Lessons from the front line

Teachers see what is going on in society. They should speak out more, says Hilary Wilce
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I was recently asked to help judge a primary school's annual writing competition. Afterwards I wanted to go home and put my head in the oven.

I was recently asked to help judge a primary school's annual writing competition. Afterwards I wanted to go home and put my head in the oven.

Not that the children's work was bad. On the contrary. Most wrote with style and enthusiasm. But their subject was "A Memorable Day", and the memorable days for many of these children were, quite simply, heart-breaking. Story after story told of family break-up and domestic upheaval. Some spoke of sudden relocations, of fathers vanishing, and even of parental suicide, so that threading through the more conventional tales of lost pets and holiday trips was a sense that, for many of these children – even though they lived in relative comfort, in middle-class, southern England – life had been often unhappy and harsh.

Yet, when we judges mentioned this to the teachers, they were astonished that we could be surprised. It's how things are these days, they said, matter-of-factly. Everyone knows that.

This set me thinking. As someone who goes in and out of schools around the country, I've long been struck by how intimately teachers know what's going on. Depending on where they work, they can tell us exactly how job instability affects families in the high-tech Thames Valley, or when hard-drug use is starting to rise in new parts of London; even when there are the first signs of fundamentalist rabble-rousing in traditionally peaceful Muslim communities. Their collective wisdom is unparalleled because, unlike other professions, they deal with the whole of society, not only with the sick and depressed, as doctors do, or those in conflict, as lawyers do.

So why is it the other professions that get the attention? Recently, doctors made headlines when they announced that adult-type diabetes had spread to obese children. But teachers could have told them years ago that this was coming. Daily, they see the lunchboxes that contain only a purple fizzy drink and some orange crisps, as well as the children who are now so sedentary that they can barely puff their way across the playground to their parents' car. Eczema, asthma, attention-deficit disorder, suspicious bruises – teachers have charted the rise in them all, just as they know how increasing stress among high-income parents translates directly into neglected, anxious and disaffected children; or, on the bright side, how much drive some young asylum-seekers are bringing into the country along with their hopes for a better future; or how swiftly the morale of single mothers can go up when new, flexible job-training places are made available.

So why don't we take more notice of what they know?

I think there are two reasons. On the one hand, they have no public channel for their voice, other than that of the unions, which mainly bang the familiar drum of pay and conditions – something which, in turn, can make us see them all as miserable whiners.

On the other hand, teachers can be their own worst enemies. Out of modesty, discretion, lack of confidence or familiarity, they choose not to speak out about what they know. Or their lips are sealed by political correctness. Teachers in an east London school, serving a patchwork of Asian communities, may know everything about the subtle cultural and learning differences between each group they deal with. But in no way will they allow their insights into the public domain.

Such timidity serves no one. Teachers know what straws are starting to blow in which wind. They deal directly with the seedbed of tomorrow's society. We need their wisdom. They should speak out more boldly and authoritatively – and we should listen.