“Teaching is still the best job in the world – it’s just tough,” says Amanda Martin.
As the new president of the NEU teaching union, she is trying to make it less tough, and less lonely.
“School is such a lonely place for so many teachers. You spend so many hours with the kids in your class, you then spend so many hours planning and marking and going through all the hoops that are needed to satisfy Ofsted and it becomes very isolating," she says.
“And when you’re doing a 67-hour week and when 25 hours of that time is not doing anything with kids but proving what you’ve done to somebody from the outside, that is wrong.”
Martin is the first-ever sole president of the NEU, which was formed after the recent merger of the NUT and ATL unions.
It’s a job for which you might say she’s well-suited, as a primary school teacher of 22 years, with most of that time spent as a union officer. She’s also a mother-of-three.
'Teachers keep the system going'
Martin is sipping a lemonade, sitting in an armchair in a darkened corner of the Hilton Metropole hotel on Brighton seafront. It’s the start of the Labour Party Conference, with guests arriving from all over the country ready to change the world. And there’s lots she wants to change in education.
She mentions the streamlining of the curriculum, and the “atrocious assessment regime” in our schools.
She talks about real-terms funding cuts, which have spelled the end for education welfare officers, educational psychologists and teaching assistants, not to mention support staff working one-to-one with special educational needs and disability pupils. She says there are more children phoning Childline these days, and more with mental health issues.
But despite the pressures, it’s the teachers who are keeping the system going, Martin says.
“Despite the awful things we’re having to do with testing, with putting our kids through all these exams and with not giving them a broad and balanced education, teachers are doing their best and making lessons exciting and fun, and that’s why kids are not as bad as they could be – but the cost is that they are leaving the profession."
Martin says she has seen first-hand the effect of the accountability system and funding cuts through her three sons aged 17, 15 and 12.
Her eldest sat more than 20 exams in the space of around three weeks to take nine GCSEs, which she says is “ridiculous”.
“How any child can retain that level of information is impossible,” she adds.
Sats, meanwhile, are “not fit for purpose”, she argues, but are “a snapshot of one day in one pupil’s time” and cause “so much stress and pressure”.
“Two of my youngest child’s friends were crying one night before football training because they were so worried about their Sats.
“The pressure it puts on those kids is unbelievable, and I think teachers do a really good job of trying not to load that pressure on. But when you’re constantly having to teach to the test and test the kids and see where they are, and that they’re not getting the questions right, it’s awful, and in the past two years the [level of difficulty] of questions has been set too high.”
Problems with academies
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell checked in to the hotel where we are talking a little while earlier, and Tes has spotted shadow cabinet ministers Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry. But who needs a Labour politician when Martin is already championing their policies?
She’s a staunch opponent of academisation, for example, which she says takes too much money out of the system. And she holds up Labour’s London Challenge (a schools improvement initiative set up in 2003 that is credited with improving London schools) as being a good example of how to do things right.
“Why don’t we roll that out to lots of places instead of an academisation programme which fractures education and doesn’t have collaborative working?"
One of the things that has been lost is the camaraderie and quality CPD that used to exist in local authorities, Martin says.
“When I first started teaching 20 years ago, we had a professional centre in Portsmouth – every local authority had them – and teachers would go there and would do CPD training on, say, what’s going on in design technology in the primary sector, or how we’re going to work with new English textbooks that have come in.
“But those opportunities are now less and less because CPD training is now based on the many changes that the government brings in. There’s no choice. You have to learn the new Ofsted framework or the new way they’re going to deliver the new multiplication test or the new SPAG around Sats.”
School funding 'just electioneering'
Martin is shortly due to chair a NEU fringe meeting on funding.
So what of the government’s recent announcement of extra funding, which, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, is enough to reverse the real-terms cuts over the past 10 years?
She disputes whether it will, in fact, reverse the cuts, and says the pledge is “electioneering” by the government.
“There’s no guarantee the money is coming,” she says. “What if extra money is needed because of Brexit? They’ll have to claw it back from these budgets.
“And if they really cared and they listened and they looked at the poverty figures, the money would come now.
“For a whole year, we’re still going to have to make cuts to teaching assistants and support staff that work one-to-one with children.”
Eye on the ball
Martin says she’ll be leaving the conference before the big party on the last night to get back home for the big match between her beloved Portsmouth FC and arch-rivals Southampton in the Carabao Cup.
She’s a season ticket holder – has been for 30 years – and goes to games with two of her sons, her brother, who is an electrician, and her dad, a retired police officer.
Her other son is more into gaming, and in any case is a Manchester United fan, which “isn’t really football”, she says.
There’s a down-to-earth, working-class side to Martin, who says she has no union background apart from her granddad, who was a train driver and a member of ASLEF.
Her mum worked in a local factory making bras for Marks and Spencer but gave up work to bring up three children, of which Martin in the eldest. She later returned to work (in a shop) to help put her children through college.
“She used to do 15 hours days so I could go to college,” says Martin.
Goals as NEU president
In her role as president, she’s keen to geta round the branches and districts and to listen to the members.
“One thing I want to be able to do when we’re going around the districts is to say to members that the union is a really good thing to be involved in, and the pillars of our union are around making sure that education in England and Wales is the best that it can be for the kids that are in it. And we’re also looking at collectivism, which is making the workplaces the best they can be for the people in them. But we don’t know if there’s an issue there unless people tell us.
“We’re teaching kids to stand up for themselves and if we can’t do that for ourselves, how can we teach it?”
Incidentally, the match result is a 4 – 0 loss for Portsmouth, but you get the feeling it’s not been a wasted trip because, like every match, it’s a chance to spend quality time with family.
Never lonely on the terraces.
Amanda Martin: CV
- University: BA Ed in design and technology, QTS at King Alfred’s College (Winchester University), Winchester
- 1996-97: Parnell Junior School, Hampshire
- 1997-2009: Court Lane Junior School, Portsmouth
- 2009-present: St Jude’s Primary School , Portsmouth