From the Editor - How can teachers inspire when the future is bleak?

27th April 2012 at 01:00

It is easy to overlook small miseries when an entire country is in crisis. The relentless recession pummelling Greece has been so protracted and so widely reported that it makes increasingly less impression on the news. Although the economic statistics are appalling - unfathomable debt, soaring unemployment, shrinking salaries - the steady drumbeat of disaster they sound can inure rather than shock.

What is happening to the country's education system is less epic and less well known (see pages 30-34). The education budget has shrunk to a size not seen in half a century. Computers are rare, textbooks are out of date, even paper is in short supply. Teachers who have left are not being replaced; pay has been halved. Malnutrition among pupils is reaching levels not experienced since the Nazi occupation.

When things are that bad, when a lack of food becomes more urgent than a lack of education, it is hard for teachers to concentrate on their purpose. Relentless poverty not only makes the everyday a joyless grind, it also squeezes out that essential ingredient of education - optimism.

Whatever the challenges facing our education system, they pale alongside those facing the Greeks. Should teachers here be grateful when it could be so much worse? No, they should not. A friend seeking to impress his partner with the poverty of his youth revealed that, for years, his family was unable to afford a TV. "You had electricity?" came the unsympathetic response.

We judge according to our expectations not anyone else's. And on that measure, in this country, although things are generally tough rather than desperate, teachers have a right to be disappointed. Jobs are scarce, prospects are limited and morale is dire. Incredibly, according to a survey conducted by the Prince's Trust, instances of malnutrition among pupils are not confined to Greece (see pages 8-9).

More widespread is the sense of disillusionment. Seven out of 10 teachers in the survey are worried that their pupils will end up on the dole, while more than a third feel their efforts to educate are "in vain" because of rising unemployment. It seems that Greek teachers are not the only ones who fear they are engaged in a pointless exercise.

It is not hard to see why. A good education carries the promise of possibility - that pupils can use it to better their lives. But if the world beyond the classroom looks constricted, if there seems to be no future, then what kind of life can learning improve? How do you encourage children if adulthood appears so incredibly bleak?

It would be stupid to pretend it is easy. But it is equally daft to limit youthful potential with adult disappointment. And sometimes that requires natural Jeremiahs to become temporary Pollyannas. A keen awareness of imminent fuel strikes, plunging stock markets and how the chancellor ballsed up the budget should not make the Tudors any less vivid, the solar system any less captivating or The Gruffalo any less scary.

The next generation already has to stomach a heap of patronising nonsense about its abilities, as well as the likelihood of inheriting lower wages, unfeasible mortgages and higher care-home bills for semi-immortal parents. It doesn't deserve to be told there is no hope. Teachers know a lot, but they don't know that.

gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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