'Climate of fear' harms children says union leader

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The Independent Online

A "climate of fear" is harming children's education and driving teachers out of schools, a teachers' leader said yesterday.

A "climate of fear" is harming children's education and driving teachers out of schools, a teachers' leader said yesterday.

Caroline Wigmore, who chairs the 40,000-strong Professional Association of Teachers (PAT), said classroom creativity was being squeezed out by tests, inspections and the pressure to teach "by the book".

"What is driving people out of the profession is a system which is rigid and inflexible, a system which treats staff like robots and pupils like products on a conveyor belt," she told the association's annual conference in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire," she said.

"We have come to a situation where staff at all levels are being deskilled. They are not being trained or encouraged to use their initiative or creativity or even their professional judgement because it is safer to go by the book."

Ms Wigmore, a primary school teacher at Poplar First School in the south London borough of Merton, attacked the growing number of tests imposed on children. Increasing pressure on staff to raise standards tended to rub off on children, and deprive them of the creative teaching they often remembered for the rest of their lives, she warned that.

"We are living in a climate of fear. Local education authorities live in fear of being taken over so they put pressure on their schools to raise standards, or rather to gain a higher league-table ranking," she told delegates. "Schools live in fear of being judged failing, so they put pressure on their staff to raise standards, or rather, to gain better SAT [standard assessment test] results."

She warned that teachers were being forced to work "in a strait-jacket. With the climate of fear returns the need to ensure that everything is recorded," she said. The result is an endless stream of soul-destroying form-filling, purely in order to justify your teaching.

"Far from improving your teaching, it can actually have a detrimental effect, either through the stress of working long hours or through the need to bring such work into the classroom as there are not enough hours in the day to complete all the tasks demanded of you."

Ms Wigmore's comments come after a stream of criticism by teachers of central government control on teaching and fears of stress caused by the pressure of new initiatives on schools. The problem was highlighted by the case of Pamela Relf, 57, a teacher of Eynesbury, Cambridgeshire, who committed suicide in January after being criticised during an inspection by the education standards office, Ofsted.

The PAT, the smallest of the four classroom unions, is known for its moderate, no-strike stance. But Ms Wigmore said staff were simply leaving the profession in droves in response to increased stress and the erosion of professionalism.

"Primary teachers know that young children learn best when their imagination is caught. If there is a sudden thunderstorm with hailstones rattling against the window, is there any point in trying to ignore it and continue with the planned lesson? The children's concentration has already gone and, in days gone by, teachers would have maximised on that opportunity to teach about the various laws of physics."