Richard Garner: Distrusted, distressed and denigrated: the plight of the modern teacher

'Teachers even quit before the end of their training because they can see the pressures to come'


Imagine you are a teacher in the middle of an inspection of your school. Just as the inspector is about to visit your classroom, a troublesome pupil in your science class secretes himself away in a cupboard.

Then, as the inspector has settled himself in at the back of the class, fumes build up in the cupboard and the pupil bursts out screaming.

Your career depends on the result of the inspection. It is the final straw after a term and a half during which the overwhelming feeling you have had is that the trouble with the teaching profession is that people have lost respect for it. You quit.

This actually happened to a young teacher, who had decided to take on the challenge of teaching in one of the country's tough inner-city schools. It mirrors the kinds of decisions being taken by teachers around the country, which has led to the frightening statistic quoted by Mike Tomlinson, chief executive of Ofsted, the Government's education standards watchdog, that up four in 10 young teachers quit teaching either before they have finished their training or completed three years in the profession.

Pay is not the main reason, although it is undoubtedly the case that in subjects with the most acute shortage of teachers – maths, science and modern languages – you can earn far more in the world of commerce than you can at the education chalkface.

Discipline on its own is not the most important problem, despite the story above. There is no denying most teachers feel discipline problems have got worse over the past few years and believe they no longer get as much support from parents in tackling them as they used to. The National Association of Head Teachers recently released statistics which showed they had taken out exclusion orders against 140 parents, many of whom had stormed to the school gates and confronted heads or teachers aggressively after they had disciplined their offspring, rather than siding with the teacher over the disciplining of their children.

I can't believe, either, that it's all down to the bureaucracy and the red tape enveloping the profession nowadays. Some of the best heads and teachers have developed a good way of dealing with that. It's called a wastepaper bin.

Mix all these ingredients together, though, and you build up a complete picture. The red tape is a symptom of an officialdom that does not trust you to perform well and improve your standard of teaching on your own. Instead, it develops a series of tick boxes that you have to check your performance against to make sure that you perform according to its ready-made methods. (Sometimes this is not the fault of the Government but of an over-zealous headteacher anxious to protect his or her back against a school governing body demanding year-on-year improvements in exam results.)

As one senior teachers' union official put it: "It's being ground down by the feeling that you're being constantly subjected to denigration and diktat. You don't have time to think about your own job before some jumped up little person in authority is issuing another directive about how you should be doing your job."

So what's to be done? I have to admit a lot of work is under way. The Government can lay claim to having enticed more people into teaching than its predecessors by a mixture of "golden hellos", worth £4,000 (half of which is withheld until the trainee actually starts work in the classroom), for teachers' training in shortage subjects; training salaries worth £6,000 to students on a post-graduate certificate of education course and opening up the facility for more mature students to train on the job, with a salary of £13,000. Ministers are proud that, at a time of high employment, they have increased the number of teachers in post since they took office by 12,000 and that applications for this autumn's teacher training courses have risen.

That shows that, while the Government cannot be complacent and we need applications to rise even further, the biggest problem now is not with enticing new people into the profession. The problem is keeping those who are already there. True, after seven years they can – to use the Government's terminology – "go through the threshold" and obtain a performance-related pay increase of £2,000, but for many that incentive comes too late to keep them in the profession. Even those who quit before the end of their training may have found the job is not for them, because they have seen the pressures on the teachers they have met while training on the job.

The solution is likely to come from the ongoing discussions over teachers' workloads. The interim findings of an independent report being carried out by PriceWaterhouseCoopers make interesting reading. It sounded a note of caution to ministers, saying that there was a "need for national agencies including the Department for Education and Skills to take more account of the impact on teachers' workload of initiatives and programmes". It also found that many teachers were routinely carrying out administrative tasks that really should not have been their burden and that there was an urgent need to offload some of this work to classroom assistants.

The final report, to be published in the autumn, will be followed by submissions to the independent pay review body on how the teachers' lot can be improved. Some pretty radical thinking is needed if we are to retain the teachers we need. How about guaranteed time off from classroom duties for marking and preparation, so that teachers get some time to think about what they are doing? Also, the Government must move ahead with its election pledge to hire 20,000 more classroom assistants during the course of this Parliament.

Both measures would go some way towards easing the pressure on existing staff. However, the solution does not only lie in the Government's hands.

The teaching unions have a role to play too. They have not been exaggerating the present teacher shortage, it is true, but they have been guilty of over-stating the case when it comes to complaining about their lot – and that too may have played its part in putting off many of their pupils from pursuing teaching as a career.

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