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Feeling the fear

As 2013 begins to unfold, it seems to me that the profession I love is in a pretty parlous state.

The job is harder than ever, more teachers suffer from stress-related illness and a steadily increasing stream of talented people is leaving teaching for something that gives them a better work-life balance. The profession is under pressure from the government as never before.

There is little support for teachers, just a torrid stream of initiatives and demands from people who often haven't the slightest idea of what life in a classroom is really like or what a teacher can realistically achieve.

Management teams manage without supporting, empathy seems a commodity long forgotten and, worst of all, there is palpable fear of a relentless and aggressive form of inspection. Schools are geared solely towards pleasing Ofsted and the general public has been conditioned to believe that Ofsted always knows best.

Throughout my 30-year headship, I had a consistent view of what primary education should be. I wanted children attending my school to wake in the morning and be excited about going to school. Given top-quality teaching, young children absorb knowledge and skills at a truly startling rate, and a primary school should give them the opportunity to sample a vast range of creative, practical and emotional experiences. Often, talents that emerge at primary school can lead to successful careers or hobbies in later life. I remember Christopher, who built a little bathroom cabinet in the woodwork corner when he was 8 and went on to become a skilled joiner. I let Daniel stay in and practise his clarinet most lunchtimes and I learned years later that he was a leading light in a jazz band. Maria loved performing in the crazy plays I wrote and eventually went to Rada. For me, one of the marvellous things about heading a primary school was being able to create a high-quality, stimulating environment in which all those fascinating little people could discover a real love of learning.

By the time my headship ended, primary education had changed completely, although my view of what it should be hadn't changed a jot. Throughout my leadership years, I fought desperately to ignore the hare-brained initiatives those in power tried to force on my school. And there were plenty to avoid, such as the ludicrous scheme to make reading easier, known as the Initial Teaching Alphabet.

For this reason, I was never popular with inspectors, advisers or my education authority, but I was secure in the knowledge that my school was successful and offered every child a fully rounded education, with dedicated staff who were trusted rather than pressured. And that, in turn, led naturally to high achievement from the children.

At the beginning of 2013, our enlightened belief is that results are achieved by cracking the whip on teachers and children, and that levels in maths and English are the only things that really matter. Music, art, drama, the wealth of creative experiences that should underpin a child's early years, are now things you do if there is time left over. What a brave new world of education my new grandson has been born into. His parents will need to choose his primary school with extreme caution.

Or perhaps, by the time he is 5, the powers that be will have realised what they have done. Now that really would be educational progress.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. Email:

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