Forty years' service is 10 years too many

25th July 1997 at 01:00
As a recently retired teacher, I reacted strongly to a report of a Fabian Society meeting at which an anonymous but apparently influential adviser of Labour ministers said of my former profession: "Nobody else has the right to leave work at 3.30pm and work at home." Well, nobody else has to organise and control approximately 30 children at one time either.

The thrust of the speaker's case to the Labour think-tank was that teachers' conditions need to be revised. Saturday and evening shift work and a cut in holidays were suggested. Yet from my perspective I can say that any more punitive regime for teachers would merely underline my claim that 40 years' service is 10 years too long.

A career of 30 years with a pension based on 30 sixtieths of service would make more sense. Many teachers in their fifties and sixties are barely surviving, proof of what a stressful occupation they are in. To a number of fortunate former teachers who had had enough, early retirement recently brought a new lease of life. The mass exodus created vacancies for new recruits. Consequently thousands of children are to be taught by enthusiastic new teachers who want to be in the classroom, instead of by ageing parties to whom writing the date on the blackboard simply signifies another hard day on the slog to the P60 certificate.

Retirement from teaching can be compared to a honeymoon. Unexpectedly swept off their feet by it, the current spate of early retirees can hardly believe their luck. The romance begins, paradoxically, as the middle-aged pensioner gets out of bed on a term-time morning. Life becomes a cruise, for all travel is possible. Golf courses beckon and swimming pools seduce.

There is quality time even to stroll for the rolls, and one can read the papers before 10am instead of desperately trying to digest everything before falling into bed at midnight. Early retirement turns Edinburgh into Paris, all cafes and galleries, gardens and urban villages. It makes Glasgow a new New York, an energetic gridiron of a city, seething with feisty people.

It is a year now since I left after 33 years at the primary chalkface. The first thing I did was to get myself struck off the General Teaching Council register just in case the lure - or rather the lucre - of supply work might tempt me back. But twice recently I was reminded of the life I left behind.

I set out to review an exhibition of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery. It promised to be child's play compared with my previous occupation. When I arrived, the reception area was seething with eight-year-olds. None of them was playing up and cheekiness was mercifully absent. But still the noise echoed and reverberated around the cavernous arches. Teachers and parent helpers were busily lining up and counting pupils and trying to reduce exuberance to an acceptable level.

I had to shout the name of my press officer contact into the receptionist's ear. My appointment was for 11am and already at that early hour one of the parents had a haggard and haunted look. When the children filed upstairs, security staff heaved sighs of relief. A sizeable puddle left behind had overflowed from a wooden bench on to the floor. As memories came flooding back - flooding being the right word - I declined the offer of a seat and stood to wait.

The following week it was back to my old school to help with primary 6 outdoor activities. I was given their problem-solving exercise to supervise. No group exceeded 12 children, and I knew most of them. They were friendly, co-operative and keen on their tasks. The teacher had ultimate responsibility for the class, and I was involved in no preparation, assessment or correction. But by the final bell on the first of the two days, I was ready to fall asleep. By the end of day two, I was exhausted. I had already forgotten what a strainteaching is.

The Fabian speaker implied that 3.30pm was too early for teachers to stop timetabled work. I suggest that he and any minister tempted to listen to his advice should do a week's work-experience in school. The Fabian Society was named after the Roman hero Quintus Fabius Maximus who saved the city by "waiting, then striking". If radical reform involves making impossible demands on teachers, they may lay waste the plans of Fabians bystriking without waiting.

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