Enid, Margaret and Jill share two enduring loves: a love of teaching that 44 years in the job have not diminished and a friendship since childhood that has seen them through the joys and trials of their lives. Aged 64, all three are still teaching, still close friends, still living and working in Liverpool, where they were born, and still in demand with schools.
As teachers with bags of experience and a wealth of Scouse sense, they find the current call on them as supply teachers is constant. Demand is so pressing in fact that Enid Turnbull, a slim, quick-spirited woman, at one point interrupts our interview to rush off on emergency cover. There is no question of leaving a school in the lurch. "Illness seems to take a hold earlier and earlier in the school year," she says. "I expect to be busy later on, not now. It just shows how beaten down teachers are."
Galvanised by the downcast state of many staff, Margaret Cochrane, on behalf of the threesome, wrote to the Liverpool Daily Post at the end of last summer term. A no-nonsense character who navigates life like a ship in full sail, she wanted teachers to remember why they had entered the profession in the first place. She wrote: "They must not forget that they went in for the children and that children are still wonderful. They work so hard just to keep on top of change that they forget why they are there."
That letter put the women in the local spotlight, but they have stuck to their guns about the need for teachers to keep their sights on the main task. That's not to say they don't have plenty to say about the obstacles that keep children and teachers apart and alienated. The Government, parents and a litigious culture come in for a thoroughly down-to-earth drumming, and they recognise that their long-standing friendship and the fact that retirement has made them free agents - they are supply teachers now because they want to be - have enabled them to keep a sense of proportion. They know they are privileged to have had each other to talk things over with for so many years. Indeed, their Natter Club, as they call it, has been meeting monthly for the past four decades, taking precedence over all other commitments, and has undeniably helped them to keep going.
None of the women denies the hardships, particularly as all four daughters of the nine children they have raised have gone into teaching, encouraged by their mothers to do so, and, without exception, find the present going extremely tough.
Margaret's daughter, Penny Lovett, 41, is a special educational needs co-ordinator at a primary school in Southend, Essex. "All my old friends are scattered far and wide," says Penny, "but Mum, Jill and Enid have been able to support each other through school and through their whole lives. It must be great to be able to share those bad work days with old, old friends, and for them to know exactly what you're talking about but also to cheer you up. I always remember their natter nights. We would be sent up to bed early and I'd lay awake and listen to them talking and laughing. They're a mad lot really. When I think that Mum was a head when we were little, I don't know how she did it, and she ran a Beavers club as well. The house was always full of people.
"But I don't remember her working every evening, or on a Sunday, like I do. We would help her cut up shapes for the Christmas nativity scenes and we would stop off in country lanes to collect things in autumn, but she had time for us. When my children see me working they say, 'Oh no, Mum, not again.' I'm working every evening until midnight and Sundays as well. The pupils are great but the tiredness is a killer. Mum, Enid and Jill recommended teaching to us as a great profession to go into. I would not recommend teaching to my children."
The three friends are saddened that a younger generation feels this way, but they say it is not just the teachers who are worn out. They see that children are being asked to jump through too many hoops and are showing signs of stress.
Jill Hyde teaches A-level music on supply and is a peripatetic piano teacher. She says constant examining and being pushed to meet targets means children often don't get the rest they need. She recalls a recent incident. "We had a note from a doctor saying, 'This child is too nervous for school and needs rest.' What more can you say? Our A-level students have to knuckle down immediately in September. No account is taken of the time it takes for sixth-formers to mature into being sixth-formers."
Margaret, too, believes much-needed time for children's relaxation is being squeezed out of the school timetable. "Even little children come to school with this world of experience between them, and when they come and talk to you, you can't put a peg on that," she says. "But where is the time for them to talk and you to talk back? Children need to absorb things, they need time to be off the boil."
Enid, who was a junior school teacher and now teaches infants and juniors on supply, also laments a culture in which teachers can no longer hug children. She and Margaret, who was a head at Lidderdale infant school for 13 years before retirement, both describe having to stand arms akimbo while they are hugged by children, unable to hug them back. Enid says: "If pupils felt ill or had fallen over I used to put them on my knee. You can't do that now. We had a child who was ill and soiled himself. In former years we would have taken him into the staffroom and washed him down, but now you have to contact the parents first. We had to stand him on a piece of newspaper waiting for more than an hour while we contacted the mother. We never left him alone but it was dreadful for that child."
Jill, Enid and Margaret all went to the same primary school, Northway junior and infants in Wavertree, south Liverpool, where they all still live. They passed their 11-plus exams and went to separate grammar schools but kept in touch through the local church, St David's in Childwall, where they became Sunday school teachers. Although they went their separate ways to train - Jill to Bingley, Enid to Crewe and Margaret to Didsbury - they returned to Liverpool and their friendship when they started teaching. All three are from working-class families who made enormous sacrifices for them to be teachers and they felt an obligation to return home to make up the shortfall once they were working.
Margaret's father was killed in the Second World War and she can remember going to the local council offices while her mother begged for new shoes for her. She was given a grant to go to college, but the family had to pay it back once Margaret was in post. She returned home to reduce her costs and pay off the debt.
Enid Turnbull remembers vividly how her father felt about having to ask for money to send her to college. "He was a water meter engineer and we didn't have a lot of money. Mum sent him to ask for a grant for me and when he came back he said, 'I've done it but don't ask me to do it again.' He hated having to ask for money."
Jill was advised by her teachers to apply to university to read music, but again the money wasn't there. "We just couldn't aspire to that," she says. But they say the hardship has made them feel privileged to have such a job - a feeling that has stayed with them. All three have carried on working, even through raising families; Margaret stayed full-time in post while she brought up her four children.
There have been too many changes, too many files, too many directives for teachers to cope, they believe. Margaret Cochrane recalls when she started on supply being asked by one school to empty a series of cupboards and bin the contents. She says: "They were full of all the old national curriculum files from when it was introduced. I said, 'You're not going to throw those out are you?' It was such a waste. I took them home and they are now behind the sofa, full of family history."
The women are ultimately critical of significant numbers of parents who they see generally as being unwilling to spend time with their children, to discipline them or to support teachers who try to discipline them, and place much of the blame on a materialistic culture. Enid says: "Parents have to work and that's fine, but I get the feeling they also want more time for themselves and are not prepared for the slog of bringing up children. Time out is a bonus not a right; it's a 24-hours-a-day, 52-weeks-a-year commitment."
The one thing they like to think they can do as people who have chosen to carry on teaching beyond retirement is to give children time and space. Margaret says: "I was in a school recently where the head said, 'Thank God you've come in with your common sense just to be there for the children.'" Having each other, they say, having friends who understand when the going gets tough has helped them retain their enthusiasm for teaching and have a good laugh in the process. "As long as the work is there, we will go on," says Jill, "probably until we drop."
Do you belong to a natter club, sharing problems and supporting colleagues? Pass us your tips on how teachers can get together to soothe away the stress. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org