Burnt out before our time

29th November 1996 at 00:00
Charlie Fryars tells why he felt compelled to quit the profession after 22 years

I didn't believe I would do it, but late in May, after agonising for weeks, I finally made up my mind. I made an appointment with an assistant director of education for 4pm, and that afternoon drove up from Burnfoot primary in Hawick where I was headteacher. I drove past the council offices and back round the A68 twice, wondering if I was mad, but eventually I parked and went in. Half an hour later I walked out, emotionally drained but strangely relieved and elated.

What had I done? At the age of 52, I had decided to turn my back on teaching after 22 years, most of those doing a job I loved, into which I had put much energy and which had given me interest and satisfaction. And why? Because I had been getting less and less satisfaction from my job; it was becoming a chore rather than a vocation, and it was unfair to the children in the school to mark time for the next 14 years, if I lived that long, given the stress that teaching produces today. Instead I had asked for early retirement.

I can hear the groans. Not another "greetin' teacher" story. A six-hour day, umpteen weeks' holiday, a fat salary and pension, and all they do is complain. Maybe. But if it is so good, why are more and more teachers leaving early, like me, quitting while they are still ahead or in increasing numbers, being figuratively, or even literally, carried out through ill health? Primary headteachers and their staff in the Borders by and large provide dedication and hard work, but for many the job satisfaction is going, the traditional respect is diminishing, and the focus in recent years has shifted from an acknowledgement of the worth of the teaching force to spotlighting its faults.

The deed done I began to tell my headteacher colleagues. I got the response of surprise which I was expecting, but also something else, something worrying. Nobody said I was off my head, most understood why I wanted to leave, and many said they wished it was them. So why is there this feeling among headteachers? Why is there stress? Why would many leave tomorrow if they could? Is it pay? Teachers have seen their salaries devalued the same as other public workers, but it goes much deeper than that. I have been a headteacher twice. Once in the early 1980s and again in the mid 90s, with a nine-year spell as an adviser in between. The changes since then perhaps hold the key to the dissatisfaction felt by headteachers.

In the early 1980s, education in the Borders was in an era of expansion. The money spent on books and equipment was rising every year. A programme of refurbishment was ensuring that the worst of our schools were bring modernised. A veritable army of regional support teachers, advisers and staff tutors was providing support to help schools to develop a changing curriculum There were outdoor centres, an expanding instrumental service for budding musicians, and plans for a new regional resource centre to add to the schools' stock of books and other equipment.

There was a real feeling of partnership between the region's directorate, advisers and schools. Headteachers were encouraged to develop themselves and their staff and set their own agendas. Whenever a headteacher post fell vacant, an application list well into double figures could be guaranteed. And what of now? For many headteachers the ladder has been replaced by the treadmill and they want off. They feel much less in control. I had a conversation with a representative of the company that provides additional pension facilities to teachers. He told me that eight out of 10 headteachers in their 50s are saving hard to leave early.

What has happened in that 15 years? The overriding theme has been change and plenty of it. Most of the changes in themselves have been for the good. But added up they have produced a frightening agenda. More and more responsibility has been given to headteachers, with few resources to carry it out. School boards came trumpeting in, conceived by the Government to shift power to parents. They are feared in many schools but turned out in most cases to be a good thing. School boards had clout which headteachers on their own lacked. But they added to the workload. There had to be training.

Most schools kept their parent-teacher association so the board meant another layer of preparation and evening work. In a few schools, individual members had their own axes to bring and the school board became a platform for strife.

In the vast majority of schools, parental relationships are very good but problems have arisen in some schools on two fronts: the articulate parent, well versed in the art of questioning and making demands, reasonable or otherwise, on the headteacher and staff and complaining to the director if not satisfied; and the parent making the headlines at the moment, lacking parenting skills, with children without positive role models at home and little respect for anyone in authority. Many are aggressive and abusive - in the class, in the playground and in their neighbourhood.

With school boards came the new 5-14 programme, a complete revamp of the work done in schools. Every aspect of the curriculum has to be revised, endless documents read, new policies written, programmes of study devised, children assessed more closely, new report cards used, and all without drawing breath and all the main responsibility of the headteacher.

A black mark from inspectors if not implemented quickly enough, and those black marks made public if the inspectors did not like what they see. Fair enough, it might seem, but knowing that your performance will be splashed across the local paper does not lower the blood pressure. Testing children is a good thing but the Government's national testing scheme added another layer of bureaucracy and work.

The list goes on. Collecting absence rates and dividing them into authorised and unauthorised for publication in glossy Government handouts and mostly the work of fiction; appraisal - another "good thing" but also a burden for headteachers; each school has to have a development plan - countless hours' work, and guess who has to do it? Schools now have to run their own budgets. It gives headteachers more choice in how the money is spent, but it also adds to the worry.

Other things have been happening. The army of support teachers and advisers has been reduced to a regiment as recent cuts have bitten deep, and may be platoon-size before long - valuable expertise lost for ever. Outdoor centres are closing, musical tuition is charged for and our fine resource centre has no money to spend. The advisers remaining have virtually nothing to spend on courses and developments.

With this comes a lack of opportunity to meet colleagues and a growing sense of isolation among headteachers. For the first time that I can remember, headteacher vacancies in the Borders are being readvertised because of lack of interest. To cap it all, the money spent on books, equipment, furniture, decoration and repairs is being cut year after year. Schools are coping but a school is like a house. Neglect the fabric and it won't show for year or two, but the longer it goes on the more expensive it is to put right.

There is more, but I have covered the main items. Unfortunately, all I have done is present the problems as I see them. I am not offering any solutions. That is for those who are left. I finish with a note of warning. Rightly or wrongly, many headteachers are beginning to regard the council, its directorate and elected members as remote and out of touch. There is a growing danger that the council will be seen as irrelevant and schools many consider going their own way. I firmly believe that this is the Government's intention, to divide and conquer. That would be tragic in an area which has long prided itself in the quality of its provision and the consensus which existed among all those with an interest in education. Don't let it happen.

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