Missing: genuine trust in teaching profession

25th January 2013 at 00:00
The hysteria over 'safeguarding' sends a dangerous message to children: that adults are not to be trusted, says Tom Finn-Kelcey

Another month and another teaching survey showing just how low our morale is as a profession. According to YouGov results published at the beginning of January, teachers are utterly fed up and the profession is in turmoil. I always tend to take these surveys with a pinch of salt; after all, it is no surprise for a profession dominated as it is by those of a leftist persuasion to be especially hacked off during any period of Conservative rule. The whipping up of this sentiment by the teaching unions - which seem to have simply adopted contrarianism as policy in response to any government changes during this Parliament - has no doubt contributed to these statistics of doom.

However, leaving the more political questions aside, a distressing theme emerges from this latest YouGov survey, and that is the feeling of a decline of trust in the profession. More than three-quarters of teachers said they "rarely or never" feel trusted. This sadly comes as no surprise, but it represents a major problem facing our society that goes beyond teaching. Our increased levels of openness as a society over the past 20 years should be leading to a greater degree of trust, yet the reverse seems true. This is especially problematic in schools, where teachers are supposed to be relatively autonomous - after all, we are acting in loco parentis.

Many everyday things we now do in school as routine have contributed to this climate of mistrust. It all starts as far back as a teacher getting a job at a school. The first thing that person has to do is have a CRB check. As a country we have gone overboard with these checks, with more than 3 million conducted in 2011. Beginning one's new career with a police check is to begin from a position of fundamental mistrust; by its very nature, it is a case of guilty until proven innocent. It sets the wrong tone from the outset.

Even if we accept such checks as a necessary evil, they are part of a wider climate of underlying mistrust that exists in many schools, a climate largely contributed to by Ofsted. The heightening and normalising of mistrust in schools is largely down to its expanded remit with regard to child protection services. Having to inspect these under the same framework as schools led to an excessive focus on so-called safeguarding, a focus that seems to have remained strong even after the inspectorate decided to adopt different guidelines for schools. Safeguarding when done well is proportionate, sensible and evidence-based, but too often in our current climate of panic over child safety, it is none of these things. Too many schools have brought in rafts of ridiculous and excessive procedures under the banner of safeguarding. The rules around "touch" in primary schools are one example of the authorities going quite berserk; where officialdom has imposed a set of rules that are so sterile and untrusting that they risk undermining intuitive human interaction.

A check too far

Even the way that Ofsted goes about checking on safeguarding demonstrates a fundamental mistrust of teachers. Inspectors don't ask staff about policies or check procedures; instead, they ask a random selection of pupils. They often simply approach them in the corridor, stop them and ask "What is safeguarding like at your school?" or "Do you know what to do if you are ever in danger?" I have heard these questions asked of 12- and 13-year-olds and, funnily enough, the pupils' responses to the inspector were not exactly detailed or thoroughly considered. The problem here, other than the obvious one of not getting a clear picture from a random sample of pupils, is that Ofsted inspectors do not even trust the word of the teachers they are inspecting. They look for ways to "get round" teachers to find out "the truth".

Add to this mix the excessive paperwork for school trips, monitoring of emails and internet use, compulsory wearing of ID badges and the increasingly worrying intrusion of authority into the private lives of teachers and you soon see why staff feel so untrusted. The saddest thing of all is that few of these intrusions are being done for the good of the children. Most of the safeguarding agenda centres on two concerns; the first is pleasing Ofsted and the second is making schools litigation-proof. That we have arrived at this place in education, where these concerns come before the effective socialising of children, is a truly sorry state of affairs. There is a real danger of the risk-averse culture within schools becoming normalised, and a situation where children and teachers work in locked and fenced buildings, being monitored in every way imaginable, is not a million miles away.

Children see this happening. They see a society in the grip of a moral panic over child abuse and child safety driven by sensationalist media coverage. They might expect their schools - the places where reason and logic are supposed to be applied - to respond by challenging this silly hysteria. Instead, too often they see so-called "safeguarding" becoming ever more excessive, they see the authority and autonomy of teachers increasingly undermined, and they learn from this that adults are not really to be trusted. This is a dangerous lesson to teach them, and one that will affect their expectations of the adult world. The current generation of school leaders must stand guard against this rising panic, or risk being remembered as the generation of leaders who allowed trust in teachers to be destroyed.

Tom Finn-Kelcey is head of politics at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Faversham, Kent.

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