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Helen Bilton

In conversation with Helen

In this Step, Helen Bilton was in conversation with the University of Reading’s Online Course Team.

Hi Helen, thanks for taking the time to answer some of our questions today. Can we start with you telling us a bit about your experience in teaching?

I trained as an early years teacher and worked in schools in London and Reading, eventually becoming deputy head in Slough. During my time there my tutor approached me and said there was a job going at my teacher training college and that I should apply, because I would make a brilliant lecturer to train the next generation of teachers. And that’s what I have been doing ever since.

I have directed the PGCE Early Years programme, the PGCE Primary programme, the Student Associate Scheme and I now direct the Postgraduate Taught programmes at Reading. I also teach a whole range of subjects including how to teach, managing behaviour, the learning environment, outdoor education, and working with other adults. I supervise undergraduate, MA and PhD students for their dissertations and theses. Alongside all this, I have written and researched extensively on the Outdoor Learning Environment and do lots of continuing professional development with schools here and abroad.

What got you into teaching?

My family strongly believed in the power of education and politics to change peoples’ lives for the better. My Mum trained as a teacher in the 2nd World War and eventually went on to become Headteacher of a nursery school in Newham, London. Also, my sister and one of my brother’s trained as teachers too.

I was torn between Education and Politics, and eventually opted to study Politics at University. However, the pull of teaching was too strong, and my love of young children drew me to train as a teacher for the 3-8 years age phase.

Your path has led you to become Professor of Outdoor Learning at the University of Reading. Why outdoor learning?

I have a great love of the outdoors. I was brought up in Essex, and Epping Forest was a place we visited regularly as a family, often getting lost but always finding our way back - eventually. We also went camping - proper camping in drafty tents and cooking over open fires - and I loved cooking outside, chopping wood, hiking and I was a first-rate starter of fires!

When I started my teacher training, my first lecture was on the nursery garden (which is now called the outdoor environment) and I was absolutely hooked on it – as a way to educate children. I started my first teaching job in Hackney in 1982. All the children lived in tower blocks, so physical activity and outdoor play were crucial for them, which continued my interest and love of outdoor education.

I was also very lucky to work with two Nursery Nurses, Paula in London and Deb in Reading who taught me so much about children learning outside. So, I am forever indebted to the support staff I have had the honour to work with. Then I did my Masters at Roehampton and it was a given that my dissertation was on the Outdoor Environment!

You’ve created two courses called Supporting Successful Learning in School, one aimed at primary staff and the other at secondary school staff. What inspired you to create these courses?

One aspect of my teacher training was working with other adults, and back then, it was only in the early years that there were support staff known as Nursery Nurses. You were taught how to deploy and nurture them.

Then in the late 1990s, when my own children were young, I became a staff tutor for the Open University managing a course called the Specialist Teacher Assistant Certificate (STAC) which was a fantastic one-year course for support staff. However, the STAC course was closed in 2004 which I still think is a great pity.

In 2001, I was commissioned by Wokingham Council to write a consultation document on Teaching Assistants in Wokingham. This led to my employment with the Council to run the Government 4-day Teaching Assistant courses which I did for about 10 years. I’ve always researched and taught about working with other adults and felt the Open University STAC course was the best training for support staff available.

The two courses we have created bring together much of what I’ve learnt since training to be a teacher. They are about getting the best out of other adults working in the class. It’s full circle for me from the STAC course run by the Open University to the Supporting Successful Learning in School courses with FutureLearn which is owned by the Open University!

How will this course impact learners and what do you hope to see?

Just because you’ve been to school doesn’t mean you know anything about education or schooling. This is the big mistake many politicians make. They base educational policy on their own experience of schooling which is wrong. I hope the course will help learners open their minds and really think about what the course is telling them, and to not shut down ideas just because they don’t like them. I would like to see the learners have a clearer understanding about the complexities of education and learning, and to have oodles of empathy for children. It would also be great if the outcome of doing the course impacts their practice and helps them be better educators and I would love to hear these stories.

What metaphor would you choose to describe yourself as an educator and why?

Trees. Because they grow slowly, they need good nutrients, space and light to grow. They will all be different, even the ones that are the same species, and all still be equally wonderful. They have branches which are reaching for the sky and stars and I want every person I teach to do the same.

What piece of advice would you give to someone who is working in an education setting?

Question everything that’s done. Just because it’s always been done, doesn’t make it right nor helpful to children. For example, playtime, ability groupings or an end of lesson bell -why do we have these things? How many issues are caused by them? After lunchtime is probably worst time in any school, with some children ending up either upset, confused or hurt and time is then wasted attempting to sort these issues. How about breaks being based on when the teacher thinks the children in their class need a break? What about lunchtimes being in small groups and not in a noisy, overcrowded dinner hall? How about the school playground being full of interesting things, with logs, and material and blocks for building with?

What piece of advice would you give to someone who is thinking of going in to teaching?

They need to ask themselves - ‘how good am I at juggling?’ Teaching is a very busy profession and unless you are seriously good at keeping all the balls in the air all the time, then don’t go into teaching. Second, how confident are you to support children? I have had to fight for the rights of young children and still am and you need to be confident about what a good education is.

What’s next for you?

Hmmm, writing a series of seven books about aspects of child development and how to foster those in the outdoor environment. The first one is entitled Physical Development and Outdoor Learning: A Practical Guide for Early Years Practitioners and it comes out in 2020. And of course, continuing to campaign for the right education especially for young children.

Is there a piece of advice you were given in your career that has stayed with you?

Education is about process not product. That is, learning isn’t simply about an end product- like a painting, a piece of writing, or a test. Education is so much more. It’s about how people approach learning, their persistence, their logic and so on. And linked to this, one other piece of advice, you don’t grow by being measured.


At the end of each Week, there is a Q&A Step, where you can reflect on the topics covered and ask Helen any questions or raise any discussion topics in the comments area.

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This article is from the free online course:

Supporting Successful Learning in Secondary School

University of Reading