Enter the feel-bad factor

Morale in Britain's staffrooms has hit rock bottom. Teachers are feeling disillusioned, demoralised and angry at being forced to carry out unpopular Government policies, while being constantly blamed for society's ills.

They are fed up with having to teach children in ever larger classes, working in schools which are dilapidated, underfunded and overstretched. And they are determined to vote out an unpopular Government towards which they feel a deep resentment and which they hold responsible for the current poor state of education.

These are the main findings of an in-depth study of teachers' attitudes, carried out through focus groups exclusively for The TES. They emerge in a week when the Government is under fire for proposed changes in teachers' pensions rights, new research shows staff are 20 times more likely to take days off work because of stress than teachers in France, and the Government's chief adviser on teacher supply admitted for the first time that salary levels could be deterring scientists from entering the profession.

The study, carried out by Research Services Ltd, and which uses the same techniques employed by the major political parties to gauge the state of mind of key voters, is likely to be seized on by Opposition leaders as evidence that the Conservatives have lost the confidence of the teaching profession. Only a tiny proportion intend to vote Tory in the general election.

However, the study also finds widespread cynicism among teachers about Labour education policies. Although guardedly hopeful that a government led by Tony Blair would bring improvements in schools, there is little expectation of significant improvements under a party which has ruled out tax rises to pay for new investment and is perceived to be carrying out policies almost identical to the Tories.

Only the Liberal Democrats, who have pledged to put 1p on income tax if needed to cut class sizes, upgrade school buildings and re-equip schools, will take much comfort from the survey.

But even they face losing support from teachers who fear their vote will be wasted.

The teachers, who contributed to six focus groups in different parts of the country, have drawn up a list of six priorities they say are needed to restore morale and raise standards - or, as one put it, "to restore the feel-good factor" in education.

These are: more investment in schools, limit class sizes to 30, a nursery place for all four-year-olds, steps to raise teachers' status, reform of the Office for Standards in Education and a programme to tackle crumbling schools.

Under-funding was the biggest educational concern for the teachers, but poor morale, status and lack of career development were constant complaints. There was deep resentment that teachers were being made scapegoats for many of society's ills and for the poor state of the education system. The study also identified constant "meddling" and "tinkering" with the curriculum as a source of irritation, putting added pressure on workloads. There was also much ill feeling about school league tables and testing.

This week the main political parties launched their opening salvoes in what is expected to be a long campaign, leading up to an election in April or May. All three have pledged to prioritise education.

If Labour wins, teachers anticipate an increase in funding, notably at pre-school level. They believe a Blair-led government would bring a more positive outlook, but little change. If the Liberal Democrats win, according to the study, there would be greater support for teachers but change would come slowly. With a Conservative victory, the expectation is that class sizes would rise further and funds would be diverted to grammar schools.

The survey was carried out in late November and early December 1996.

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