Mary Dejevsky: The teachers' real grievance is status

Instead of being bracketed with doctors and lawyers, they are now more likely to be classed with local council staff

Related Topics

Miss Bennett has a lot to answer for. She it was who disabused my five-year-old self of the belief that all teachers were fine, unimpeachable figures of authority – more often than not clad in gowns – like my father. I had started school expecting to be inducted into the mysteries of the three Rs. Instead, I found myself on most days begging to leave the Wendy house for the sandpit. Worse, I glimpsed Miss Bennett applying her lipstick and reading a glossy magazine, while we, her charges, were "working". It was only in the second class, under the stern but kindly instruction of Mrs Unwin, that school took a turn for the better.

My early – and temporary – disillusionment may be nothing unusual. Pupils, even at five, have always been quick to take the measure of a teacher. Equally timeless is the nostalgia of the middle-aged and older for a time when Miss Bennetts were few and far between and the teaching profession was personified by the respected and beloved Mr Chips. Small matter that literature is punctuated with incompetent and cruel schoolmasters and schoolmistresses, it is the model teachers of our yesteryears who abide in grown-up minds.

There is a mystique about teachers of the past, as there is about much else, and the idea that change is always and only for the worse is as ill-conceived as it is pervasive. Yet over a generation or two something does seem to have changed. Not necessarily in the calibre of teachers – arguably they must now be better qualified than ever – but in their social standing and the regard in which they are held by the population. An aura of respect – which may always have been exaggerated – has dissipated. And instead of being bracketed with doctors and lawyers, teachers are now more likely to be classed with the local council staff whose strike they shared yesterday.

Teachers and college lecturers were the largest and most vocal group taking part in the public-sector protest and almost half of all state schools in England and Wales were fully or partly closed as a result. The suggestion from the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, that parents might take a turn filling in seems to have foundered, whether from solidarity, fear of reprisals or more mundane concerns about insurance.

It would be easy to blame teachers' own conduct for the shrinking public regard in which they are held – and to cite their willingness to strike as supporting evidence. In fact, though, teachers are not particularly strike-happy. Their last strike, mounted by only one union, was three years ago, over pay, and it was the first national strike for 21 years. The inflammatory rhetoric heard at teachers' annual conferences gives the impression of greater militancy than actually exists. And while their unions might consider whether so many threats so rarely acted upon serve teachers' interests, the reality is that yesterday's strike is a rare event.

Something more has to be going on. As it happens, a survey on the status of teachers in England was compiled for the Department for Education in 2007 – and it is telling. Not only does its very existence show that the then Government had the status of the profession in its sights, but a central finding was that teachers' status had declined sharply over 40 years: from a high of 4.3 (on a scale of 5) in 1967 to a low of 2.2 in 2002, although it had recovered a little, to 2.5, by 2006.

The survey reported that rank-and-file teachers were equated in the public mind with social workers, while the analogy for head teachers was with management consultants. At both ends of the seniority scale, therefore, teaching had lost its association with higher-status professionals – medicine and the law. At the lower end, it was seen as akin to a social service; at the top, more like a business.

Another salient conclusion was that the decline reflected the view of teachers themselves as much as that of the public. And their sliding sense of their own status was linked to feelings of powerlessness, as government initiatives came and went, and the perception that they had lost professional autonomy with the proliferation in national tests and league tables.

Tests and league tables had further repercussions. While they raised the standing of teachers in high-performing schools, they depressed that of teachers in poorly scoring schools. And by giving parents more information, they helped to "demystify" teaching, making it look more like a skill or a craft than a profession. This did not happen in medicine or the law, whose practitioners retained their exclusivity. (Whether this will also break down eventually, as the internet affords wider access to specialist knowledge, is a question for another day.)

There are other considerations that could be added: the greater variety of careers open to graduates than in the past and the high rewards in sectors carrying commission and bonuses (such as banking in the 1990s), which may have reduced the pool of would-be teachers. Like it or not, the perception of teaching, especially primary teaching, as a female profession – with mostly women seeking family-friendly hours and holidays – may also have had the effect of depressing its status.

Both this government and the last tried to reverse the trend. An early move was to raise pay for outstanding teachers, so that advancement was not only into management. The Teach First scheme encourages the best graduates to sample teaching without committing to studying for a diploma first. Higher pay means that teaching cannot be described as poorly paid, even at entry level; academies and the new "free" schools may set their own rates, while lump sums are to be offered to graduates to enter teaching in proportion to the class of their degree (more for those with a first, and so on).

Despite these efforts, there are few signs either that teaching is becoming more of a first-choice career or that it is reclaiming the professional status it used to command – and still commands in most of the European countries that outperform England and Wales in international tables. The strict academic requirements for teaching in Finland (which routinely tops international leagues), the national concourse to enter teaching in France, and the stiff competition in Germany, where teaching's solid civil service terms and conditions are seen as a plus, have no parallels in Britain.

Why is teaching stuck in the doldrums here? Partly because pay for doctors and top lawyers has spun off into the stratosphere in a way it has not on the Continent. Partly because, despite rewards for excellence, the cult of management, with its super-heads and super-schools, is destroying the professional solidarity that exists elsewhere – and communicates some strange messages about what constitutes educational success.

But mostly it is because so many teachers today denigrate their own profession – quite unreasonably – as low-paid drudgery. Until they take more pride in what they do, parents and public have little choice but to accept teachers' negative self-image as their own.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: When is a baroness not a baroness? Titles still cause confusion

Guy Keleny

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?