Shut out, patronised and demeaned

19th February 1999 at 00:00
This is how teachers really feel about the way they're treated, as Julie Morrice discovered when she visited a school to get an insider's view on the state of the profession's morale

The bright, spacious staffroom at a large inner-city comprehensive is all but empty when the headteacher shows me in. It looks for one ghastly moment as though TES Scotland's invitation to talk freely, and anonymously, about morale in the teaching profession has met with little enthusiasm.

The one member of staff who is there - a principal teacher - talks about the difficulties of teaching classes that include pupils with special needs and young people "bordering on the criminal".

"In my S1 and S2 classes I have one or two pupils who can't read. The support staff have made tapes of the textbooks for them, but the support teacher will only be there for one period out of three. The special needs kids cause disruption, and they're not getting much out of the system."

In this case, as in so many others, teachers are dealing with the day-to-day reality of ideas handed down from above. That is what causes the real frustration. "All this criticism of teachers is coming from HM Inspectors, but it's their ideas that aren't working."

The bell goes, and more teachers start to appear. Most of those coming into the staffroom take the chance to air their thoughts about the pay-and-conditions package, the White Paper, and the state of Scottish education.

The reason for their volubility is clear: no one from outside the school has asked their opinion before. Here is a group of highly trained, experienced professionals, responsible for educating the nation's young people, and their overpowering feeling is that of being shut out of the decision-making process, patronised and demeaned. If Education Minister Helen Liddell expects teachers to sign up enthusiastically for her contractual notion of teaching, she's got a lot to learn.

In the staffroom, the latest"proposals" on pay and conditions have been met with emotions ranging from dismay to despair. "There is no rationale behind it. The only message we get from this is 'You're useless at your job'."

Local authorities are proposing the wholesale restructuring of the system of promoted posts. "What is wrong with the present system?" someone asks. The staff here is not against new ideas, but the way this proposal has landed from nowhere, without explanation or consultation, makes them suspect it is simply a money-saving exercise.

"It's politically inept," says one teacher. "They want to get rid of middle management - the principal teachers - the very people who have to introduce Higher Still. What's even more inept is bringing this out when we're coming up to the Scottish parliamentary elections.Who will vote Labour after this?" Helen Liddell, or Stalin's Granny as she is unaffectionately known in Scotland, may want to introduce the business ethos into education, but the staff here cannot see that it is desirable or workable. Schools still run to a large extent on goodwill and the desire to give pupils the best chance.

"If you introduce this (the additional hours and extended workload), folk won't do the extras," says one woman. "It'll be nine-to-five and that's it. It'll be the kids who will suffer."

Teachers with young children of their own are particularly concerned at the extended day. Now, they can pick up their children and do preparation and marking in the evenings at home. Under the new system, any pay rise would be drowned by the increase in childcare costs, they argue. "If they're going to run schools like businesses, do we get theflexi-time and the perks?" "I've been teaching for 22 years. I'm the sort of person they want to get rid of," says another straight-talking principal teacher. "It's been constant innovation since 1987. We're still struggling with 5-14 and now we've got Higher Still. I'm not against new ideas, but we need time to assimilate them. It affects the pupils too: it's been 10 years of guinea-pigs.

"The best thing they could do is let us stand still for five years. Not stand still to go backwards, but to run these ideas, try them out."

The much-vaunted pay bonanza will mean little to teachers in her position. She calculates that in exchange for a 3 per cent rise this year and 0.3 per cent next year, she will lose two weeks' holiday and have 25 per cent added to her teaching week." I don't remember people feeling so hopeless," she says.

Some of the younger teachers start to voice their concerns. None is on a permanent contract. Nobody is under 30, and the average age is 49.

"I've been on supply for seven years," says one. "I work really hard. I do extra-curricular activities. What else can I do to get a permanent post? What am I getting out of this?" It is not only of concern to young teachers. What will happen when the baby-boom generation of teachers retires?

"There's going to be a huge crisis in five years."

"All the expertise we have just won't be passed on."

"How are we going to have superteachers in 10 years' time, when all we have done is flit from job to job?" The interval over, three women teachers remain behind and wonder who has drawn up the White Paper. "There are no names on it."

"They should get a body of people whom teachers respect."

"It's all about administration. There's nothing about the real problems facing teachers."

If ever a profession felt misunderstood, it is this one. "Bring the politicians in to watch. Bring in the cameras. It's time they see what is happening in schools."

One of the three is a support teacher, who spends her time in other people's classes. The "bad" teachers the Government and media continually refer to are unknown to her. "I see good practice and people working really hard," she says. "I see teachers saying, 'I should try this' or 'I'd like to move him and see if such-and-such works', but always with the proviso 'If I have the time'.

"The bottom line for everyone is smaller classes. They think they're doing us a favour with a pupilteacher ratio of 30:1. There is all this talk about computers and resources, but the most important resource is the time a teacher spends talking to an individual child. You divide a period by 30 children. You tell me how much time we can give to each child."

"I would like to put all this in context," says the head when I drop in to his office to say goodbye. "The staff here are not negative." He produces a photocopy of the top page of a recent HMI report which records one of the "key strengths of the school" as "the loyalty and commitment of staff". But for how much longer? Leader, page 16.

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