Selecting sanity

1st December 2000 at 00:00
In May, Jenny Owl told Tony Blair why she was moving to a selective school. Seven months later, she explains why she has no regrets

Dear Tony Blair,I was sorry to read that the battle to attract teachers looks set to continue, with the pound;6,000 student bursaries failing to boost recruitment significantly, while older staff are still leaving the profession in droves (The TES, October 13).

I would like you to know that:

* I enjoy my job and am happy with my working conditions, my salary as a head of department, my holidays and my pension arrangements;

* I have a head who cuts out unnecessary meetings, shortens necessary ones, and does not ask for a single word in writing more than is necessary.

* the children are, by and large, great, and their parents are, almost exclusively, extremely supportive;

* my departmental colleagues are highly experienced, professional, gifted teachers, and my department is well funded;

* the school staff is very stable - few people leave except to retire;

* I am embarrassed to say that the only children I shout at are my own.

Did I mention that I work in a selective state school, where five applicants compete for each place? True, I plan and mark more than ever before, but this is a small price to pay and a far cry from my previous post.

My previous job description might as well have read: The postholder will:

* get through each lesson with as few serious pupil disturbances as possible;

* deal with discipline problems arising from pupil misconduct at breaktime, at lunchtime, and after school;

* run lunchtime and after-school classes for motivated pupils who can achieve barely a fraction of their potential in timetabled lessons as a result of the disruption caused by classmates;

* plan endless cover lessons for colleagues on stress-related long-term absence, and for former colleagues who have not been replaced;

* attend endless meetings at which yet another "radical" new policy is introduced.

But the final straw was my previous school's interpretation of your policy on pupil exclusions. Pupils saw this as carte blanche to do almost anything and not be excluded. Your government has since stated that schools have always been able to exclude violent and disruptive pupils, but school development plans are still expected to reduce exclusions significantly. This means keeping disruptive pupils in school. Disruption breeds disruption.

Like many schools, my previous one established its own classroom - sorry, "unit" - for a handful of disruptive pupils. The biggest problems arose as soon as some of these pupils left their classroom - sorry unit - at break, at lunch, en route to specialist teaching rooms, and before and after school.

They tore around the building, banged on classroom doors, and barged into lunch queues, intimidating fellow pupils, and verbally abusing staff who intervened.

Until recently, their victims received a break from such behaviour as its perpetrators were excluded for several days. Their victims desperately deserve that reak today but will never have it again.

Yet in terms of GCSE results, my previous school is successful. Results have risen for the second year running as some staff bust a gut to help a handful of pupils achieve a few extra C grades, while a quick tweak of the curriculum here and change of syllabus there turns a few more Ds into Cs. But the place is lurching from crisis to crisis as the number of serious pupil incidents escalates.

To some extent money is pouring in - for new equipment, facilities and initiatives. But experience is pouring out. The situation is all too familiar to the governor of a London school in special measures, who expressed her despair at realising that the five shortlisted applicants for the vacant headship, with its salary package in excess of pound;70,000, shared less than 10 years' senior management experience between them (The TES, October 13).

You know, Tony - and forgive my telling you how to do your job, but you spend enough time telling me how to do mine - "Education, education, education" means "Money, money, money" where it is most needed educationally, in areas of great social deprivation; rather than in areas designed to ensure the continued support of the lower middle classes you wooed so successfully away from the Tories in 1997.

You would have to increase taxes, but surely your army of spin doctors can persuade the electorate that increased national wealth and a safer society demand a more highly educated workforce with greater self-esteem. And that, quite simply, requires the best teachers to work in the worst schools.

While some of the best teachers have always been in the most difficult schools, fewer of them than ever believe the rewards justify the huge effort involved. Golden hellos may recruit trainee teachers, but they won't keep them in the profession.

When I wrote to tell you of my sadness at moving on (Friday magazine, May 12), I explained that I had rejected the offer of an extra incremental point to stay. I ungraciously suggested that pound;10,000 on my yearly salary would have sufficed. But now that I know just how much greener the grass really is on the other side, I can no longer envisage returning to my previous environment.

Nevertheless, far better and nobler teachers than me could still be persuaded to spend more of their careers in difficult schools if at least their bank balances demonstrated that they were not taken for granted.

So thank you, Tony, for allowing my previous working conditions to so deteriorate, and my financial rewards to be so outweighed by the demands on my sanity, that the only future I could see was to compromise my principles and work in the selective environment I shunned in my first four teaching posts.

A friend who started in the state sector, but who is now head of a public school, told me the students I teach today still need me. With false modesty, I have to agree. But they do not need me half as much as many of the pupils I have turned my back on forever.

Jenny Owl is a pseudonym. The author is a head of department

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