A job for life that nobody wants A teacher's lot is not a happy one

Who would be a primary teacher? Hardly anyone. The number of vacancies for staff is increasing dramatically. Wendy Berliner documents one day in the life of a typical headmistress
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's dark, pouring with rain and freezing cold as Sylvia Morris's white Nissan Micra pulls into the drive of the Cathedral School of St Saviour and St Mary Overie at 7.40am.

She is late this morning. The journey from her flat in Mitcham, Surrey, to the school in Southwark, near London Bridge, took an hour - nearly twice as long as usual because a lorry had jack-knifed at the Oval.

She unlocks her office to find the telephone ringing. It is a parent asking if the nursery will be open. The nursery teacher was off sick yesterday. She switches on the answerphone to see if any there have been any calls since she left the school last night at 10pm. There is one. The nursery school teacher is still sick and won't be in. "Oh, that's that then. We'll have to close the nursery today." She sighs. She still hasn't taken off her coat.

Sylvia Morris, 43, has been head of Cathedral School for a year. It is her second headship. Teaching, she says, is her vocation: she had wanted to be a teacher since she was seven, and began in London in the Seventies. It was a tough apprenticeship: in her third week a mother abandoned three children in a park and Sylvia found herself caught in a custody battle at the police station. She tired of the social work expected of her and left for schools in Kent where she felt teaching would be the priority. She returned to London to take up a deputy headship.

She is in a job that fewer and fewer people want. A new study from Oxford Brookes University shows that the number of re-advertisements for primary head teachers has risen for the first time in five years. In London, 29 per cent of primary schools had tore-advertise the post of head last year. There has also been a dramatic increase in the number of primary headships becoming vacant. The same study showed 20 per cent more were advertised last year than in 1993, again the first rise for five years.

The researchers suggest that primary school teachers may be reluctant to become heads if they know that doing so will mean they have to cut budgets and make colleagues redundant. Secondary schools have less difficulty in recruiting because they pay more money and have bigger management teams.

The National Association of Head Teachers points to the huge workloads faced by primary heads. Stress-related illness and early retirement are increasing, it says; changes to the curriculum have increased teachers' work at a time when resources have fallen. In addition, many primary heads do not have deputies, either because the schools cannot afford them, or because teachers do not want the jobs because the pay is too low.

Sylvia Morris is single and has no children. "If I was married to Mr Right and had two children, I wouldn't be sitting in this seat," she says. "I'd be working part-time locally in a primary school. If I had a family, something would have to go and that something would be the job."

She regularly works a 60-hour week. Saturday is her only day off and she works through at least part of the school holidays. She earns £27,000 a year and manages a £400,000 budget. She holds the livelihoods of her staff and the formative education of 232children in her hands.

At 8.10am, the premises officer, Gerry Croot, who lives in a house in the grounds, comes in with a tray of tea and the two of them discuss that afternoon's meeting of the premises committee of the school's governing body. Gerry's job embraces many roles besides teaching - social work, pastoral care, as well as chief executive, personnel manager and PR officer.

The school's site is among the biggest of her problems. The public can get into the playground. Junkies use it, so do people who walk Rottweiler dogs. Gerry has to clean up the mess. Pupils and staff are locked into the building during the day, and once,while Sylvia was holding a staff meeting, her car was wrecked by vandals outside.

The school was built cheaply in 1977 and looks older. Some of the classrooms are very cramped. It needs extending. The possibility of raising money for this is something they must discuss in the afternoon.

She calls hello to staff as they continue to arrive. She tells Drew he will have to cover the morning for a colleague who is on a course. She had ordered a supply teacher but the agency rang at 6.30pm last night to say the teacher was sick and no one else was available. There is a bug going round.

Anita, the class three teacher, pokes her head round the door. If Drew can't come to help at swimming this morning, her class can't go. No parent is available to help. "Well, we'll have to cancel swimming," says Sylvia. It's too late to cancel the bus.

"I can plan my day and prioritise, but between 7.50am and 4.30pm it's like a casualty department here," she says. "You don't know what's going to come through the door."

