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Have they no compassion?

Just before I retired, I received a glossy, expensively produced folder from the local education authority. Its contents described the kinds of bullying I might encounter in my school and how I might deal with them. The writer was talking about children bullying other children, but I'm beginning to wonder if there ought to be more guidance for teachers who are bullied by their managers, because I have heard some worrying stories recently.

I'm sure much of it has to do with the aggressive society we live in. Switch on the television and it will be moments before you see people being nasty to each other - on a quiz show, for example, or a talent contest. It's all part of the "fun". And it has spread to children: watch how they react to each other over minor incidents in their playground games.

I have recently met a number of teachers who are experiencing unpleasantness from somebody in a leadership role. The tormentor might be a head of department, a curriculum leader, a middle manager, or any of the other grand leadership titles that education has invented for itself during the past decade. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if the idea these days is to get promoted as quickly as possible to a position where you can avoid coming into contact with children. Then you can lean on other people, setting their targets, monitoring their lesson plans, criticising their work and raising their anxiety level.

The meaning of managing in teaching has changed out of all recognition. A manager now "drives up" standards, "roots out" failure, "moderates" target setting, or sits in the corner of a classroom with a clipboard, critically observing the person who is doing their best to create an absorbing lesson for children who don't necessarily want to listen. This management style often comes close to bullying. If you're the kind of teacher who can hold your own and deal with this so-called leadership, then fine, but what about the many who can't?

Some years ago, I knew a teacher who took out a formal complaint against her headteacher. She had worked extremely hard at the school for 15 years, but the new headteacher forced her to take on a huge amount of additional responsibility for no further financial reward. She objected and the headteacher began a campaign of subtle bullying. When the teacher decided to leave, she was given only a one-line reference, which said that she was punctual and seldom absent. She complained to the chair of governors. This achieved nothing: the chair of governors was frightened of the headteacher.

Worryingly, it seems that every educational initiative gives managers a bit more licence. When whole-school "managed learning environments" were introduced, teachers and children could be in touch about their work from anywhere, at any time. "It's great," one headteacher said to me at a meeting. "It will mean that I'll have constant access to staff for checking their planning, even at weekends."

And, sadly, she wasn't joking.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher in England. Email:

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