Deborah Orr: It is poor discipline, not low pay, that drives teachers to quit the classroom

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The Independent Online

My small son has managed to survive his first involvement in industrial action quite well, with a trip to the Science Museum, a sunny-intervals romp in the park, and an impressively thorough drenching in the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain. That's what I was told anyway, as A N Other mum took him off my hands for the day, while I got on with work as usual. Lucky me. Lucky him.

Still, the strike undermines one's inclination to believe those bossy letters that schools are wont to send out these days, assuring us that even a single afternoon off is a major threat to the progress of a child's education, and that the permission of the head teacher must be sought in writing prior to attendance at the dentist. Never mind, perhaps next time a little pink slip thrust into his book bag, offering 24-hour notice of his absence, like it or lump it, will suffice.

I'm not unsympathetic to the idea that teachers should be well remunerated, nor, more widely, to the idea that pay should keep pace with inflation. But I'm not sure how well the resort to downing tools plays to other problems that teachers face, such as the unfortunate lack of professional esteem in which they are held. Are teachers learned and dedicated pedagogues, or down-trodden recalcitrant workers? Actions like that of the National Union of Teachers this week throw up the queasy suggestion that even they cannot quite make up their minds. Certainly, the lack of support from their colleagues in the other, smaller teaching unions is at least partly inspired by similar concerns.

I'm unconvinced, too, by the NUT's argument that pay is the primary reason why lack of retention of teachers remains such a difficulty. People understand what teachers earn when they decide to train for the profession. While low pay in comparison to others with similar levels of qualification is certainly a factor in the decision of teachers to quit, after years of investment in their training, anecdotal evidence suggests that it is by no means the single most important clincher.

When I talk to disillusioned teachers, the single issue that upsets them most is the effort it takes to maintain discipline in large classes that tend to accommodate an element of low-level disruption that must be borne, and which makes teaching all pupils more difficult. One teacher I interviewed spoke of her inability to stretch the brightest pupils in her class because she had to carry the others along as well, while at the same time expending a huge amount of energy on mollifying those who didn't want to be there. Even the average children lose out in this situation to the extent, she blushingly admitted, that the pupils who were neither stars nor undesirables were referred to in the staffroom as "the wallpaper".

Alongside this frustration runs teachers' bitterness at the level of prescription to the national curriculum, and the culture of testing. Since 25 consecutive reports have now confirmed this deadening problem, especially at primary level, it would be churlish to dismiss such complaints.

Teachers also find that they are in something of a cleft stick when it comes to pursuing a career path that can lead to much higher salaries. A common observation is that teaching is hampered because of the system whereby the most outstanding teachers tend to be fast-tracked into management, if they wish to increase their earning power. The best teachers, therefore, are often the ones who teach least and manage most.

The trouble is that one cannot strike in order to demand pupils who value education, or parents who will support them in that aspiration. The strike may be focused on money, but the niggling feeling is that this is no more the central difficulty facing teachers who are manfully struggling to cope with a bureaucratic system than it is for the ones who are tempted to give up. As for those parents who are least inclined to support their children in their life at school, the concern there is that their own damaging attitudes will be confirmed rather than assuaged by the spectacle of striking teachers. The teachers' strike is a miserable development, and one worries that after the initial bullishness that comes of Doing Something, it will only make the already precarious commitment of many teachers more fragile.

Kirstie, a daydream believer

It is an unexpected place to find signs of worry about the credit crunch. But one cannot help feeling that the appearance of television presenter Kirstie Allsopp on this year's FHM magazine's 100 sexiest women list is one such sign. It's not that Allsopp isn't attractive – she is. But her appeal is of the normal grown-up sort that generally denies inclusion on febrile roll calls of excitable young male fantasy.

The excitable young male fantasy element must surely come into the equation when chaps watch Allsopp, a property expert on Location, Location, Location, as she assures them that property prices are not going to tumble, and that none of them is therefore going to wake up one day soon to find that their bachelor pad is in negative equity, their Mint card has just been cancelled, and their car is being repossessed. In these troubled times, this must be a powerful and alluring daydream indeed. So, really, the great scandal is how the indefatigable enemy of the home information pack made it only to number 91.

Ugly brutality and the loss of a child

In November 2003, 14-year-old Charlene Downes kissed her mother goodbye at a Blackpool bus stop, and then disappeared off the face of the earth. Despite the biggest missing person's enquiry ever undertaken by Lancashire police, she has never been found. Earlier this month, five years on and weeks before a trial, the case against the man accused of killing her, and the man accused of helping him to dispose of her body, collapsed amid claims that the main prosecution witness was unreliable. It was also announced that an inquiry into the police investigation, which included 52 tapes of covert-surveillance conversations that took a detective sergeant 2,400 hours to transcribe, would be undertaken.

The erstwhile defendants, originally from the Middle East, have been in custody for two and a half years, so the case has long been subject to the usual pre-trial reporting restrictions. However, during a previous trial last June, lurid accusations suggesting that the child had been sexually abused, killed, dismembered at a fast food outlet, then "sold as kebabs" were published in the media.

Although the jury in the first trial failed to reach a verdict, and although the prosecution evidence presented in it has now been accepted by a judge at Preston Crown Court as being riddled with "incompetence, manipulation, and lies", the case has now been seized on by right-wing groups, primarily the British National Party, as evidence of a media-led establishment conspiracy to protect non-white killers from justice, even – indeed especially – at the expense of the lives of white children. Whatever really happened to Charlene Downes, the political legacy that her loss has bequeathed is brutally ugly.

* As the Olympic flame sputters round the world, the sense of dread at the thought of the coming Beijing festival grows stronger. One person who has become quite used to worrying about what may be in store is Pimmi Pande. In 2001, when the Indian-British film-maker was putting together Destiny's Children, a documentary about Tibetan exiles, she was disturbed to find that some young activists were talking openly about the possibility of employing "human bombs" in their Olympics protests.

"Many older Tibetans are in denial about how young people feel," she says. "They have grown up in families where at least one member has been lost to the Chinese. They know what makes headlines, and for some that might mean sacrificing their non-violent Buddhist ideals. There is a danger of China using this as propaganda. But there is also an opportunity to mitigate the situation."

* No one can deny that Ken Livingstone is a shrewd political campaigner. Just when one thinks that there is nothing he can say that will make one support his bid for a third term as Prince of London, he pulls it out of the hat. If he loses, Ken says, he will start work on his book. Oh, all right, then. Anything but that.