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Decide and conquer

I think I may be suffering from decidophobia. The fact that I'm not certain is one of the symptoms. Mornings are worst. I leap out of bed at 6am to tackle the first decision of the day: what to wear? The colourful frock that makes me look fat or the black one that makes me look 90? Designers seem obsessed with making middle-aged women look either corpulent or corpse-like. Every high-street store offers the same cribbed choice: a colourful dress that complements your skin but highlights your inflatable belly, or a subdued suit that slims you down but saps the last of your colour. It seems that taking inches off your waistline and years off your age are - in fashion terms - mutually exclusive. In the end, it boils down to whether you'd rather face Year 9 looking like a Karen Millen space hopper or with a complexion the colour of smoked haddock. Fortunately, my husband often helps me decide by yelling: "For Christ's sake, just wear the brown cardi."

Since I began teaching, my ability to make decisions has deteriorated. That's because I've been trapped by too many spring-loaded choices. They begin with the morning register. It's raining. The buses are late. You're so busy collecting absence notes, sponsorship money, and pruning back the forest of friendship bracelets that sprouted overnight, that you forget to mark your register. When you realise, the kids have disappeared. What do you do? Guess and hope the absentees don't get cindered in a fire? Or come clean and tell your boss?

It gets worse as the day wears on. When your students troop in for first period, you overhear a lad swear. For the good of your starter, you want to play deaf. Because it's not just any old starter; it has an animated PowerPoint, a card-sort and a diamond-ranking finale that took the whole of last night's X Factor to prepare. But if the kids think you heard the F-word and failed to apply the proper sanctions, before you know it you'll be dealing with 30 budding Malcolm Tuckers who chorus "Come the fuck in Miss or fuck the fuck off" every time you hover near the door. A girl called Jordan finally forces your hand: "Hey Miss, did you hear what Tommy Blenkinsopp just said?" You have no choice; the die is cast and the decision is no longer yours.

Choice certainly isn't what it's cracked up to be. A few weeks ago, Guardian writer Deborah Orr attacked the "pantomime of choice" society offers. She poignantly described the absurdity of having to make the final call on her own cancer treatments because NHS experts shunt the choice - and the responsibility - to the patient. That's a bit like a dentist handing you his drill and asking you to choose the right bit. According to Orr, education's latest choices are no better; instead of opening up freedoms, they drive inequality. You only have to think about the reality, rather than the ideology, that drives the free-schools programme to recognise the validity of her concern.

Meaningful choice is not something teachers are used to. We can choose where to place our desks and when to have our cake sales, but that's where our real choices end. The big decisions are made by someone else. We just deal with the fall-out. We are institutionalised and impotent. Like old Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption, we are unable to pee - or change target grades - without the boss's say so. And like Brooks, we have trouble sleeping at night, and we often wake up scared.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the north of England.

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