'The Government just doesn't understand us' - it's the teacher's refrain. But how do we get them to listen?

18th February 2000 at 00:00
Headteacher Carole Clayson took the direct approach. Feeling undermined and undervalued, she wrote to David Blunkett explaining why teachers were so exhausted and demoralised. Three months later, she is still waiting for a reply. David Newnham meets a woman on the edge.

The turning point for Carole Clayson came at mid-morning break on the first Monday in November. That was when she decided to "take back ownership" of her school. "From that moment," says the headteacher at Wellesley first school, Norwich, "we were going to do what the children needed, not what other people were trying to impose on us or emotionally blackmail us into accepting."

All it took to galvanise her that morning was the contents of two envelopes. The first was from her local education authority, telling her that, because of poor national test results, Wellesley had been allocated funds to put staff through a literacy training course.

Something similar had happened earlier in the year with the maths tests, which meant Ms Clayson lost half her staff for the best part of a week.

"I wrote back immediately telling them the results were poor because the children were starting from a low baseline," she says. She pointed out that Ofsted's latest four-yearly review of primary schools in England had highlighted the strength and effectiveness of teaching in all subjects at the school, and said that if acceptance of the cash suggested she agreed with the implied criticism of her staff, she would rather do without it.

The second letter told her Wellesley was one of only two schools in the area yet to join a scheme whereby businesses donate sports equipment in return for participation in various activities.

"I wrote back saying, 'Thank you for your kind offer. We'd love to receive the equipment, but we have no more time or energy to go to yet another meeting and be involved in yet another scheme.'" At the same time, she resolved to fire off a third letter. This one would say that she and her staff were exhausted and demoralised. It would be addressed to the Secretary of State for Education.

"A few days later," says Ms Clayson, "I had a phone call from the bloke organising the sports scheme. I told him I was writing to Blunkett, and he said, 'That's a good idea, but you know you'll only get a standard reply.'" Then he gave what seemed a useful tip. The Education Secretary, he said, was the only person in his department who could read Braille. Armed with that information, and with the help of the Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind, Ms Clayson was confident she could direct her letter straight to the top.

So she set to work. She explained that in her 28 years of teaching, 14 of them as a head, she had never felt so "disenfranchised professionally". She bemoaned the overloaded curriculum and the "repetitive and prescriptive" nature of the job that had stripped teachers of their professionalism and ownership of the job.

She also drew Mr Blunkett's attention to a workload that meant that after a nine-hour day, teachers still had to take work home to do in the evenings and weekends, so they came in on Monday morning having had no real break and were "too tired to have a life outside teaching".

She finished by suggesting the Government should forget about high-profile "carrots" such as fast-track schemes and advanced skills teachers and allow "real teachers in real schools" to do their job properly.

Part of the problem, Ms Clayson believes, is that many initiatives take no account of individual schools' circumstances. Wellesley, for instance, draws most of its intake from the Plumstead estate in Thorpe Hamlet, a short walk - and a world away - from the picturesque Norwich of cathedral and riverside walks.

"The area is recognised as being one of need," says Ms Clayson. It is one of two parishes in the county to be targeted by the Government's Sure Start initiative to improve community-based support for children under four, chosen because of its high number of babies born underweight and high crime figures.

Sixty per cent of the 104 children at the school are on the special needs register, and on the Plumstead estate most of those special needs are bound up with the quality of preschool life.

"Many lack the sort of experiences that give them the skills to come into school," says Ms Clayson. "They have had little stimulation or conversation, and their special needs range from being unable to string a sentence together to behavioural difficulties associated with anger and stress. It sounds as if I'm damning the parents, but I'm not, because they're doing their best. But being a parent is difficult. It doesn't come naturally. You need skills yourself."

As a result of the children's preschool deprivation (45 per cent are eligible for free school meals), Wellesley's baseline figures are only a third of what's "normal for Norfolk". And this lies at the heart of much of her and her staff's anger and stress.

Like so many teachers working in poor areas, the staff at Wellesley have foundations to build before they can even begin on the mountain of academic work set out for them. The school has a "nurture group", although cash shortages caused by falling rolls threaten its future. "We do it because we believe it's right," says Ms Clayson. "If children can't even hold a conversation with you, how can they receive the programme of study? Only when we get the balance right - when the children are supported and feel safe and secure, when they are coming to school on a regular basis, on time, and in a fit state to learn - can we begin the education bit."

