Mary Wakefield: Teaching: a job with no kudos

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The Independent Online

So far, here at the office, 2009 has been the year of the work experience kid. Perhaps it's something to do with the shortage of university places, but since early March it's been more like Gossip Girl than journalism round here.

Every Monday morning, there are three new faces in our tiny office – perky, anxious, washed hair. Every Monday morning I lever some Hannah or Elliott gently out of my chair and perch them wherever there's room: on the radiator, or beside the printer, where they sit exchanging nervous looks.

I'm not sure what they learn from us – how to avoid ever answering the phone, perhaps – but as the summer has floated by, I've learnt an awful lot from them about what it's like to be a school-going teen under the dark regime of Mr Edward Balls. And I've concluded that however it is that those A-level grades manage to inflate themselves, it's no thanks to state-school teachers. I know – what sort of mean-spirited cow attacks those noble souls who devote their lives to children?

Well, you don't have to take my word for it, take David's. David is a super-bright 17-year-old from a "failing" state school who came for a fortnight in July. He was polite about his school when asked, but had to admit that the teachers often didn't turn up. What do you mean, not turn up? I asked. "Well," said David, "Usually the Spanish teacher calls in sick, and the English teacher often has to stand in for someone else who hasn't turned up." So what does the class do, unsupervised? "Some people leave, said David, but my friends and I take it in turns to read out loud."

"It's because we're A-level students," Emily chipped in from the photocopier. "We don't legally have to be at school so they take less trouble with us. She sounded very understanding about it.

I am less understanding. How and why are teachers allowed to bunk off at will? Why are so many of them so apathetic about doing what must be the most important job there is?

Neither Hannah nor Elliott knew, so the work experience crew set to and conducted an inquiry into the matter. In the last few weeks they've googled schools around the world and they've concluded, Mr Balls, that the English system is specially designed to demoralise teachers.

The first question they have is: why do we expect so little from teacher training applicants? The only academic credential you need to train to be a teacher is a C grade at GCSE in English and maths. Surely we want most of our little darlings to aim at least a bit higher than that? What's the sense in requiring less of teachers than we do of pupils?

The second question is: why can't a teacher be sacked? However badly a teacher does; however much attendance or enthusiasm plummets on his watch, unless he's actually caught groping some Year 7 tot, it's almost impossible to get rid of him. There are head teachers all over the country just itching to axe dud staff, but the only legal way of shifting a dull teacher seems to be to promote him. This I know first-hand. A decade ago, my most loveable and inspiring friend chose (after a sparkling university career) to teach maths and philosophy in the state sector. Very quickly he proved to be a 21st-century Mr Chips and acquired a devoted following of pupils whose grades improved no end. Last year, fizzing with ideas, he applied to be department head. Sorry, said the headmaster, I've had to give that job to a duffer to stop him teaching French.

My friend considered a change of career. His usually beatific expression became embittered and for once he let himself complain about all the little things he'd usually keep under wraps. "It's not so much the money as the lack of status," he said. "If no one's rewarded for doing well, only for doing badly, everyone knows it's a job for losers."

This, I think is the heart of the problem: teachers in this country have no kudos. It's too easy to become a teacher, it's too easy to coast along, serving time.

So what needs to change? I think, paradoxically, it's got to be much harder to become a teacher. The work experience googlers have discovered that some of the best state education systems in the world are the ones which require most of their staff. In Singapore, for example (says Hannah), only the top third of secondary school graduates apply to be teachers and not all of them make it. You have to excel to teach, and so it's a highly sought-after and highly regarded profession. Teachers boast about their jobs; teachers get the chicks.

In Finland, where teachers are paid no more than they are here, they have to have a post-graduate degree to train, and there are generally 10 applicants for every job. More than 50 per cent of school-leavers say their aim is to teach. So far we have had 20 students in the office at various times and I've asked them all what they're thinking about doing, should they be lucky enough to get a job. Some want to write, others want to do law. One girl wanted to train animals to act. Not one student has said they wanted to teach.

Madonna and Jesus – it can't be true, can it?

Why should it be so intensely irritating for Madonna to claim that young Jesus Luz, her baby-faced Brazilian boy-toy, is "the love of her life"?

Perhaps it's because we've heard it all before – remember Madge's coy admission that Sean Penn was the love of her life? Perhaps it's because it's clearly such a major whopper that it threatens to undermine the whole celebrity dating game.

Since Elizabeth Taylor first set eyes on Richard Burton, believing in celebrity romance has been a national sport, a gruelling and competitive pasttime requiring a steely will and severe amnesia. Against the odds, throughout the Nineties we managed to persuade ourselves that Tom and Nicole, Demi and Bruce, Mel Gibson and Robyn were in it for the long haul.

These days the game revolves around the Beckhams and the creepy Cruises: can you keep the faith, despite Katie's look of suicidal despair and David's wandering eye? Yes, just. But games have rules, and Madonna has not played fair. Faith is by definition difficult, but it's beyond the pale to ask anyone to believe in Madonna and Jesus.

Frozen in the glare of publicity

A brilliant new theory from Jane Bussman, a script-writer for South Park and Brass Eye: celebrity arrests development at the age it strikes. Michael Jackson was perfectly normal for a five-year-old, into sleepovers and fun fairs, just as George Clooney is a bog-standard 30-year-old, still stuck at the age he was when ER was at its peak. In addition, I'd submit all those girls who made it big as sulky teens – Winona Ryder say, or Christina Ricci – who still slope around shoplifting and boozing like adolescents. Freeze-framed by fame.

Mary Wakefield is deputy editor of the Spectator