Get out before they rewrite the plot

24th January 1997 at 00:00
Do you remember those prisoner of war camp films like The Great Escape, The Wooden Horse and Colditz? They were created to satisfy huge post-war nostalgia for heroes, as peacetime began to seem boring. Many clean-cut matinee idols, along with a few working-class scruff stereotypes, made their first successful screen appearance in them.

The upper-crust, lantern-jawed types played the officers, most of whom escaped through some clever ruse. The uncouth proles did all the digging and then got mowed down by the guards, while the toffs made their getaway to the posh Swiss skiing resort where some of their chums were waiting with gin and tonics and a replacement Saville Row wardrobe.

I was reminded of this Pinewood and Hollywood genre by the language used to describe the Government's plans to foreclose on the teachers' early retirement scheme. It was rich in the metaphors of POW camp escapes, as teachers "made a bolt for freedom" before the "escape routes are sealed off" in March.

Retirement, early or otherwise, is a very important issue for all professions. It has always seemed to me to be a stupid arrangement that people are expected to work flat out until the day they are 65 and then do absolutely nothing from the following day onwards. It is not a very intelligent way to plan a life.

Much better would be to have a programme of phased retirement for those who want it. It ought to be possible to devise a flexible scheme for teachers and others aged between 50 and 65, or even 70. Someone could, in the first stage, teach three-quarters of the time and take a one-quarter pension, then move to a 50-50 work and pension split and, in the final phase, perhaps even to three-quarters pension and one-quarter work.

Thousands of people in many fields practise what is sometimes called "portfolio" working - that is, putting together more than one type of activity. I should hate to see an army of itinerant semi-retired teachers all in the same school, but I cannot believe that a proper phased retirement scheme, for teachers who would prefer it, is inconceivable.

Indeed, it would be a good way of keeping alive some of the expertise that is being lost. Teachers who move on to part-time teaching in the later stages of their career often find it refreshing, and pupils get the benefit of their less stressed approach.

With an impending teacher shortage of huge proportions, schools might welcome the flexibility of being able to hire someone for a chunk of the week, especially in shortage areas.

The danger that some early retired teachers might lose interest is no greater than the possibility of unretired teachers burning out through stress. Safeguards could be put in place to see off those who did not fulfil their part-time contract properly.

It is sad that a profession that normally thrives on the dedication and enthusiasm of its members has been brought to a position where so many want to quit.

When I first started teaching, one member of staff decided to pack in at the age of 6l. "What's up with him?" people whispered. "Has he flipped? Is he ill?" Today, when someone carries on to 65, as only a quarter of teachers actually do, the whisperers ask, "What's up with her? Has she flipped? Hasn't she spotted that most of her contemporaries left years ago?" Maybe the next generation of films will be all about teachers breaking out of schools. I have already begun work on the film script of my new novel, just in case.

Escape from Stalag Luft XIII Comprehensive School (and Community College) "Right chaps," said Spiffy (deputy head, pastoral care and rooms timetable), "It's time to go over the top." The motley assortment of escape committee members slowly sipped their plastic cups of weak coffee and came to order.

"Do we have to meet in the boiler room, Spiffy?" grunted "Kipper" Tye (PE and remedial metalwork).

"Keep your voice down you fool," Spiffy hissed. "The goons from the Teacher Escape Police will hear you." Heavy footsteps echoed down the corridor outside. Hearts stopped as they held their breath.

"Crikey, that was a close one." There was an audible sigh of relief as the footsteps died away. "Let's go through the escape plans one by one," said Spiffy.

"Well the wooden horse idea didn't work," groaned Taffy Welshman (geography and league tables). "We got three of the staff inside the vaulting horse. Year 9 had dug the tunnel as part of their geography project, only they fell down on their national curriculum geography skills 3d, 'use and interpret maps and plans at a variety of scales'. Instead of 10 metres to the perimeter fence, they dug it 10 kilometres to the Swinesville sewage farm. Nasty ending that was."

Suddenly, the door to the boiler room burst open. A long sinister shadow fell across the bare floor. "Vot hev ve here?" The chilling sarcastic tones of Teacher Escape Police officer Gerry Gauleiter struck terror into their marrow. Empty plastic cups, all marked "Swinesville LEA Privatised Catering Services Plc", clattered from limp hands.

"So Tommy. You sink you can escape, heh?" he barked.

"Cripes, what do we do now, Spiffy?" Taffy asked as panic paralysed his limbs.

Spiffy took control. Not for nothing had he been schooled at Oxbridge (Secondary Modern). "Well, I suggest we boycott Key Stage 3 tests, refuse to supervise student teachers, and if that fails, we seek a judicial review. "

Gerry Gauleiter blinked. Then he recovered his composure. "If you vish to leave, Zen you or ze school must pay for it," he hissed. "Ve hev vays of making you teach."

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