An exodus of talent

9th May 2014 at 01:00

I recently had dinner with a friend from the UK who is travelling through Asia. Vicky has been a London primary school teacher for six years, but this year she is taking a sabbatical. It was that or quit.

Vicky has the kind of gentle blue eyes that invite easy confidence, and she'd score highly on a Miss Honeyesque huggability scale. She's also sharp, insightful, highly educated and well attuned to the more intangible needs of her often wayward charges. Younger, less experienced teachers were for ever seeking refuge in her room over yet another crisis of confidence, safe in the knowledge that Vicky would try to patch them up. Most importantly of all, Vicky loved her pupils. And yet she just couldn't do it any more.

I asked her why. "Oh, you know, it's difficult to put your finger on it exactly," she said. "Just the build-up of all the little things. The size of the classes, the behaviour pressures, the parents routinely coming in with one misgiving or another, the constant demands for ever greater accountability - not simply for more impressive achievements, but ones that could be meticulously demonstrable." She laughed wryly. "And the beat goes on."

I asked if she blamed her senior management team. "Yes and no," she said. "They weren't faring much better. The inspectors hadn't come for six years and their Damoclean descriptors hung over everything. Honestly, it got to the point where a child would whip off some nonsensical scribbles and we would be writing reams twice the length underneath. And there were 70 books.

"I found myself crawling home at 6pm and pretty much going straight to bed. And then one day I realised I had begun to hate my life. So it came down to a choice: me or the job."

Vicky is not alone. In my final year at my last school there were many casualties: Heather left for Australia, Anna for Kuala Lumpur and I followed suit to Asia. But others were less far-flung: Ben quit to start his own cafe and Pete went part-time just to cover the bills till his counselling training was complete. At least three others were off long-term for stress-related reasons, including my excellent head of department, who was instrumental in making me the teacher I am today.

An exodus was afoot. And very few of these teachers were incompetent or even inexperienced. They had done the job well for the best part of a decade and then decided it just wasn't worth it. None of them cited the pupils as the biggest reason to go; rather they were the only reason to stay.

Vicky wanted to give her life to education. She just hadn't realised what kind of sentence that would turn out to be. Ironically, Ofsted did arrive eventually and her solo-run department was the only one in the school rated as outstanding. She may still return, but she has found freelance work and says she feels as though she's been given her life back. Vicky is exactly the kind of person who should be moulding the UK's children. But we have driven her and God knows how many others out in our tireless quest to "raise standards".

Nelson Thornberry is a pseudonym. He teaches in an international school in Asia

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