The last goodbye
I haven't taken early retirement, nor have I accepted an advantageous redundancy package. I have quite simply resigned my post as deputy head of a large, inner-city primary school. After some years of growing disillusion and disaffection, I have just had enough. Following a summer of media hype about teachers striking over reinstated children, the nation's seven- and 11-year-olds doing badly in their national tests, as well as our GCSE results being some 20 per cent behind our foreign counterparts, I'm looking back in anger at what has happened to my profession over the past decade and a half.
I feel that I'm in a position to comment since I have worked in five local education authorities over that period and I have noticed the same trends in all of them. Yes, there is, I believe, a decline in the achievements in our children, but I would contend that it is largely the result of this Government's policies. I feel angry that the teachers' unions have taken a defensive position yet again in this matter. Nobody would disagree with their statements about poor parental support, too much leisure time for the children and the crude information in the league tables all being relevant factors in the debate.
But now is a golden opportunity for them to accept the evidence and to point out loud and clear that among the main causes for the crisis in our education system are a radically decreased workforce with a radically increased workload, fewer resources, lessening funds and a severe lack of morale.
My personal experience probably reflects that of thousands of other teachers across the country. I went into special education in 1981, after eight years in mainstream, just as we were gearing up to respond to the Warnock Report and the 1981 Act. The response to the Act was wonderful. I was lucky enough to be working for a vanguard authority which had, as its special needs adviser, a man whose vision influenced many other LEAs. Money was poured into the system and the children received what they needed. But towards the end of the Eighties, small, belt-tightening measures were beginning to creep in: the special educational needs support teacher came three times a week instead of four; the educational psychologist took longer to respond because his workload increased after his colleague was not replaced, and so on.
I moved to an authority some 200 miles away, having been appointed to my dream job on the LEA's SEN advisory and support service. Again the screws began to be turned as children were allocated fewer resources in terms of people, time and materials. Similar posts in two more authorities highlighted the same trend. Our children were being denied what they needed and what, under the law, they were entitled to. Statements of special needs began to be written in carefully vague language, so that the educationauthorities would not be forced to provide expensive help.
Interpretation of statements became wider and more open to implementation according to the budget. This is in no way criticism of either the LEAs or their officers. The authorities had to toe the Whitehall line and keep within their budgetary constraints, while the employees had to keep their jobs. It all stemmed from the Government holding the purse-strings.
Creeping up the promotion ladder, I finally became deputy head. My school was the sort which shows up badly in the league tables: our children were the type who are "failures" in national tests; our maths and English results were worrying.
Half of our children had special needs and we had a high incidence of emotional and behavioural difficulties. Our staff was, in the main, the product of training during the Sixties and Seventies, ie the trendy, left-wing brigade. The whole set-up is the tabloids' dream, and would provide plenty of evidence that teachers are not doing their jobs properly.
Recently, this lack of support for the profession was illustrated yet again by an educational psychologist interviewed on the radio. She offered reduced tolerance by teachers of "bad" behaviour in schools as a reason for the increase of exclusions. She did not explain, though, that there are now many more EBD children remaining in mainstream education, with less support and fewer resources. Mainstream staff have been expected to carry an ever-increasing load of special needs children without the necessary backup.
For me, the next cross to bear was the special education needs Code of Practice and the 1993 Education Act. An excellent piece of legislation - on paper. But the old proviso of resourcing the whole initiative out of existing funding makes a mockery of a system that once led the world in special needs provision. I spent six months in my office shuffling papers, forms and documentation as a punishment for being our school's SEN co-ordinator. It took me that long to set up our register. The theory behind the register is wonderful; pity about the practice. No money.
Earlier this year, I watched the face of my headteacher as he told nine members of staff that he would have to dispense with their services. I watched as he struggled with yet another massive cut in the budget. I was at staff meetings supporting him as he told teachers that there was no more money for books and equipment.
I would have had another 17 years' service to offer the profession, and I had reached the point where I had to make a decision whether to begin applying for headships. My response was to turn from all this and resign. Within 24 hours of doing so, I heard of six others doing the same - all people in senior management, all with higher degrees and all totally disillusioned.
From press reports, I see the picture is similar all over the country. The trouble is, this is a loss of experience and expertise that will take years to replace. When will this Government realise that its policies are resulting in a haemorrhage of excellent professionals? Probably far too late.
Collette Drifte was deputy headteacher of a primary school in Newcastle-upon-Tyne