I quit

9th March 2001 at 00:00
What drove a primary science teacher of the year to resign? Hilary Wilce visits her school and hears staff talk about the relentless pressures that undermine trust and destroy morale.

Five years ago, Julia Kelly was named Primary Science Teacher of the Year. In an interview then, she told The TES about her passion for early years teaching: "This age is so important. They're developing all their skills, and you can do so much with them. But you've got to get it right, or you've lost them."

She was an inspiring classroom teacher, an assiduous science co-ordinator, and an energetic advisory teacher, who used her free time to devise new projects for her pupils. Her headteacher, Janet Wyatt, said she inspired everyone she came into contact with, and "gave 150 per cent".

Today she is counting the days until she leaves the profession. "It's seven weeks until I go, and the awful thing is that it feels like seven very long weeks," she says.

Julia Kelly is burned out. The system, in its wisdom, has turned one of its brightest and rarest (a science specialist) stars into a cinder and tossed it away. She is tired of the paperwork, tired of the pressure on her school day, tired of being told how to do her job, tired of teacher-bashing, and tired of having no time for her own two children, aged nine and three.

"You're juggling so many balls, and then they're throwing more balls at you, and making you juggle them faster, and then they add a few knives. We all want to do the best we can, but it feels as if your best is never enough."

The feeling has been growing for a long time, she says, but got worse this past year. "I'm 42, and I thought, 'I've done 22 years, and I've got 22 to do, and I can't face it'. It seems like a life sentence. It's the time pressure; the feeling that there's never, ever enough time."

Her Irish husband had long wanted to move back home, but she had always resisted, saying she would find it impossible to give up the job she loved. But suddenly she decidedit wouldn't be such a wrench after all, and is now looking forward to building a new home in County Mayo and having time to pursue her own hobbies.

"You have to justify everything you do in the classroom now," says Julia. "You have to think, 'Was that science, or was it literacy?' You can never just let things flow. You're always looking at the clock and rushing children through things.

"As a curriculum co-ordinator, I wanted to take some of the pressure off other teachers by helping them. But everything takes hours. Writing a science policy takes hours. Writing reports takes hours. You can do it on a computer, but that seems so impersonal somehow. I've got a key, and come in at the weekends to do my wall displays. You do everything because you want to give the children the best education they can possibly have, but in the end it's all encroaching on your home life, and you think, 'Hey, this is my life, too'."

colleague Teresa Sleet, 44, says: "I knew there was something wrong with Julia when I asked her about something and she said, 'Oh, we can't do that. We just can't! We can't work any harder than we're doing now!' Julia had never said that. She was always so enthusiastic about everything, but she'd got to her limit."

And, like many of the teachers at Dudley infant school, in Hastings, East Sussex, where both she and Julia Kelly have taught for the past 10 years, Teresa Sleet feels much the same. Although they work in a happy and successful school, with a good head and no particular worries about resources, and although they still love the children and don't seem too bothered about the pay, the whole staff agrees that the fun's gone out of teaching; the pressure is relentless, and there is no room for professional judgment in a system ruled by government decree.

"If I could find a job with the same wage as now, I'd go," says Teresa Sleet. "I can't keep this up. They're making teachers work harder but they're not making them better teachers. They haven't got the same enthusiasm."

Another teacher at the school, Claire Whitfield, 27, has also considered leaving. "This job is the only one I ever wanted to do," she says. "I trained for six years to do it, because I was a nursery nurse first, and now I feel cheated because after five years I've started thinking about giving up. There's never any time for sharing or listening to the children."

Janet Wyatt is already losing two of her seven teachers this year - as well as Julia Kelly, Tamsin Ody is emigrating to Australia - and, like other heads in the area, she finds it difficult to get supply teachers. Her husband recently took early retirement from his primary headship,"and now won't set foot in a school".

"Teachers are under constant pressure," she says. "You get to a certain level in your SATs results, and they want you to do better next year. It never ends. Yet we're already giving our all. When the children come here they are below the East Sussex average on their baseline tests. When they leave, they are above it."

Like many schools, Dudley is coping with a multitude of social problems, while also being bombarded with near-daily circulars from the DfEE and the local authority, and at the same time fielding an increasing number of complaints from parents.

At a recent staff meeting, teachers identified their key pressure points. Top of the list was "the inclusion agenda" - having, like other schools, to grapple with autistic and similar children who absorb huge quantities of time and energy and disrupt the classroom.

"There's a massive tension between the demands of raising standards and the demands of inclusion and this makes everyone feel anxious," says Janet Wyatt.

Wider problems also make enormous demands on staff. Today's infants often spend more time with the television or with groups of other children in day care than talking with adults, and as a result come to school with poorly developed language skills. They don't play in the road or dig in the mud or have the same experience of the world as previous generations, while many also come from emotionally unstable backgrounds.

As early years specialists, the Dudley staff know they must spend time nurturing their pupils if they are to foster healthy child development, but the pressures of a narrow and over-crowded curriculum make it impossible for them to do what they know they should.

Instead of offering their pupils the conceptual and language development they need, they have to teach phonemes and commas. Instead of being able to teach spontaneously and to the needs of the child, they have to write detailed plans then drill their pupils in them.

"It's too much, too soon, too fast," says Janet Wyatt, pointing out that in Europe children don't start school until six or seven but still have higher standards. "It's not that we're against structure. But we are against stricture."

The Dudley teachers don't want to be seen as whingers; they just want people to understand the pressures of the modern school day. After numeracy and literacy hours are taken out, along with registration, assembly and break, they are left with just 10 hours a week to do everything else.

"There is no non-contact time in an infant school on a regular basis, and there has been an ever-increasing demand for paperwork to record and give evidence of what we do as professionals," says Janet Wyatt, "which leaves us with the feeling that there is no trust in our professional judgment."

"I love teaching," says Julia Kelly. "I enjoy challenges. I've had wonderful colleagues. This school is like a little oasis. We have fun and we support each other. But I'd like to say to David Blunkett, 'Come and spend a week with me, but not just in school. See me being a mother at home, too, like so many teachers are. See what the pressures on me are.' " Of course he won't do that. But he could ponder from his offices in Whitehall's Sanctuary Buildings why - in what is obviously as happy, successful and well-managed a school as you will find anywhere - teachers at the end of the day sit slumped with exhaustion, pouring out their hearts about how demoralised and frustrated they feel at not being able to do the job they love, the job they're trained for, are experienced in, and know will give their pupils the best possible start in life.

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