Neil Dixon

Chemistry teacher Neil Dixon demonstrates how exciting real practical ‘old fashioned’ chemistry lessons still can be taught in the class room. Neil Dixon is seen with his GCSE fifth form pupils at the south Bromsgrove Community School, Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. (Photo: © David Mansell ( )

After attending a comprehensive secondary school in Somerset, I studied Natural Sciences at Robinson College, Cambridge.

I graduated in zoology in 1999, and then decided to take a break from academic life and worked as a rigger at the Millennium Dome for about eighteen months, utilising completely different skills and experience than those I had gained from my previous pursuits.

I then realised that it was time to choose a career and made a decision between medicine and teaching. After being accepted onto a graduate fast track medicine course at Oxford, I changed my mind and opted for teaching instead, but still studied at Oxford in order to complete my training. I completed the PGCE course in the 2002-2003 academic year, specialising in Chemistry teaching at A level.

My involvement in the DfES Fast Track scheme supported my early professional development. Within my first year of teaching, I became involved in the Royal Society of Chemistry and the BBC, two organisations that I still work closely with. I am vice chair of the RSC’s Committee for Schools and Colleges and I act as a consultant and author for the BBC. I have also been privileged to work with a number of other national organisations and media and publishing companies. In my third year of teaching I became an Advanced Skills Teacher, which gave me a whole school responsibility for teacher professional development. I have remained at the same school since my Newly Qualified Teacher post: South Bromsgrove High School, which is very similar to the school that I went to as a teenager. I passionately believe in comprehensive education and in raising the aspirations of every student. Amongst my many other roles within school, I have responsibility for mentoring our Oxbridge applicants.

What was your first degree and where did you study?

I graduated with a first class degree in Natural Sciences from Cambridge in 1999. I had always intended to study chemistry at university, after I was inspired by an amazing teacher and an engaging course at A level. When I began the Natural Sciences course in 1996 I had the opportunity to study physiology and cellular biology, which I had not studied at A level. I then explored zoology in my second year and specialised in animal behaviour in my third year. I often joke that this qualifies me perfectly to work with young people!

Why did you choose to study at OUDE?

My brother and I made the decision to follow in family footsteps and train as science teachers. Initially, we applied to OUDE for entry into the same PGCE year, but Nick deferred by one year, sparing the PGCE tutors the ordeal of having us both there together! It was an easy decision for us to apply to OUDE – it ran the best PGCE course in the United Kingdom. To the best of my knowledge, it still does. The structure of the course, involving very close liaison with very strong local schools and a degree of integration between the Department and the internship schools is a model that many other HEIs have tried to emulate. I am very proud of my time at OUDE and it is a privilege for Nick and me to maintain an involvement with the Department, running annual training sessions for the science PGCE students.

What is your favourite memory from your time at OUDE?

One morning, whilst walking from my house on Bradmore Road to the Department around the corner on Norham Gardens, I nearly stumbled into the gutter when I realised that Richard Dawkins had just cycled past me. I feel that he has done a significant amount to ignite scientific debate in the minds of young and old people alike.
While I was at OUDE, the PGCE course was overseen by Hazel Hagger. I recall asking her once in conversation what she had taught when she was a teacher. She replied simply: “Children”. I will never forget that. As Bill Rogers famously said: “They will forget what you teach them, but they will never forget how you make them feel.”

Who in your professional life has inspired you?

To be honest, one of the most significant influences on me as a professional is my mother. She was a Special Needs Coordinator and Assistant Headteacher and I remember her putting me in my place so many times when I was in the early stages of my career. She would challenge me when I complained about student behaviour by asking me if it was fair to tell off a student who uses a wheelchair for not being able to stand up to complete an experiment. So why is it acceptable for me to tell a student off whose inappropriate behaviour stems from their inability to complete the tasks that I have given them due to a learning difficulty or behavioural issue such as ADHD? She would say things like “There is nothing so unfair as the equal treatment of unequal people”. Through the many years of her career, she made such a big difference to the lives of so many children who came from some really tough backgrounds. If I can achieve even a fraction of what she did during my forty years in this job, I will retire a happy man!

Looking back at your professional achievements, what are you most proud of?

I became an Advanced Skills Teacher two years after completing my PGCE course, I have met several members of the Royal Family through my work as a teacher, been published and had the opportunity to represent the world of science education on various committees and for various organisations. However, my biggest success so far was much more personal. Ollie was a student in my first tutor group who struggled for three years with dyslexia and anger management. I worked hard with the SENCO to help him develop coping strategies and to ensure that he was not excluded from school. We secured an alternative curriculum for him, which included one day a week in a local garage and two days a week on a college course in motor vehicle maintenance. Years later, Ollie got in touch to tell me that he had completed an advanced apprenticeship and also won a national award for his restoration of a vintage Rolls Royce. Even if I eventually graduate with my doctorate in education (it’s a long journey but I am slowly inching my way towards the end), it will be pretty hard to beat the sense of vicarious pride I had when I discovered how well Ollie had done.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of taking up a career in education today? And perhaps especially what advice would you give to a young researcher who is finishing their PGCE in our department?

Welcome to the best job and the most valuable profession in the world! There has never been a day when I have been tempted to leave the classroom. Not even for an office. Go into the job with your eyes open and be prepared to work very hard indeed. Your PGCE year will be very hard. Your NQT year even harder. Surround yourself with friends and teachers who are positive and inspirational. Remember that you came into this profession because you love learning, so remember that your own professional learning and development is very important. Continue to seek new challenges, whether they are in new roles or a new school. Remember those teachers who inspired you and try to reflect at the end of each week on how many students you might have inspired. Working with young people is a privilege and you should never forget the massive responsibility that comes with the chance to touch someone’s life in a brief moment that they may remember forever.