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

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.