Diagnosis makes me sick

3rd November 1995 at 00:00
Time is wasted when teachers have to play doctors, says Keith Brindle.

Slotted quietly into our staff handbook, among the teaching timetables and weekly rotas, is the Emergency Cover List. It looks innocuous enough, but is one of the banes of my life. It affects the quality of my performance in school and could even threaten the health of pupils.

The list designates when senior and middle managers are directly responsible for resolving any problems that arise around the building: individual instances of indiscipline - though such occurrences are rare; civil unrest - unknown; or pupil illness.

It's this latter item that causes me distress. First, because I am very busy, and begrudge the time it takes to diagnose chronic angina or even athlete's foot. Last week, for example, I lost three non-contact lessons, one because of a necessary substitution and the others through being on emergency cover. I simply cannot run a large faculty properly on just the two "free" lessons that remained.

We are told that schools should operate like businesses. Yet I know of no middle managers, outside the health service, who have to spend so much time looking after the sick. In school, of course, there is no money for trained health professionals. As usual, we fall back on the do-it-yourself principle.

We are, apparently, protected legally if we have followed all the necessary procedures, including having to write considered diagnosis and prognosis in a book, but that's of little consolation if you should really be elsewhere.

The simplest and safest course is to send the pupil home. Then you cannot be blamed for anything, and can get back to proper work. And the parent can make the decisions. But you are always aware that such action could be countenancing deception or encouraging hypochondria. Also, it requires at least one telephone call. Then, the parent probably won't be home.

However, I have a further problem: I metaphorically quake when my phone rings and I'm told there is another sick person waiting for my attention outside the school office, because I have no training in health care. I came into teaching to teach, not to be a social worker or a Dr Findlay.

There is always a trained first-aider I can summon, but when should I do that? How do I know whether the stomach pain is appendicitis or just the onset of a period?

Already this term I have dealt with sicknesses and flu, a bad asthma attack, a blackout in a lesson and a dislocated knee cap. Worryingly, I must be getting better at it: I was told recently that I sounded just like a doctor when I asked a pupil how she was feeling and what had happened.

Of course, it used to be different, didn't it? "When I were a lad", we didn't have health problems at school; or, if we did, it was a private affair. When I had my two front teeth knocked out, I simply told a friend that if anybody missed me from a lesson, he could explain that I'd gone to the dentist's. I never considered reporting to the school office.

Probably times are better now. It's good that teachers are more caring. But I don't believe I am the right person to be in charge of the health of an entire school, even for a couple of lessons a week. There are many things I ought to be doing instead - things I know how to do properly.

Keith Brindle is head of English in a Lancashire secondary school.

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