Thoughts for worms on the turn

14th September 2001 at 01:00
The worm is turning. Teachers are fed up with being insulted and regimented and made to do government paperwork. But teachers are a scarce commodity, as sought-after as the Snark. We hear daily wither-wringing tales about schools fighting over the precious few pedagogues left, with the losers unwillingly forced to settle for knuckle-dragging, drooling inadequates fresh from the hulks and sewers.

In Britain today, properly-qualified teachers are gold-dust. Everyone wants them. The laws of the market, therefore dictate that teachers have the upper hand. They are the better mousetrap, and the world is beating a path to their door. Only it doesn't feel that way, does it? Teachers feel just as fed up and put-upon as they always have done, and are hell-bent on making themselves even rarer by taking early retirement at, say, 33.

This is the situation, as laid out by our diligent media, and there has to be a solution. With the market-forces argument in view, a bracing headmistress and former Ofsted inspector wrote to the Independent this week with a sharp one. Resign, she said. Resign en masse, and then band together in regional associations and offer your services, under contract, to local authorities. Don't let them own you any more. Have clients, not bosses; be a contractor, not a serf. You may end up in exactly the same job in the same school, but it will feel different. You can lay down your conditions of work, demand extra money for deadening bureaucratic chores and use that money to pay an assistant if you want. Your scarcity will make the paymasters meek and compliant. You will at last be free to do the job you trained for.

It is a wonderfully persuasive argument. All the forecasters - Charles Handy, the Royal Society of Arts - say that the world is moving away from an employee-culture and towards a contract-culture. Freelancing and contracting are the future. There will not be careers, set pay-scales, drearily slow upward slopes to retirement. Instead there will be clients and service providers and deals between them based on merit and availability. Why shouldn't this apply to teaching? In a small way it already does: the exodus from school jobs is eased by agency teachers, just as agency nurses staff the hospitals if and when it suits them.The boss, the generalissimo with guaranteed troop numbers to deploy, is the truly endangered species.

But beware. I am a freelance and I know the pitfalls. I became one in the late 1970s when although I dearly loved my radio work, I could no longer bear the repressive, clodhopping, patronising staff culture of the BBC . The straw that broke my back was its hideous habit of having your annual report read to you by some boss-class idiot who couldn't do your job to save his life. Assessments, personnel officers, attachments, civil service pay grades - pah, who needed that stuff? I walked down the road on my last day saying "I am Libby Purves Limited, as good as my last gig!", spent my pension fund on loose living, and thereafter have been self-employed. Freelancing is not a life for the faint-hearted, nor for the disorganised. Since those who are rebellious enough to walk out of steady jobs are rarely very organised by nature, this presents problems. The contractor lives in a different world from the staffer. He or she must learn when to say yes or no to jobs, be endlessly pleasant and always on top form. Paperwork increases, only this time at home: you have to keep books, put away the tax money in a separate account, know whether you are VAT-able and pay money into a boring old pension run by some dodgy operator, because nobody else will care what happens to you when you are old. If you are a freelance contractor you can't throw sickies without losing money, and you certainly can't afford to stop delivering at full throttle and wreck your reputation just because you've got a new baby at home keeping you awake. Worst of all, you can't blame anybody but yourself when the work dries up. It is, however, a grand life if you don't weaken. You earn more, and make your own decisions about how long your holidays will be. Employers are more polite. The relationship of need and supply is clearer, and you never again get that glum feeling that you ought to be grateful to the kind people for giving you a job. You work because your work is needed and the proof is that your invoices get paid. You have a certain pride, which at times outweighs your terror. But before you hurl yourselves on the fire, think about it quietly for a bit with your head resting on a nice cool changing-room locker.

It's a big step.

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