At 8.45am, she briefs her staff. Two teachers have been off sick for three months. It's still raining and she asks everyone to have something for the children to do indoors during playtime. Outside it is still pouring and the children flood into the school.

At 9.05am, she goes on a walkabout. Unlike heads of smaller schools, she does not have a class of her own but fills in during emergencies. She picks up wet coats that didn't make contact with coat pegs. She spots a group of Mums on the bench outside. Do any of them fancy helping class three at swimming today, she asks jovially? The women say it's too cold and that they are enjoying a good gossip.

After holding assembly, during which she plays the guitar, Sylvia meets a parent, who is an artist, and a local vicar to discuss how the children can designstained glass windows for St Hugh's, a church near the school. The meeting wraps up after 20 minutes but the vicar stays on to talk. This is one of the poorest boroughs in Europe and he supports many of the families who send their children to the school. He and Sylvia keep in close contact so that both sides know about difficulties the children and their families are facing: broken homes, unemployment, cramped accommodation - all of the effects of inner-city poverty.

At 11am, Lil, the school's home school support worker, comes in for a meeting. She has been at the school since September, funded by a charity. She was brought in because the personal problems faced by so many families needed more support than Sylvia could offer. But the funding for Lil's job runs out at half-term. Sylvia will need more charity aid if she is to find a replacement.

At lunch, she lines up with the children for fish fingers and chips in the hall. Children join her at the table. One of the cook's assistants thanks her for the weekly newsletter she has just started sending out to parents. The latest one had advice on how to manage children's stroppy behaviour. The newsletter was one of the things she had worked on late the night before. She smiles with pleasure.

After lunch she takes class two before the return of the class teacher. She reads them a story then gets them singing, "Heads, shoulders, knees and toes", which causes great hilarity. She looks so happy.

By 1.55pm, she is back in the office and tacklingher most serious problem of the day. Earlier in the week a boy came to school slightly injured. She told social services, who said don't worry, but the vicar this morning urged her to call again, so now she tries to raise the child protection team. Everyone is at lunch. She puts the phone down with a deep sigh and despairing shake of the head.

At 2.05pm, she is on her second walkabout. She takes back to her room one little boy who finds maths tough. Together they fold pieces of paper to see how you can halve odd numbers. "It's like Paul Daniels' Magic Show, isn't it?" she says. The boy's pale and serious face lights up with a huge grin.

The next hour is spent preparing for three governors' meetings. The school is Church of England and voluntary aided and she is due at Southwark Cathedral for a "pre-meeting" with the chair of governors, the Rev Garry Swinton, but she is running late. It's already 3.30pm.

The rain has stopped and the children are leaving. She picks up her coat. A mother puts her head round the door. "Is the nursery open tomorrow, Miss Morris?" "Yes it is," she says. "Isn't it nice to give some good news."

Gerry comes to the Cathedral and they get stuck into the premises meeting. The alarm system must be expanded: the school has three new computers it cannot use because the classrooms that need them don't have alarms. They decide to crack down on parking by outsiders in the grounds: the gates will be locked outside school hours and the school will employ a clamping firm during the day.

The finance committee starts at 5.10pm. They listen to someone from Southwark Council who has to sell financial services to schools rather than give them free. They need about £1,000-worth of services. They discuss how they could budget for it. Sylvia needs £28,000 over and above ordinary expenditure to meet the needs of the national curriculum over the next two years. Then there is the extension.

As the streets darken, the committee wrestles with the budget and considers whether it should make a major fundraising effort with charities and big business, with which Sylvia has had some success before. Sylvia stifles a yawn. The meeting finally breaks up at 7.50pm. Sylvia gives one of the committee members a lift and finally gets home, exhausted, at 8.30pm.

The next morning the newspapers are full of complaints about teachers by Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector of Schools. A colleague rings up. She is fed up. She was working until 10 last night and has just been verbally abused by a parent over a bullying incident. At this, the usually calm Sylvia flips. "I would challenge Chris Woodhead to come here and please say how we could all do it better," she says. "This sort of thing makes me so angry. I don't think they have any understanding whatsoever about how teachers live their lives."