Heartily sick of being cast in the role of scapegoat
"When they blame us for failing in the Olympic Games that says it all, " a Sheffield teacher commented bitterly. This was one of the most extreme examples of staffroom gloom which emerged from our study of six groups of teachers in England and Scotland, but it shows the importance for politicians of helping to return the feelgood factor to the classroom.
Much about the job these days makes teachers angry and resentful. They feel manipulated into taking the blame for much of what is wrong in schools and society.
They believe there is a lack of recognition of their dedication and vocation. There is a feeling that no one understands the stress they suffer, partly from excessive workloads caused by lack of funding and coping with change and also from low morale. Even the most positive of the focus groups felt that almost everyone was out to get them.
The research company which carried out the focus group interviews remarked upon the general low morale of the sample, compared with individuals in other fields.
A quick fix is unlikely, though, given the complexity of factors affecting teachers' morale. Pay rises, a halt to change and positive messages from politicians would all help - but any effect could take years to be seen. It would need a positive desire on the part of a political party to "talk up" education, and it would have to be convinced that this would be popular with the majority of the electorate.
Lack of career development is a particularly touchy subject, with little attention paid to in-service training, conditions of work, progression and professional recognition. Past gains have been eroded, with no recent review of pay and conditions.
A Sheffield teacher said: "If someone paid me as much for doing a job with similar conditions I would probably take it. My job's killing me. I am fed up of laying awake at night worrying about things. There is so much to think about and to do."
Another said: "Over the years it's just you're nothing, you're rubbish. The morale is awful. Especially with the pay because if you know people in the police, we used to be on a par with inspectors. You hear of what they earn. I know their job's difficult, but we were on a par with them."
Even in St Albans, where the group was often the most positive, there was resentment: "Money rarely goes towards teachers' salaries, so that teaching has now become a job rather than a career. I've been in teaching long enough to know the time when teachers would put in hours and hours because they enjoyed the job, but then it was due to the Tory move where they could count the number of hours you did and say you've got to do a certain number of hours and I think the heart went out of teaching at that point and now it's just a job where you earn the money and you put in the hours you want to. I'm being cynical. "
Equally seriously, teachers believed their professional competence was being progressively undermined, largely by the Government and the Office for Standards in Education.
"All the time I feel this Government interfering. People like Woodhead and so on. Constantly telling me what to do and forcing me to be a British standard teacher. I'm not, I'm me and they should recognise that," remarked one of the St Albans group.
Whether or not politicians actually blame teachers for life, the universe, and everything, it feels that way to those on the receiving end. A Matlock teacher explained: "I am tired of education being used as a political football. I am tired of waking up to the radio to hear someone else criticising. When the results are good it is the tests that are too easy, and when they are bad it is the teachers."
A colleague added: "Even when there are good results they always find something to have a dig, and it really gets you down in the long run."
Testing and standards - and the role of the Office for Standards in Education in particular - were a source of real grievance, particularly when amplified through overt criticism in news stories. Teachers detect an implicit message that they are not good enough at their jobs if standards have to be assessed. As they see it, OFSTED indicts them but does not advise them. "Most teachers are scared to death about OFSTED because your backs are against the wall anyway," commented one Matlock teacher.
The message from the teachers in our focus groups was that they are capable of doing their jobs and could do better without the problems caused by lack of money and large classes.
A St Albans secondary teacher said: "The majority of teachers care about what happens to their kids ... I can remember the times when I've gone home, and I've sat down and almost burst into tears because I feel so guilty about what I can't do ... and somehow you've sort of learned to harden your heart, doing the best you can."
The emphasis being laid on parent power by the Conservatives and Labour are a particular source of anxiety and irritation. Teachers were sensitive to the erosion of their power and dismissive of the ability of parents to make informed choices. Some discounted such judgment as amateur.
Another significant factor contributing to teachers' misery is continual change in standards and curriculum requirements, coupled with increased and new demands on the job. Many believe that changes are almost made for their own sake. "The school that changes frequently is a good school. That is almost the outlook they have," said a St Albans teacher.
"The curriculum has undergone so many metamorphoses - no sooner do we get the hang of one way than they're producing something different," complained a teacher in Radlett. She was worried that such constant change would in the long run prove more damaging to students because of the confusion caused by changing qualifications and certificates.
A Sheffield teacher was more disturbed by the increased non-teaching demands coupled with other problems. "They're expecting more and more all the time. The admin and all that sort of stuff is absolutely outrageous. And the meetings ... Changes, plus the lack of resources, because they want us to make all the changes, but we haven't got the funds to do it. They're all linked together. Then the stress is linked to the number of hours worked."