Occupational optimism

12th January 2001 at 00:00
SHOCK poll finding: teachers enjoy their jobs. In spite of the appalling pressures; in spite of the modest pay, the naming, blaming and shaming of the past and the abuse and sometimes even physical attacks they endure from those they serve, most teachers are still satisfied by, and remain hopeful about, their profession.

Perhaps this occupational optimism is not such a surprise. After all, nobody ever joined the profession to make their fortune. To want to be a teacher presupposes a certain hopeful idealism; a wish to share what you know, to make a difference to young people's lives and to the development of society as a whole.

But, as the teacher shortages forcing schools to contemplate reduced hours demonstrate, no one should take this public service ethic for granted. The "unquenchable optimism" Tim Brighouse celebrates on page 17 is not boundless. As these pages confirm week after week, goodwill can be frustrated by incompetent management, stifled by bureaucracy, alienated by lack of appreciation or worn down by unreasonable demands.

But bad news should not obscure the good either. Recruitment may be more difficult than ever. But most schools are still (just about) fully staffed. And as The TES poll shows, most teachers are satisfied with their jobs and optimistic about their future.

That is not to deny that too many good teachers are still being driven out by too much pressure and not enough support. Nor that this happens most in challenging inner-city schools where they are hardest to replace and where there is undoubtedly a crisis in morale and recruitment. But to take up this hue and cry too widely and suggest all schools and teachers are demoralised and downtrodden can only furtherdamage the profession's image and make recruitment difficulties even greater.

But sustaining that sense of proportion, and the underlying morale it depends upon, now requires more urgent action to recruit and, just as importantly, to retain teachers. Dramatic improvements are needed, not only in pay, but also in working conditions. Even teachers who remain optimistic and committed to their work complain of rising workloads, needless bureaucracy and the impact of Office for Standards in Education inspections in their current form.

The TES survey shows a majority recognise the need for OFSTED or something like it. This, taken with the improvements already achieved in many schools, demonstrates an acceptance of public accountability and expectations. That must now lead to a system of school audits which involves teachers and bolsters their confidence and professionalism rather than undermining it.

Meanwhile teachers' jobs must be made more manageable. Smaller classes and more non-contact time themselves depend on better recruitment. But more must be done immediately to cut out time-wasting bureaucracy. That too is a task involving government. But as Jim Hudson, the head in our Success Story (page 12) demonstrates this week, having the confidence to protect staff from unnecessary bumf is also a job for school managers.

The Government and every other level of the service needs to remember that the best recruitment advertisements (apart, of course, from those in this newspaper) are those already teaching in schools. Only when able young people see their teachers happy, fulfilled, and supported in their work, with the time to share some of their ideals, will they queue up to join them.

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