When it comes to that "education bit", it's clear that this team of 5.5 teachers can do it very well indeed. Ofsted's four-year review of primary education for 1994-98 picked out Wellesley for special mention as an example of a school where quality was consistently high - one of only 47 schools recognised in this way out of 18,000 inspected. "Teaching is a strength of the school," said the report. It went on to itemise eight "effective features", from planning to expectations.

But although every child who steps over the threshold makes substantial progress, it is barely reflected in national test results. In 1998, Year 2 scored the lowest possible mark in all three subjects. "If you come into school at a baseline below other children," says Ms Clayson, "you've got to make up that disadvantage before you reach the tests."

And when the official response to poor test results is simply to pull good teachers out of the classroom and haul them in for a week of "support", they are left wondering if the politicians and policymakers have any grasp of the realities of life in a school such as theirs.

It's a fear that has been growing slowly - founded on a great deal more than one literacy course and a little wounded pride. For wherever they look, staff see evidence of a lack of understanding. It is all around them - in the threat to the nurture group and in the laying down of rules that appear to have little relevance to the context in which they work.

It taints their feelings about their chosen profession (with much sadness, they steer their own children away from a teaching career). It even extends into their home lives. And they say it is wearing them down.

There is no shortage of reading matter here. On the noticeboard is a letter from Norfolk County Council about its performance plan, and another about its childcare plan. There's a newsletter of ideas on sharing good practice, and over the sink, next to the fire drill ("Do not hesitate in carrying out the above procedure"), is a helpful summary of the county council's "care values". Beside that are some weighty documents about curriculum development.

No wonder staff were bemused when they were told to give maximum prominence to a notice stating that replacement of the school's clapped-out boiler had been carried out as part of the "New Deal For Schools", crediting Norfolk "in partnership with the DfEE" for "investing in improvement and standards".

At coffee time one teacher mentions the sheer weight of the curriculum. "We're finding it difficult to fit it all into the afternoons now we have numeracy and literacy in the mornings," she says. "I've been teaching through a lot of revised documents, and they never really take anything out. They just word it differently."

This proves to be the opening salvo in a cannonade of complaints that continues throughout the morning break.

One teacher says those who set the curriculum ignore the differences between the ways older and younger children learn. She says every topic has to be revisited, but the curriculum is so tightly packed that there isn't enough time to revise.

Then there is the burden of drawing up detailed weekly plans that rarely survive until Tuesday, as the first child who comes to school in a distressed state can wreck the entire schedule. "All of our Sundays are spent not just writing it and gathering the books and equipment, but redoing it and changing what we've already planned. My husband groans when he sees me get my files out," says another teacher.

A colleague says she never used to mind doing things for the children in her own time. It used to be a pleasure but is now a chore, "because somebody has imposed it on us and insisted we show evidence of having done it".

The apparent unwillingness of policymakers to recognise the fluctuation in ability from one year group to the next is one of the sorest points. It means preparations for lessons one year have to be redone for the same lessons the following year. It also means only limited significance can be attached to test results.

Someone remarks that she is so sick of hearing on the radio how the numeracy and literacy hours have already led to improved results that she now refuses to listen to Radio 4.

All the staff insist they know halfway through the first term in reception how well a particular group of children will perform. "Our test results this year will be lower than last year's," says one, "and it's nothing to do with what we're teaching or how we're teaching it."

Not surprisingly, they are angered and dispirited when people who have no knowledge of their pupils - possibly, they suspect, little experience of areas such as the Plumstead estate - tell them to take time to observe "leading teachers" so they can improve test results. "All of us here decided we didn't want to be involved with the advanced skills teachers scheme or fast-tracking," says one. "The Government ought to acknowledge teamwork. If it did, it would get more teamwork in other schools."

What else would they do in David Blunkett's shoes? "From a head's point of view," says Ms Clayson, "the system of funding needs changing so that we can plan from year to year. In a small school with a falling roll, you may have 10 or 20 fewer pupils in one year than in the previous one, but you still have the same number of classrooms to heat and light."

