Teachers' verdict: could have done better

Staff praise the additional money, but not the extra pressure.

IN APRIL 1997, Philip May took on his first headship, at Oxstalls community secondary in Gloucester. That same month, Tony Blair was 200 yards away from the school's gates when the general election was called and the Labour campaign launched.

"There was optimism and hope," said Mr May, now head of Costessey high in Norwich. "But it was a cautious optimism - prime ministers can only do so much."

Ten years later, as Tony Blair prepares to leave Downing Street, Mr May, 52, reflects on a trail of lost hope and broken promises. "When he got the job, we thought there would be fairness and social justice," he said. "And, yes, there's been an upwards trend. But the whole doesn't add up to the sum of its parts."

In 2003, Costessey acquired science specialist status. Mr May welcomed the initiative because it rewarded careful planning with additional funding.

But, he says, this was not a pattern the Government followed consistently, instead pouring money into high-achieving or failing schools while ignoring those in the middle. "They reward the good and give charity to the very bad," Mr May said. "But the gap between rich and poor is becoming wider.

"If we were a school that was getting lots of extra money, extra buildings, I'd say differently. But Building Schools for the Future isn't going to happen in Norwich until I retire. There's a deficit model: let's sort failing schools out. But schools improve with the right resources. Some schools just need to be given extra money and allowed to get on with it."

The plea to be left alone is echoed by teachers who have come of professional age during the Blair premiership. Joanna Gardner, 32, started as a primary teacher in Suffolk shortly before Labour was elected. "I just enjoyed teaching then," she said. "If children were having fun writing stories, you could tell them to carry on after break. You can't do that now. It's bang, bang, bang, one thing after another. There's too much pressure."

In her first year, summer afternoons would be used to prepare for the annual drama production. Now, rehearsals are crammed into breaktimes, lunchtimes and after-school sessions. "Creativity is the first thing to go," Ms Gardner said. "I can see a time when there won't be a school play at all."

James McNulty, 31, who teaches PE at Lambeth academy in south London, agreed. He was in teacher training in May 1997.

"Management is geared towards league tables," he said. "Sports and drama are still there, but they're not as important as they used to be. You feel you're being scrutinised all the time. To pick up a shot-put, to throw a javelin, you've got to do risk assessment. There's more focus on the paperwork, on getting it all right, than on actually teaching."

The teachers concede that there have been some benefits. All three acknowledge that teaching is now a better-paid profession, though Ms Gardner's pay fell when teaching and learning responsibility points were introduced last year. While 10 years ago most classrooms only had a single computer, most teachers now have laptops.

Ms Gardner now has half a day of non-contact time every week, compared with her full timetable as a newly qualified teacher. Yet she said: "I see that as coming from the unions rather than the Government."

And Mr McNulty admitted that there were advantages to working in a new academy. "The facilities are fantastic, resources are fantastic. Academies are fantastic," he said. "But we're still an inner-city school with inner-city problems. There's pressure to get our A-Cs, pressure to include every child in every lesson, pressure to put in place every initiative, pressure to be a super-person. The pressure to perform is very high. So it's become a more difficult job."

It is left to the headteacher to complete Tony Blair's end-of-term report.

"It was a promising start," said Mr May. "But it wasn't realised in actual attainment. He could have done better."

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