Telling it like it is
It is Monday morning, and Norwich primary head Carole Clayson doesn't know whether to feel sad or elated. She has just taken a call from an unhappy teacher, and his words are still ringing in her ears. "He said he was fed up with the way things are going in the profession, and he couldn't see any hope of improvement. 'Don't tell me,' I said. 'You're leaving?' " A fortnight earlier, her guess would have been spot on. But the man now had other plans. "I've decided to stay on and fight," he told her. "And your letter has helped me do it."
The letter in question, posted by Ms Clayson on November 9 last year, was intended to sound an alarm bell to the man at the top of the education system. Teachers, it said, felt demoralised, deprofessionalised and exhausted, and it outlined eight causes of stress (see box).
Yet even though her letter was addressed to David Blunkett in person, Ms Clayson received no reply until February 10, and then not from the minister, but from an official in the teachers' pay and policy division.
That reply spoke of the Government's desire to "transform pupil performance", to modernise teaching and raise it "to the front rank of the professions". Once school standards rose, it suggested, morale would improve. Ms Clayson was unimpressed. "It was a pre-prepared response and it didn't really address my points," she says.
But if the postbag brought little joy from the DfEE, the response from another quarter was overwhelming. For no sooner had TES Friday published the text of her letter (on February 18), backed up with the testimony of her staff at Wellesley first school and an invitation to readers to reply to her, than messages began flooding in from teachers across the UK. "Bloody marvellous article," said one. "Why is that only women have the balls to speak out?" In the first week after half term, Ms Clayson received almost 60 letters - from men and women - and took a succession of telephone calls, every one congratulating her for making a stand, and adding their own descriptions of life on the edge. "I'm not surprised Mr Blunkett never replied," writes one teaching head. "He owes me a letter too!" The writer adds: "If, having described the situation so succinctly, you decide to become a rallying point, please let me know and I'll rally." So great was the response - one teacher even sent a pound;5 note for "campaign" costs - that Ms Clayson has now formally invited Mr Blunkett to visit her school and meet her staff. "It would be letting people down not to take this forward," she says. "I feel the messages I and The TES have received are just the tip of the iceberg."
The correspondence is moving and disturbing. Letter after letter echoes the fears expressed by Wellesley staff that government policy is harming the children it purports to help. "I fear we are creating a generation of disaffected, disillusioned failures," writes one head.
Many abhor the stoking up of competitiveness, fed by league tables. "It is immoral," says one, "to set school against school, teacher against teacher, pupil aainst pupil." A deputy head from a beacon school says that staff, "totally deskilled and demoralised" by their Ofsted inspection, "rarely feel like flickers, let alone beacons".
A mother writes of her teacher daughter: "I see this bright, enthusiastic young woman looking shattered and demoralised. All the joy of teaching has been removed." And in a chilling postcript, she adds: "I have always wanted to tell Mr Blair and Mr Blunkett how I feel, but I worry about her job."
This feeling of fear, coupled with relief that somebody has finally spoken out, runs like a black thread through every message. "While we all mutter darkly in the staffroom, there is no real backlash," says one teacher. "Why are we so compliant? What is it we fear?" asks another.
One letter, from a young woman who has wanted to be a teacher since childhood, is especially touching. "I love my job," she writes - "the job I trained to do in the classroom with the children. I take pleasure in their achievements - in watching sullen, uncommunicative, withdrawn, sad children beginning to open up to the world and respond to encouragement and praise . . . And yet I find myself wondering where it is going to end. I am exhausted, stressed, demoralised and deprofessionalised." Like so many, she is now looking for something else to do with her life.
"I read that and I could cry for her," says Carole Clayson. "She's an asset to the profession, and it's because of people like her that I want to talk to David Blunkett one-to-one. I know the secretary of state has a vision, and that's important. But he's got to take people with him, because if you can't take people with you, it's not a lot of good, is it?" Readers who missed the original story on Carole Clayson in the February 18 issue of The TES can obtain a copy from: John Ingram, back issues department, TSLEducation, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX. Tel: 020 7782 3045. Please make a cheque payable for pound;4 to TSL Education.
Next week:Just how troubled is the teaching profession? We publish a selection of the letters sent to Ms Clayson
Carole Clayson sent David Blunkett a letter in Braille, setting out the grievances she believes are shared by the majority of teachers. She said reasons for teacher stress include: Unreasonable levels of written planning. * New initiatives coming one on top of the other with no chance to consolidate and evaluate. * Professional judgments compromised by government expectations. * Judgments of teaching based on test results not progress children have made from their entry baseline. * Not being able to plan ahead confidently because funding is allocated through a "bums on seats" method rather than on the overall curricular and SEN needs of the school, or you have to put in a bid. * The increasing number of social problems children bring to school. * The low esteem in which teachers are regarded - everyone thinks they know how to do the job and remembers inaccurately what things were like "when they went to school". * Expectations that teachers can solve society's problems through sex education, health education, drugs education, instilling discipline in isolation, teaching morals to reduce crime and other anti-social acts.