In a new series, CSW speaks to people who have left the civil service to find out how their skills and experiences in the service have helped their new role – and what they’ve learnt about government from the outside. First up, we speak to Anne-Marie Lawlor who is retraining as a teacher after a career in policy and HR roles across government
Tell us about your career as a civil servant
I joined the civil service as a fast-stream trainee straight from university in 1987. I applied, as many graduates do, without a really strong sense of what I wanted my career to look like, and I’d also applied for a job in advertising. However, the further I went in to the advertising recruitment process, the less I liked what I saw, and the further I went with the civil service, the more I really liked of it. I’ve never regretted the choice I made.
Over the course of my 20-year civil service career, I worked in a number of different departments, including in variants of the employment and education departments as they merged and de-merged over time. I also worked in the Cabinet Office. My roles were mostly policy focused and then latterly I began to focus on change management and HR roles.
What did you enjoy about working in the civil service, and what did you find frustrating?
I immensely enjoyed the intellectual rigour of my career. I worked for, and with, some amazing people. And I’ve always been interested in politics, never wanted to be a politician – I really enjoy the process of politics.
I’ve also never worked somewhere which has such great diversity of people, and it’s special to work in an environment where you have space within your job to think about things and to have different ideas. At times I found myself managing across sites and having teams in different parts of the country. Any large organisation has elements of bureaucracy that can be frustrating, but whilst that was hard work in terms of logistics, there was little that I didn’t like.
Why did you decide to leave, and why did teaching appeal to you?
I left the civil service after developing a neurological illness, and during my recovery I had the time to pause a rethink about what I really wanted to do going forwards.
I had thought about becoming a teacher three or four years earlier but I didn’t want to go back to university and study for a year. I was also wary about re-joining a world of organisational politics; everything that I had heard about bureaucracy in education put me off wanting to be a part of that.
It was only indirectly that I learnt about Now Teach. About six people I knew emailed or texted me a copy of the Financial Times article that columnist Lucy Kellaway had written about retraining as a teacher. They all said “I read this and thought of you”. It felt encouraging, although my kids (the youngest being 18) thought it was a terrible idea and that I was far too bad tempered to be a teacher!
One of the things which really attracted me to Now Teach is that it gives you a cohort of comrades to go through the process with. The training is incredibly tough, and I have low days, but the network of support from having other likeminded career-changers is invaluable. There’s always someone else who says “that’s happened to me” or “worse yet happened to me!”
How did your experiences as a civil servant prepare you for teaching?
When I think about many of my roles, lots of them were to do with ministers, but also lots were to do with training. In some ways, this has meant that perhaps my career-change hasn’t quite felt like such a leap as it might appear to be on the face of things. In some ways both jobs require quite similar skills: the goal in most of my civil service roles wasn’t to do things myself but to get other people to do them very well. And that’s kind of what you’re doing as a teacher.
Standing in front of big groups of people and assuming that I have the right to dictate how they spend their next hour came naturally! Thinking through how to get from the beginning to the end of a meeting and making sure things happen is not that different from planning a lesson. The big difference is that in the civil service I knew that, mostly, the adults you’re working with would do what you’re asking them to do. In teaching, you’re dealing with a much more emotional world, where you can’t assume that people will necessarily behave in the way you want them to. There’s lots of emotion in the classroom.
What have you learnt about how frontline and policy makers interact?
One area of my focus as director of change in the education department was looking at encouraging policy makers to think about the impact of their actions on the front line. It’s a contrast that I was very aware of, even more so now. It’s really hard when making policy but not delivering it to know exactly how it’s going to work in practice. It’s something that I think the civil service has got much better at thinking about since I first joined. I can remember some of the decisions I helped to make in my very early days at the civil service, and we didn’t think twice about how to implement it. That’s quite shocking when I think about it now.
The civil service needs to make it easy for people doing frontline jobs to understand why policies matter, as opposed to feeling like ‘this is another initiative’. But there’s far more dialogue now than there ever was.
What’s your advice to others thinking about moving into teaching?
Learning how to manage behaviour is hard work. You are taught ways to do it which are really useful but you have to learn how to use the tools that you are given. Sometimes you ask yourself - “will I ever be any good at this?” We make careful choices to choose roles that we think we will be good at, but this is role you have to go in to accepting that at first, you will be terrible.
Ultimately, I like having a whole new adventure and world to be a part of. I have trained myself to be pleased and delighted with the smallest of successes. I’m ridiculously excited if a pupil in the corridor says “Bonjour Madame!” to me. I have a photo on my phone that I carry around with me, it’s a note that a child wrote in their exercise book last year. He was a boy who I thought hated French, he never seemed to enjoy the lessons and seemed to spend quite a lot of time trying to escape from the classroom. His note took a while to decipher because his writing was quite bad. At first I thought it said “I hate you”, but he’d actually written “thank you” – the ‘t’ was just slightly separate from the ‘hank’. It read: “Thank you for teaching me French, I never thought I would be clever enough to learn it”. I have that note as a screen saver on my phone for the low moments, and I get it out and think someone, somewhere felt good about my lessons.