The young woman walked into the staffroom and dropped disconsolately into her seat. What was the cause of the defeated body language? Could it be relationship problems, I wondered, or bad news about a loved one. Maybe it was a difficult pupil kicking off. No, this primary teacher had just been asked to complete yet another assessment, crunch the percentages and do it yesterday.
It sounded like the bureaucratic straw that had broken the camel’s back. She was a year into the job and she was already thinking of changing careers, more in sadness than in anger. Her boyfriend was also a teacher and they were often working until 10 o’clock at night. “I can be happy,” she sighed, “or I can be a teacher.”
This is no isolated example. I come across weary, disillusioned teachers on a daily basis in the course of my visits to schools as an author. Now here’s the rub, not one of these good professionals references the very real stresses and strains of the classroom as the factor that could drive them out of teaching. It always boils down to workload, the endless collection of data, the subordination of teaching and learning to tracking, testing and "accountability", which invariably means stress-inducing targets and anxious over-the-shoulder concerns about the next Ofsted inspection. A common refrain goes something like this: “I used to love teaching, but the way things are now, what you do with the kids is an afterthought. They get in the way of the real purpose of the job, collecting evidence to see if we are meeting our targets.”
There is nothing anecdotal about this. A recent YouGov poll commissioned by the NUT teaching union suggests 53 per cent of teachers are thinking of quitting in the next couple of years. News reports earlier this year revealed that four out of 10 teachers quit within a year of qualifying. And 11,000 young teachers leave the profession before they have even completed their development as educators. The exodus has almost tripled in six years and there is much talk of a teacher recruitment crisis.
This waste of talent, enthusiasm and youthful idealism is shocking. It is also staggeringly expensive. There is a similar crisis at the other end of the profession, with more experienced teachers shaking their heads as their accumulated knowledge is dismissed as worthless after a lifetime in the job.
This is not just about teachers. Over the past few years, we have heard many politicians arguing that stable families of whatever kind are the essential precondition of secure, happy children. This argument surely applies to the classroom too. Well-paid, respected and optimistic teachers who have time to read, go to the theatre and cinema or walk along the beach and, well, have the time to think, are the essential precondition of eager, curious children in the classroom. Who is most likely to inspire a young mind: a vibrant, funny, energetic and interesting teacher or one who is stressed, demoralised and crushed under a burden of onerous and futile administrative tasks? Teacher and child alike are increasingly the twin victims of a system of endless, Kafkaesque pressure.
I am an ex-teacher myself. What kept me in the job all those years? Was it the league tables, the tragi-comic day when we lay on the staffroom floor cutting and pasting programmes of study, was it the endless rewriting of the curriculum, the constant policy U-turns or was it that moment when a child smiled and said: “I get it”, the cheeky grin on the bus back from a school trip that reassured me a young person had had a day to remember. The former should always be subordinated to the latter. This is why I organised the open letter on teacher workload.
The teaching world has been turned upon its head. It is time to set it back on its feet and put teaching, learning and the sheer, exhilarating thrill of intellectual exploration firmly at the heart of schools. And if that means halving the physical and digital mountain of administrative detritus, so be it.
Alan Gibbons is an award-winning children's author who tweets at @mygibbo