'Primary and secondary teaching are too alien to be lumped together...'

... and primary is the harder of the two – dealing with the occasional surly adolescent is easier than facing runny noses and grazed knees every day, says Stephen Petty

Primary and secondary

A colleague from science startled the lunchtime sandwich circle recently when he disclosed that he had previously taught in a primary school. There was a brief moment of awestruck silence. For some of us, cosseted in the relatively sheltered milieu of a secondary school classroom, this kind of talk ranks alongside claiming to have done active service with the Royal Marines.

It turned out, however, that his career in the primary sector had only lasted for two hours and 10 minutes. “Oh no, I didn’t want to do a whole day.”

I knew what he meant. While teaching at secondary level is quite enough of a gladiatorial contest for most humans, those performing in the primary arena surely face an even fiercer test. We may all share the same language when referring to the growing pressures and expectations placed upon us, but the heat just seems even more intense over there.

Take our shared complaint about “data”, for instance. Teachers in the secondary sector justifiably object to data deification and the shadow this casts over us, but the amount of time we have to spend worshipping this god is as nothing compared to the laborious evidence-collecting and record-keeping expected of our friends in primary schools. I have a pal who moved from secondary to primary (in his case, he’s managed significantly more than two hours – 10 years and counting, to be exact) and he would readily agree.

But the evidence is more than just personal and anecdotal. In last year’s NEU teaching union survey on workload, the proportion of teachers giving answers indicative of too much burden and expectation was far greater, overall, in the primary sector. If you total up the relevant percentages of responses, the cumulative percentage score comes to 827 for the primary sector, whereas for secondary it's 490. 

Only two possible conclusions can be drawn from that difference. Either primary teachers are lightweights who whinge more than their secondary counterparts, or – as seems much more likely – they really do find the job even tougher than we do.  Similarly, a report from the DfE in May 2017 revealed that the odds of a qualified teacher leaving the profession are – in all years of teaching experience bar the first two – always higher in primary than in the secondary sector.

Some will doubtless counter that primary is easier because younger pupils generally show more enthusiasm and that this makes them easier and more rewarding to teach. “Better than working with those stroppy, hormonal teenagers”, they often say. But I am not convinced by this argument. Give me the occasional surly adolescent anytime rather than make me deal, each and every day, with the many raw and diverse needs of younger children, with all their random ways, their runny noses, their upsets and spillages, their knees bleeding again from another calamity in the playground. (And so on.)

Whether you happen to agree with me or not doesn't, of course, matter. What surely does matter is that we more openly acknowledge that these two endangered species work in very different habitats. The day is different, the demands different, the detail of our concerns subsequently different – despite the shared vocabulary and the justifiably united front to make all teachers' lives more manageable. 

Unity is strength, yes, but if we overlook those differences it means that too many well-intentioned initiatives and “solutions”, whether from ministers or from fellow teachers, will continue to come across as too generic, irrelevant or unworkable for half (if not all) of us. 

Frankly, I have heard enough, for instance, from those who claim to have “solved marking” by “going around the class and marking it with each pupil in turn",  only for me to find that they deal with just one class of 30 primary pupils all week, as opposed to my multiple classes and my 200 plus roll-call. 

Primary teaching, eh? Easy life! 

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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