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

Ashdown Group: Marketing Services Manager - (communications, testing, DM)

£32000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Services Manage...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Apprenticeships

£10000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an outstanding opportunity for 1...

Ashdown Group: IT Analyst / Helpdesk - 2 Month Contract - £15ph - High Wycombe

£15 per hour: Ashdown Group: IT Analyst / Helpdesk - 2 Month Contract - £15ph ...

Recruitment Genius: Automation Test Analyst

£35000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This group is the world's secon...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ice skating in George Square, Glasgow  

How many Christmas cards have you sent this year?

Simon Kelner

Al-Sweady Inquiry: An exercise in greed that blights the lives of brave soldiers

Richard Kemp
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum