I've been reading the political diaries of an MP who worked in the Tony Blair government. A paragraph that particularly caught my eye referred to a friend of his who taught in a village primary school and whose lesson was observed by no less than three Ofsted inspectors. You really couldn't make it up, he says.
Indeed you couldn't, any more than you could make up the very odd situation in which English primary education finds itself. Last term, I talked to a dynamic young teacher, highly thought of at her school. She had taught for two years and I asked her how things were going. What she told me seemed to sum up everything that is wrong in our primary schools.
"I'd always wanted to be a primary school teacher," she said. "I enjoyed the college course and, although I found the teaching practices demanding, the workload seemed light compared with what I'm doing now. I've never known such a steep learning curve. Two teachers on our staff are beginning to suffer seriously from stress, and neither has taught for more than five years.
"Teaching seems to be a route to burnout. Although I've kept my head above water this year, it is impossible to stay on top of everything. The whole emphasis seems to be on learning rather than teaching, and on continually testing the children. Any teaching talent I have seems to be a low priority, which is topsy-turvy. Everybody remembers good teachers they encountered at school, and shouldn't making lessons fun, original and exciting be what teaching is about?
"Earlier this year we had an Ofsted inspection. The school has always done well before but everybody was scared stiff because the inspection criteria constantly change. I thought the lesson I did was a good one but I was given a 'notice to improve'. Apparently I hadn't followed the prescribed criteria for a successful lesson or made sure the individual needs of every child were met. How could I do that? I found out later that the inspector had never done any primary teaching.
"And there are so many ridiculous rituals. When I mark students' work, I have to write a detailed comment. The children add their own comments beneath mine, setting their targets to improve. Then I have to comment on what they have written. I often work through the lunch hour and have to tell the children to get on with something for part of the afternoon so that I can finish marking.
"My headteacher is understanding and hard-working but she knows that test results and pleasing inspectors have a much higher priority than giving children a meaningful and exciting education. If she doesn't toe the line, she could lose her job.
"At this rate, I can't honestly say I'll be staying in education much longer."
And so we are likely to lose another excellent young teacher after a few years. Towards the end of his diaries, the MP states: "In my experience, teachers are intelligent, dedicated and hard-working. I can't for the life of me understand why we don't leave them alone for a bit."
My sentiments exactly.
Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher in England. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.