the role of women, and is it bright?
Girls, women, are now doing better than boys in almost every sphere in education. They mature faster into impressive young adults and they seize opportunities. Despite the continued tide of misogyny, women are marching on, and I am cheering. Men have messed up this world good and proper; if there is any optimism, surely it is female.