Apathy and the death of the idealistic professional

10th January 1997 at 00:00
As we approach what must be the last general election before the millennium, another dusty stereotype can be declared extinct. The idealistic, radical schoolteacher, dedicating off-duty hours to party or union activism and building Utopian castles in the air over the dinner table, is now as rare as the proverbial hen's tooth.

Like all stereotypes, this one was never really typical, but the idea that teaching is a profession with one foot in the Sixties is very much alive in the demonology of the right.

The only barricades today's teachers will be erecting are makeshift bits of wire to keep vandals off the school premises because the budget will not stretch to a new boundary fence. Keeping fit, shopping, gardening, eating out - the ubiquitous leisure pursuits of Middle England - are far more popular than plotting in smoke-filled rooms.

The voice of the teaching profession at the end of 1996 is cynical, pessimistic and profoundly weary. A deep sense of impotence arising from decaying school buildings, declining professional status (status is mentioned more often than pay), and what they perceive as constant "teacher-bashing" by the Government, the Opposition and the press has destroyed teachers' confidence in all politicians and parties and, more sadly, has undermined their faith in the efficacy of political change to secure a better future.

Passion has been replaced by a sort of fin de sicle fatalism. Teachers are united in their desire to see the Tories routed, but there is little optimism about the prospect of life under new Labour, and a general disappointment, even irritation, with the tone of its policy statements, particularly the emphasis on parents and standards, which are seen as Tory policies in all but name.

The Liberal Democrats are more popular, which should please Don Foster, but a vote for them is viewed as wasted unless it can be used tactically to oust a Tory incumbent.

What is immediately striking about the sample is the lack of active political interest, in national, local or union affairs. Some teachers had been involved in local campaigns over hospital closures or environmental issues, but these were definitely in the minority. Only one individual in the sample was a paid-up member of any party (Labour).

More typical was the teacher from Sheffield who said she occasionally considered travelling down to London to attend demonstrations or union events but, in the end, would "rather go and have a look in Harrods". Another could dimly recall student days in London when "I was very anti this and anti that, and I can remember going on a march #201; but once you get out into the big wide world, you sort of fizzle into the background."

Lack of time is the reason given to explain this apathy, which extends to current affairs programmes and political articles in the papers, but underlying this was the feeling that the teacher's viewpoint was being ignored by the two major parties.

The sample showed a similar passivity about trade union matters, regarding the union merely as a safety net. The Bristol group thought the unions should merge to create a more powerful voice.

Several group members revealed a nostalgia for an ill-defined past when politics and politicians were somehow more real and more accessible to "ordinary" people. This was strengthened by the perception that modern politics is a soulless affair, choreographed by spin doctors intent only on courting the media.

As Bristol primary teachers put it: "You feel that everything is thought over before a response is given #201; the truth and the issues are getting blurred because of the image they want to project, the image of the party. The media machine is being used by the parties, and again it doesn't feel like real politics used to years ago."

This feeling was echoed in Sheffield: "I watch party political broadcasts,and I sit there and I shout at the telly #201; but when it comes to the crunch I think well, does it matter? Everybody just does what they want. You just can't do anything."

Also from Sheffield came the feeling that the miners' and teachers' strikes of the Eighties, and their consequences, had knocked the stuffing out of grass-roots political and union action.

Down in St Albans, in the heart of the affluent south-east, they were waiting for someone to rekindle the old flame of political enthusiasm: "I think it's easy to say that I'm just a cynic, but I'd like to be more interested. I'm waiting for that spark of inspiration from somebody -so at this time it's a waiting game."

However, a residual idealism can be detected in the broader concern with social justice, or rather the lack of it, and the perception that morality - compassion, altruism, a sense of community - has been sacrificed to Thatcherite consumerism.

Here, teachers are probably quite typical of the sort of voter Tony Blair is trying to woo with his call for a more cohesive, "communitarian" society. But even this is soured because teachers feel that they are being unfairly blamed for the very social problems they deplore.

The Labour party can draw some satisfaction from the news that most teachers are anti-Tory. As much as 40 per cent are still undecided about how they will vote, but none of the floating voters intend to vote Conservative. Several former Tory voters intend to switch to Labour or the Lib Dems. But the negative anti-Tory impulse appears to be much stronger than any positive desire to see another party take charge.

Teachers will vote as citizens first and teachers second, and they appreciate that while education will be a top issue for them, this might not be so for everyone. Apart from education, it is the state of the NHS, unemployment, public services and privatisation and public transport that dominate teachers' lists of hot issues for the next election.

Europe was also mentioned by most groups, although whether this was evidence of real interest or simply an issue they expected the politicians to be concerned with, is unclear.

Most teachers seem to be quite happy with the idea of taxes going up. One argued that tax increases are only a worry for the rich - for middle income earners a penny here and there can be absorbed.

Labour was explicitly criticised in several groups for refusing to commit itself to tax rises, and the view that even in power Labour would not have the courage to raise taxes is the reason for pessimism about the prospect of improvements in education under Labour. More than half the sample (52 per cent) were "not very hopeful" that things would improve for teachers, schools or pupils under Labour.

There was more bad news for Labour when the sample was asked what they recalled about its education policy. They remembered little, and what was recalled was viewed with scepticism and disappointment. Labour is thought to be pitching its policies at the general population to get maximum votes,and ignoring teachers' specific needs.

Reducing class sizes to under 30 for the early years, a fairer distribution of resources, and sabbaticals for teachers were the three policies that seemed to have made an impact.

After David Blunkett's efforts to defuse the issue of what to do with opted-out schools under Labour, and the acres of newsprint on the subject following the Harriet Harman affair, it will be depressing for Labour to read comments like this from a Sheffield teacher: "The party did say something about education on that party political broadcast, something about doing away with all these grant-maintained things."

Teachers think that the two major parties are too distracted by political point-scoring to address real problems. The Lib Dems are seen as the only party that has taken the trouble to listen to teachers and produce realistic policies. Tory policies tend to be summarised and dismissed succinctly as grammar schools, standards and sport.

After the groups of teachers listened to speech extracts from each of the parties, their impressions

were reinforced. The Conservative policy statement provoked unanimous anger and contempt: the concept of "choice" was dismissed as a Continued from previous page

chimera and there was bitter resentment at the emphasis on parent power and amateurism at the expense of teachers' expertise.

Schools' budgetary independence was blamed for the new business culture in schools, and the Tories generally were seen to be intent on making teachers scapegoats at every opportunity, using the word "standards" as a cane with which to beat them.

Labour fared little better. One group greeted the tape with silence. Teachers objected to what they felt to be a rhetorical, authoritarian tone and could see little to distinguish their policy statement from the Tories'. The stress on parental involvement was particularly resented. Promises about nursery education, class size and home-school contracts were welcomed, but Labour was felt to be light on specifics and many policies were ignored amid the general disappointment.

The Lib Dems' extract was the best received among all the groups except for St Albans; the party was thought to have the most sympathetic attitude to the teaching profession and the most concrete policies.

The promises to raise money for education via a penny on income tax, to refurbish schools, tackle discipline and guarantee nursery schooling for all were all praised.

But the St Albans group, which was worried about the cost of all this, detected a hidden agenda: "It's nothing to do with teachers. It's parents and students who really have to look at education as being a very important thing in their lives, and they don't. " So in the end it was the group from the most affluent area that was most impressed by Labour.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today