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'I taught in the 1980s and in many ways things are much worse now in schools'

Government intervention and accountability has reached such levels that heads can no longer protect staff from the repercussions, says Julia Vincent

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Government intervention and accountability has reached such levels that heads can no longer protect staff from the repercussions, says Julia Vincent

The common assumption is that teaching and learning is much better now than it was when I started teaching in the 1980s. People state that teaching "back then" was very much about the teacher delivering and the students receiving. Teaching is now more sophisticated – we have worked out students are individuals and need to be treated as such.

Yet, it was far from as backwards as some would have you believe. Those of us teaching in that period understood that what we were doing was a craft that had to be honed. We didn’t use terms such as engagement or differentiation but we very much had them in mind in our teaching. And relationships were still central to everything we did.

The 1980s had something we do not have now, too. What was really valuable about this period was that we had the gift of time: time to build relationships, to plan, to improve subject knowledge, to dedicate to extra-curricular activities, to relax and refresh.

Different perspective

Is teaching today really that much more successful? Undoubtedly all students are leaving with more rigorous qualifications and clearer pathways to 16+ education. Schools are calm, purposeful formal learning environments chock a block full of excellent teachers, support staff and students with aspiration. These are good things, but what has been the cost?

We read regularly about how many young teachers leave the profession within the first five years. We also read about the burn out among headteachers. Many subjects are in a recruitment crisis and as a head you live in fear of a scientist or a mathematician resigning their post. Meanwhile, the acceptance from all levels of the profession that a 60-hour week is normal and the only way to get through is near universal.

Then you have the competitive environment of schools: high levels of accountability and the appalling consequences if a school is found wanting during an Ofsted visit; the league tables; the increasingly aware parent population who are encouraged to treat schools like any other consumer product to be compared, scrutinised and then a choice made.

Combine this with declining budgets and the fragmentation of the education system and you have a perfect storm. The 1980s suddenly don’t seem so bad.

No solutions

As a headteacher you try and solve these issues. But you are limited.  

That’s because the answer must lie with our political masters, who have spent a very long time talking down the profession and imposing a range of policies on us.

We need a change.

We need government to talk up the profession, to enter into a dialogue with heads to refocus what we do, to recognise the impact of their actions on schools and teachers.

We need parents to support their local school and the press to focus on the positives as well as the negatives.

Will it happen? I doubt it. But heads are already doing all they can to ensure our staff feel valued and supported and I worry that it is not enough. We need help.  

Julia Vincent is an executive headteacher in Hampshire

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