Happiness is more than a fat pay packet

16th February 2001 at 00:00
HEY have been flooding in from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States and even the Seychelles.

No, I am not talking about all those overseas teachers who have been pouring in to fill the vacancies in our schools. These arrivals are the e-mails I have been receiving from British teachers who are now plying their business abroad.

They are responding to my reports on teacher shortages on BBC Online. The fascinating thing is that not one of them would come back to teach here however much pay is improved.

Take this response from Canada: "I came from a tough, failing school in Coventry to teach in a wonderful school in Ottawa and am now realising why I joined the profession." This correspondent concludes: "I would not return if you doubled the pay."

Equally emphatic was another young teacher now working in the Seychelles. He wrote: "Last summer I left my job as a primary school teacher in England, another young, enthusiastic teacher lost to the profession in Britain. Quite apart from my current location, or future events which may lead to my return to Britain, I will never teach in England again."

This teacher was also unimpressed by increases in pay. These e-mails should make depressing reading for the Government. Ministers know teacher shortages have the potential to derail a general election campaign. Children being sent home during March or April would be politically disastrous for the Government.

Teachers' pay rises usually peak in election years. But, if my overseas correspondents are any guide, they are not the solution to getting qualified teachers back into British classrooms.

So, if not a huge pay rise, what would it take to lure them back? There appears to be one overwhelming answer: better classroom discipline. I was rather surprised by how often this was cited as a reason why so many of these teachers would not return.

A former languages teacher, who now prefers to teach adults in Germany, wrote: "The real reason for the disenchantment among teachers in the UK is the lack of discipline in our classrooms and the lack of support by heads and governors for those teachers who are trying to establish this."

It may be that teachers working abroad are atypical. However, the evidnce of my e-mail inbox suggests similar views are held by current and former teachers still resident in this country. One partner of a teacher wrote to suggest, rather crossly, that only BBC journalists such as myself would be surprised that poor discipline in schools was not just a right-wing myth.

The notion that it is not the done thing for teachers to complain about discipline popped up several times. A former maths teacher wrote: "I left teaching because discipline was starting to fall apart and I could see it was going to get worse. It has not been 'correct' to have this view for the past 25 years. I would return to teaching tomorrow if I could be guaranteed that I would be allowed to teach rather than just try to contain a class of juveniles with no self-discipline."

Not far behind discipline on the list comes complaints about bureaucracy. One teacher who exchanged British for American classrooms wrote, saying:

"My workload as a teacher has dropped dramatically because I am not having to do the paperwork and pointless bureaucracy that I had to do in the UK."

This sentiment chimed with my recent experience as a parent in the US. The teachers at the schools my daughters attended seemed less exhausted than their British counterparts. They were quite happy to give out their home telephone numbers to parents and encouraged us to call them any evening or weekend.

I also saw some wonderful examples of how teachers' working conditions can be transformed by a little money and imagination. One new school I visited in Detroit had a suite of modern offices for its teachers. Each had a work-station equipped with telephone and computer with Internet access. There were support staff to help with administrative jobs. It was a far cry from the traditional scruffy British staff room, with its faulty coffee machine and queues for the photocopier.

Recruitment and retention of teachers is about more than pay. Expatriate British teachers can see that with the clarity that comes from geographical distance. They know contentment in work is as much about how they are treated and supported so that they are free to concentrate on the core activities of the job.

Mike Baker is the BBC's education correspondent

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