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Former headteacher Sue Mulvany gets to the heart of the issues that concern you

Q I am a classroom assistant. I get on well with all the teachers but have become friendly with one in particular. She was widowed about a year ago and we started to keep each other company. Now every weekend, and during the week, I get phone calls asking me for coffee or to go shopping. I know she is lonely but it has got to the point where I feel harassed and afraid to pick up the phone. What can I do to stop her?

A Grief is an awful process to live through. Your friend is in need. Each time she phones you she is asking for support. However, I can imagine the pressure you are under. You want to be a good friend but you need privacy. Why not have a word with other staff to see if a network can be created to share support for a colleague in need? When you do go out, invite someone else so that relations between the two of you are not so intense.

If this fails you will have to speak kindly and let your friend know how you feel. This will be an important conversation; make sure how you describe your own need for privacy does not appear as a rejection. Later, when her grief has subsided, she will thank you and you should feel proud that you were there to help.

Q Our school is developing the role of specialist teachers, with distinct benefits. Standards in maths and English have risen in Year 6 and we are hoping for great things in the SATs. But a new development has caused a lot of disquiet. A music specialist has been appointed to lead on curriculum development, instrumental and choral work. He is planning to audition for the choir, which was previously open to all, irrespective of ability. I feel strongly that this is wrong but don't want to cause ill feeling and be seen as being against improving standards. How can I resolve this?

A You've cut to the heart of an area that causes many teachers to question their motivation - in essence, "what is primary education for?" One view is that it is to prepare young people for a competitive world. Another is that it is to educate the whole child, giving each a foundation of understanding, experiences and skills from which their unique talents and aptitudes will grow. Yet another view is that it can act as a kind of hot-house to bring on pupils whose achievements will stand up against international comparisons and provide the country's workforce for the future.

Many dedicated teachers will tell you that it is a mixture of all these things. No doubt th musical performances will do the school great credit - there won't be a duff note. If that's what the school wants then the strategy of selection to the choir will be effective.

If, on the other hand, the school sees its role as enriching each child's life and engendering a love of music, then let everyone join in. Excellent standards are not dependent on selection alone, they result from good teaching. For your conscience's sake you must challenge this decision by sharing your concerns with the head or at a staff meeting. I'm with you on this one.

Q In September I took a senior post in an inner city school. The children are tough but rewarding and I am enjoying learning about management. The head, however, is difficult to work for. This is well known and the turnover of staff is high. She treats every newcomer the same, so her attitude to me is not personal - indeed the deputy has told me that the head hopes I will stay. I have already decided that I cannot be part of her ethos and want to look for another post for September. The head is known for making people's lives a misery once they have handed in their notice. I am also worried about a reference. Should I ask for references from other schools? Or would this reflect badly on me in my applications?

A As a rule, management jobs in inner-city schools are not easy to fill, so you shouldn't have much difficulty being short-listed if your application meets the criteria. The fact that you will be leaving your present post after only a year will not inspire confidence in most governors, so you will have to explain why. Make that statement short, factual and honest. Do not comment about your present school in any way that can be seen as unprofessional.

You can choose whomever you wish as referee, unless the application form states that one must be your present employer. If so, explain the circumstances to the school to which you are applying. Remember, references are notorious for saying more about the referee than the applicant, and in most cases they are only used once the selection has been made.

Also, many letters taking up references remind the referee that employees will have access to records and will be able to see the reference. Good luck with your career.

Send your problems to Sue. write to her at tES Primary, 66-68 east smithfield, london e1W 1BX, or e-mail You can also leave hints about this month's problems at The TES discussion forum by visiting our website at

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