I am part of the Teaching Crisis. In that sentence I wrote “the Teaching Crisis” with capital letters and a definite article as though it were a well-known, named thing like the Banking Crisis in 2008 or the Abdication Crisis in 1936. It isn’t but it should be.
Since September 2013, I’ve been the deputy head of a large primary school in inner London. The headteacher I work with is fantastic. We have a committed, talented team of staff and governors and the young people I teach are always entertaining. The pay is pretty good. I’ll soon be ready to apply for the top job at a school of my own. But I’m not going to. In July I’m walking away from the profession that has been my life for more than 12 years and I genuinely don’t know if I’m ever coming back. I’m not alone.
In 2003, I began volunteering in a primary school. There was a thrill to helping little people to read, write and do maths. Realising I could inspire and motivate pupils was exciting and I decided to be a teacher.
Even then, the education system imagined by Tony Blair’s government was full of frustrations. However, there was still time for the part of the job that mattered: getting to know the young people in your care, understanding what made them tick, and finding ways to reach them on an individual level. You could placate the various rampaging paperwork trolls with a couple of hours a week of judicious “copy & paste”. Back then, very few headteachers would have had to choose between their conscience and their job.
During the last three years of the Labour government, there was a real sense of light at the end of the tunnel. After more than a decade, it felt as if it had finally come to understand primary education. Under the impressive leadership of Ed Balls, the rebranded Department for Children, School and Families issued edicts that kind of made sense. It ditched what remained of the national strategies which dictated how maths and English should be taught and they commissioned Sir Jim Rose to produce a comprehensive review of the primary curriculum. This suggested that traditional subject divides be replaced with broader areas of learning and stressed the importance of play, particularly for younger pupils. It promoted the development of good speaking and listening skills and the value of nurturing character traits in young people such as resilience and independence, as well as the clear focus on maths and English that already existed.
The Rose Review set out a direction of travel which almost everyone that knew about education agreed with. Everyone, that is, apart from the new shadow Education Secretary. And there was an election looming. Enter stage hard right, Michael Gove.
The first two years of the Dark Lord’s attack on primary education were happy ones for me. We rode out what a colleague referred to as the “phoney war” in relative peace.
But 2012 was the turning point. Ofsted’s obsession with results and the threat of no-notice inspections for schools whose test scores dipped engendered a culture of fear. Terrified by the threat of losing their jobs in an academy takeover, headteachers made more absurd demands of their teachers’ spare time. The Government stepped up the anti-teacher rhetoric in the media as they fought battles with unions over cuts to pensions and the introduction, against all the evidence, of performance-related pay.
The failure of free school and academies to provide sufficient places for four-year-olds caused rows between communities and local authorities over school expansions. Perhaps most seriously, the constant changes to primary assessment started to squeeze out everything from the curriculum that wasn’t directly concerned with producing short-term, measurable units of an increasingly abstract notion called “progress” in reading, writing and maths.
It was that January that Sir Michael Willshaw, the chief inspector, made his infamous comment that “if anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’ then you know you’re doing something right.” Four years on, as he prepares to stand down, we can only congratulate Sir Michael on having so completely met his own success criteria.
And now, at the mercy of Nicky Morgan, this tragic tale reaches its conclusion. The primary assessment system has been overhauled and, unless you want Ofsted to sack your headteacher, you have no choice but to teach to an uninspiring series of tests that have precious little relevance to the 21st-century lives our pupils will have to navigate.
We used to inspire young people, open their minds to new possibilities and give them a lifelong love of learning. Heaven knows what this strange game we’re now playing is supposed to accomplish. Teaching was once a creative, optimistic, energising job. Not in the Gove-Morgan world of coordinating conjunctions and “formal written methods”.
Got a passion for music? Primary teaching is not for you. Want to inspire children with drama? Go hug a tree. Think children should learn about their local area? Officially that’s fine (it’s on the meaningless, untested part of the curriculum) but just make sure you link it to grammar objectives because any child that doesn’t understand the grammatical role of the subjunctive mood at the age of 11 will be branded a failure.
At my school, we’re still just able to strike a balance between what we believe and what is imposed but this is getting harder every year. Meanwhile, it seems teachers in most other schools are monitored, examined, scrutinised and graded as though working a 55-hour week for 32 hours’ pay is a special privilege.
Teachers want trust, respect and the right to exercise their professional judgement. They want the system to be designed by people who understand education; that is run for the benefit of pupils, not politicians. Most of all they want to be listened to. Without these simple courtesies it’s just not worth it.
And no, before you ask, the holidays don’t make up for it.
Find the full article at timparamour.com/blog/
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies