Don't go, things may get better

16th May 1997 at 01:00
Friday, May 2, was a memorable day in school. The Conservatives had lost the election. For much of their time in office I had been a head in secondary schools with a short period as deputy director of education in a large city authority.

During that period my management skills were tested consistently, as I was forced, year upon year, to deliver ever better results with ever fewer resources. My work had become increasingly more accountable and I witnessed the erosion of teachers' morale. Nevertheless, I have remained enthusiastic and (I hope) energetic, still convinced of the importance of our work.

May 2 saw me, and many of my colleagues, more optimistic, but almost incredulous. The chance that things might now get better seemed almost too good to be true. I knew that our expectations might be very high and that there would be no overnight miracle, but there could be an increased emphasis on the education and welfare of all our youngsters.

On Saturday morning I bumped into an old colleague while shopping. It was good to see him again; we had last worked together several years earlier. He told me he was soon to retire early and he would be glad to do so. Teaching had always been difficult for him; other jobs inevitably seemed more attractive, but he had helped many youngsters on their way to brighter futures and had gained their respect and appreciation. However, he had become very disillusioned.

I listened with increasing despondence as he told me that he was completely fed up with: u The deteriorating attitudes of school students u The way in which he was forced to teach with fewer resources in a rapidly deteriorating classroom u The fact that most of his teaching groups now had more than 30 youngsters in them u The ever increasing pressures from the "Senior Management Team" to improve his results u The ways in which his own teaching and learning styles had been overshadowed by the rigid demands of an enforced curriculum.

Regretfully, this was not the first time I had listened to such an account and I suspect it won't be the last. I am sympathetic to colleagues, who for many reasons (both personal and professional) have found the pressures too demanding matched with little or no satisfaction. I suppose I've always thought that one day it might be my turn to feel like that.

After about 10 minutes, the conversation inevitably turned to the election result. I had almost avoided this topic, since I knew he had been a Tory in the past.

After a while I realised that he had not voted this time. He said he could never vote Labour, since "they could never do anything for me and anyhow what difference would it make?" Was this the time to suggest that there might be a connection between the actions of any government, the situation facing him in his school and the way he felt? I decided that it wasn't, chatted for a little longer and we parted.

That encounter has kept me thinking. How effective can governments be in affecting the lives of people? Is there a connection between the education policies and actions of a government and the daily lives of teachers and students in our schools? I believe that there is and I remain optimistic that I might see the results of that connection following the election. Will my increased optimism be justified? How long it is before that connection brings about improvements in our schools, we shall have to wait and see. I hope that it is soon enough to prevent too many more disillusioned teachers, such as my old friend, taking the early route out.

Richard Smith is head of Tupton Hall School, Chesterfield

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