This teacher quits

Michael McMahon has had enough - not of his `failing' pupils but of bullying politicians

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The rest of the class of 14-year-olds were scribbling away, heads down, but Peter, who had broken two fingers recently when he had landed an ill-timed punch on a fellow pupil's jaw, wasn't able to write. He just sat there, staring into the not quite middle distance - for Peter has an uncorrected squint, a distinguishing feature that has helped identify him in his numerous brushes with the local police. He's worked hard at his English, though, taking pride in his ability not just to understand the characters in Romeo and Juliet, but to remember, spell and pronounce their names - a skill that has given him the edge over many of his contemporaries. I was sorry he couldn't take part in the written exercise, so I went over to keep him company.

"I've been thinking, sir," he said. (Twenty years ago, I might have been tempted to offer ironic congratulations in such circumstances, but there is little room for humour in today's tightly scripted curriculum, and one just falls out of the habit.) "You know you're leaving at the end of term, well, if we were to get everyone in the school to sign a petition, would you change your mind?"

I smiled. His question was kindly meant. But quite apart from the fact that it was easy to think of any number of people who would not be inclined to sign, my resignation had already been accepted. For, disgusted at the way that my colleagues and I have been treated by the bullies and control freaks who run contemporary state "education", and sickened by how much energy my school was made to waste preparing for an Ofsted inspection that it was predestined to fail, I have quit my job.

And when, last week, government ministers addressed the unions on their plans for the future of the profession, I knew I'd made the right decision. Performance-related pay - the most hotly debated topic at the two teaching union conferences held during this past fortnight - is the ultimate assertion that it is only the measurable which is valued. It is at the heart of a "performance management" package which will turn real teachers into mere puppets and manage real education to death. For I haven't quit on account of the likes of Peter, or his friends (or, for that matter, those he is inclined to hit). I can cope with them, for all their faults. In many ways, I shall miss them. But I can't - and won't - cope with them while I have all those politicians on my back, too. Tony Blair, David Blunkett, Chris Woodhead and the rest of them might spread abroad their concern for such marginalised children, but making life impossible for the people who do their daily best to teach the most difficult of them is a funny way of showing it.

For the past six years I have taught in an inner-city comprehensive whose intake includes a hard core of disaffected pupils who see little point in being educated for a society in which they feel they have no stake. There are many such schools in Britain. Teaching in the face of such an overwhelmingly negative culture is exhausting work, but it is enormously rewarding, too, even if it involves difficulties and stresses that are hard for an outsider to imagine. What is easy for outsiders, though, is to offer criticism, and - if so disposed - apportion blame.

I was just such an outsider when I joined that school. All my previous experience had been in the independent sector. I can still remember my disbelief when, in my first week, I had to call upon the head to help me out of a stand-off with a 15-year-old girl who had run amok, reduced a lesson to chaos, and whose response to being asked to leave the room was to tell me to "fuck off". When the head arrived, she invited him to do the same, and more. Repeatedly. I was shocked - but not as shocked as I was when she turned up at school on the following day. She should at least have been suspended, surely.

Only later did I find out what the head had known, and I hadn't: that the girl's own drug-addicted mother had been selling her, and other children, as prostitutes. At the time of my "incident", the mother was facing imprisonment; the daughter, a place in "care". If she had been suspended, she might well have run away, walked the streets, and slept rough, putting herself beyond care of any sort. I had been too quick to judge. They were exceptional circumstances.

The trouble is that in schools like the one I have been teaching in there can be just too many exceptional circumstances for the place to work properly, however good the leadership, the teaching or the disciplinary structures. And the "free market" approach to school places simply compounds the difficulty. Brighter children - or children with "brighter" parents - flee the "problem" schools, whose problems get worse until they very publicly achieve the status of a "failing school" to which eventually only underclass children subscribe. There is little hope for most of these places. Of the 641 schools "failed" up to June 1998, only 17 per cent have managed to break free of the "special measures" under which they then have to operate.

"Special measures" is a punishing - indeed, a punishment - regime under which all teachers are treated as if they were novices, submitting to constant investigative scrutiny and producing even more sterile paperwork than is now shamefully the norm. The thinking is that teachers in a "failed" school need to be made to teach better, and that better behaviour, attendance and exam results will follow as a direct consequence. The first stage in this recovery programme, my colleagues and I were told, was to accept our share of responsibility for the school's failure, because as long as we denied it, we would get nowhere.

Well, I denied it then, and I deny it now. And I refuse to teach on such terms. It's not that I claim my colleagues and I are beyond criticism, even less that we are any of us even remotely like Mr Blunkett's idealised educational-action-clone superteachers. It's just that it isn't true. We saw this for ourselves when, a couple of years ago, as part of the endless and debilitating cycle of pre- and post-Ofsted preparation and reaction into which such schools get locked, we were told that we were to have the benefit of seeing a top-notch teacher at work. Someone who had been inspected and found excellent in her own (very much more middle- class) school was seconded to us to show us how things should be done. And yet it was all she could do to keep our pupils in the room, let alone sitting down and attentive. If an inspector had observed almost any of those lessons, she - whose performance had been judged so good in a different context - would have failed. She admitted it.

The inspection that concluded all those long terms of fretful preparation was a farce. It seemed to everybody that the team had looked at the statistics and decided our school was a failure before it arrived, and that rather than take random or representative observations, it simply sought out evidence which would support that conclusion. Why else, for example, would they have repeatedly inspected lessons taught by a non-specialist supply teacher - who, incidentally, was only there at all because a first-class colleague had cracked under the strain of the pre-inspection period? Why else would one key department, all of whose observed lessons had been judged satisfactory or better, have received a supplementary visit from the chief inspector himself at the end of the week, who failed three lessons on the trot, making the overall average unacceptable?

This said, there would be something pretty wrong with a society that thinks nothing should be done about schools with attendance figures, exclusion rates and test results like ours. But I doubt whether anybody else, given the same resources, could have done much better for those same children. And I am certain that nobody could have tried harder.

Such efforts are not without cost. In the last six years I have seen 11 of my colleagues suffer nervous breakdowns. (There are only 60 on the staff at any one time: make a statistic out of that for me, Mr Woodhead.) Many were excellent teachers; all were worn down by the daily struggle of the classroom; most were tipped over the edge by the relentless demands of the inspection process. In two cases, I was actually present when friends and colleagues finally freaked out. When you witness such things, you realise that treating a fast-shrinking human resource like this is not only wasteful, it is wicked.

I don't know who is going to teach Peter with the squint and the broken fingers now that I have gone. People don't exactly queue up to join schools that have been branded as "failing". There will inevitably be an even higher turnover of staff for the rest of his time there, and that's not going to do much for his chances in life. Still, in a funny kind of way, I feel even closer to him and his friends now that we are all marginalised: from tomorrow, I no longer have a permanent job, and they, struggling pupils at a "failing" school, have even less chance of getting one.

It's been an honour to work among some of the finest teachers I am ever likely to meet, and to teach some of the toughest and least privileged of our children. I can't, however, turn myself into the kind of teacher that the politicians seem to want for such kids, even for their sake. Which is why, Mr Blunkett, I quit. You win.

But Peter doesn't.

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