A stale staff room is no place for students

8th April 2005 at 01:00
Ministers must offer incentives to head off an impending crisis over teacher fatigue, says Bill Boyd

Two apparently unconnected topics exercising the minds of educationists and politicians at the moment may be less disparate than at first appears. The first, and more significant as far as most teachers are concerned, is the proposed change to pensions legislation. The second is the training of student teachers.

The pension changes would require some of us to teach until the age of 65 if we are to retire with a full pension. This is a thought to induce panic in the average teacher in a modern secondary school, who these days is constantly on the move, organising, directing, assisting and managing pupils and resources, in an ever-changing learning environment. There will be many an occasion when a teacher literally does not sit down from the minute they come into school until the minute they go home.

All the more reason that, for the teacher to be effective until the age of 60, far less 65, they must be able to maintain a physical as well as a mental fitness. A quick check on the number of teachers on long-term sick leave from any staffroom in the country at the moment will demonstrate that many teachers are unable to do that.

It is also becoming clearer, as society's structures become less rigid, and the authority of the teacher to command and instruct pupils (in the nicest possible way) is increasingly called into question. Unless innovative ways are found of energising and motivating teachers, the levels of long-term illness and stress will continue to rise. It is in everyone's interests to find solutions to this problem, and raising the retirement age isn't one of them.

One of many recommendations in A Teaching Profession for the 21st Century, so far ignored by the Government and local authorities, was that sabbaticals, or the opportunity for a term's break every 10 years, would be valuable "not only as a means of providing additional CPD", but "in preventing later problems of burnout that may necessitate early retirement".

What seems like a fairly modest request by comparison with arrangements in more forward-thinking nations would not in itself solve all the issues, but it would send out the right signals to a demoralised teaching force: we value your expertise and your contribution and we plan to take care of you.

The current reality is that, when budgets are being slashed, one of the first victims in education is often the staff development budget, a short-term saving with a massive long-term cost implication. Perhaps if it were renamed "staff welfare budget", the damage being done would be more explicit.

It seems like local authorities are caught in the classic Catch-22: the greater the rate of staff absence, the less the likelihood of being able to release staff on secondment or on sabbatical breaks which would actually benefit schools in the longer term.

But what authorities have to ask themselves is whether taxpayers' money would be better spent on imaginative training opportunities, or whether schools should simply set aside greater and greater sums of money into staff cover budgets and continue to scrape the bottom of a very well-worn bucket of supply teachers (with no disrespect to the many supply teachers who help schools out of their regular crises at the last minute, often with no proper introduction to the school or the classes to be covered).

If the well-being of existing teachers is an important issue for the future of secondary school education, then the training of student teachers is a vital one. At last it is being recognised that student teachers spend something in the order of 50 per cent of their training in schools, and that experienced teachers contribute greatly to that training, as would reasonably be expected in any profession.

The problem until now has been that much of that expertise and training has been offered willingly and informally, and it has been taken for granted.

Not surprisingly, those teachers who in the past were always willing to take time out to help and encourage the next generation are increasingly gathering their resources to look after themselves, and we find ourselves apparently in a situation where 70 per cent of schools do not accept students, a figure which is at once startling and unsurprising.

At the very time when teacher education institutions (TEIs) are being told to increase their intakes by significant numbers, and thank goodness for that, the Scottish Executive has failed to act quickly enough to prevent a situation that could easily have been avoided. Appointing local authority co-ordinators may help. But while schools and teachers have the option to refuse to take students, their task is likely to be a thankless one.

The solution is to offer incentives to those schools which have a history of doing well by students (if you want to know which ones, ask the students), in the form of extra funding or staffing or status. The suggestion that some schools should be recognised as designated training centres is a sound one.

So too is the idea that more experienced teachers should be given the opportunity of secondment to TEIs for a fixed period, to deliver courses in classroom management and practical teaching skills while allowing them to catch up on relevant pedagogical developments. There are many fine, experienced teachers who are uninterested in promotion but whose skills are recognised by their colleagues and by the pupils in their charge. They would welcome the chance to contribute.

Given the circumstances, it will take some radical thinking on the part of schools and local authorities to provide schools with healthy, well-motivated teachers of all ages. But when we consider that another of Professor Gavin McCrone's key recommendations was that TEI staff should be required to update their teaching skills in a "school teaching environment" at regular intervals, the problem should not be insurmountable. Now there is a challenge for a local authority co-ordinator.

Bill Boyd is depute headteacher at Prestwick Academy.

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