Her teachers nod in agreement, then make suggestions of their own: lighten the workload; stop making so many changes; provide adequate funding; acknowledge the extra time spent on planning and the social work aspects of the job with extra pay; replace Ofsted with a body that offers encouragement and "constructive" criticism; return the curriculum to the teachers; and "remove the straitjacket".

If teachers were less constrained - more creative - 20 years ago, have there not been compensations in the 1,000 days or so since Labour took office? "Certainly, there has been more government grant money available," says Ms Clayson. "But it always has to be spent according to strict guidelines. It's being given to us in such a way that it doesn't necessarily meet the needs of the school."

So should the Government simply give them money and leave them to get on with the job? Is there no need for checking, and no necessity to standardise the quality of education?

"Nobody would deny," says one, "that there are some weak links in some schools. But they are few. We need people to make as much of success as they do of failure - like we do every day."

And what of the literacy hour and daily maths lesson? "We would like some encouragement to use the time set aside for literacy and numeracy in a creative way," says a colleague.

"Twenty years ago," says someone, "teachers had the respect of parents and pupils, and were recognised as the experts in teaching. We were able to set realistic expectations for pupils. We could use their interests as a vehicle for teaching and we had the freedom to develop a child's interests and abilities. We had more flexibility."

It's the undervaluing of their expertise - implicit in everything from the prescriptiveness of successive waves of "guidelines" to the risible attempt to make political capital out of a replacement boiler - that they say is robbing them of their professional pride.

They feel that they are no longer trusted - that their experience is not valued, that for too long their lives have been ruled by people who are ignorant of their professional world, and they are exhausted.

The head is adamant. Despite her colleagues' complaints, she says, this is a happy and confident school that feels good about itself. And that's what worries her. "If my teachers are feeling like that when they are in a position of strength," she says, "what must it be like for some of the others?" Back in her office, Ms Clayson takes a phone call from social services, then goes to work on two large boxes of documents.

"This one contains all the things I feel I oughtn't to file without reading, but haven't had time to go through," she says. When she does find time, they will move into the second large box, which already contains curriculum news, a document about excellence in schools, guidance on attendance, details of the national literacy strategy, plus any number of reports about the outcomes of optional tests, baseline assessment, social inclusion policy and the like.

Somehow, she lays her hands on that Ofsted review in which Wellesley first school is singled out for praise. "I'm so proud of my staff," she says. "They are excellent. And that's one of the reasons I'm tremendously worried about morale in schools. We've got a good team here and we support each other all the time. And yet they feel de-professionalised. They feel that their voice isn't being heard.

"These people here trained for a long time. They served their apprenticeship in schools for a long time, as professionals, making professional judgments, and that's been taken away from them. They've been doing the job, they have been recognised as being on the right track - as doing the right thing.

"Why bother to train people? Why not just have a computer programme for each child? That's surely the logical step. Because we're really not being given the chance to exercise our creativity any more."

She is concerned that the people making decisions have no idea what goes on in an ordinary school on an ordinary day. "They go into specially selected schools, but they don't make spot visits on ordinary little schools. Even for Ofsted, schools make efforts."

That's why Ms Clayson wrote to David Blunkett in Braille. "The people who translated it suggested I send a hard copy. But I said no. I wanted him to read it. Because I don't think he knows."

Carole Clayson sent her letter to David Blunkett by recorded delivery in mid-November (the Royal Mail confirms it arrived). She has yet to receive a reply or an acknowledgement. Readers can write to her at Wellesley first school, Wellesley Avenue North, Norwich NR1 4NT.


Carole Clayson sent David Blunkett a letter in Braille, setting out the grievances she believes are shared by the majority of teachers. She said reasons for teacher stress include:

* Unreasonable levels of written planning

* New initiatives coming one on top of the other with no chance to consolidate and evaluate

* Professional judgments compromised by government expectations

* Judgments of teaching based on test results not progress children have made from their entry baseline

* Not being able to plan ahead confidently because funding is allocated through a 'bums on seats' method rather than on the overall curricular and SEN needs of the school OR you have to put in a bid

* The increasing number of social problems children bring to school

* The low esteem in which teachers are regarded - everyone thinks they know how to do the job and remember inaccurately what things were like 'when they went to school'

* Expectations that teachers can solve society's problems through sex education, health education, drugs education, instilling discipline in isolation, teaching morals to reduce crime and other anti-social acts

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