Too many leaks to patch up

3rd March 1995 at 00:00
Paul Butterworth mans the barricades in the battle to save a system in collapse. As you drive into the estate and see boarded-up windows and smashed cars, you know it's going to be another of those days. Later, down the gym, you pick up a shoe - one in a great heap in the corner. It is then that you notice the holes, and that the shoe is soaking wet.

For a moment, just for a moment, you wonder what we are doing for our children when a third haven't got waterproof footwear in February, and then you get on with your job - which is to support a system in collapse. A system that may not survive the spending cuts that loom over our heads.

For two years I have been manning the barricades as a supply teacher in inner city Bradford. Minor stress-related illnesses are commonplace, but half my work is covering for nervous breakdowns.

Arriving early for school, I hunt down the Shakespeare textbook one copy is shared between four Year 8 teachers. The children, of course, do not have textbooks as the school cannot afford them. Luckily the photocopier is working.Some schools save money by not mending the photocopier. When there are no textbooks that can be a problem.

The four of us make up English policy on the hoof. There is no head of department, and no guidance. We survive. At least they have taught it before.

I turn to the blackboard, only the blackboard has been replaced with a "marker board". But there are no marker pens in stock, and no budget till next term. I thumb the stick of chalk in my pocket. How much does a marker pen cost? Where can I get one? How long will it last before the teacher next door nicks it?

Back to the 13-year-olds and how to sell them Shakespeare. Luckily, there are still fewer than 30 in this class. Two don't have any English - section 11 is still helping them - 10 have a reading age of between seven and eight, 15 between nine and 11, and two have reading ages of 13. They are the school's high-fliers.

Most do have outdoor coats, but some huddle round the radiator; others fall asleep at the back of the class - they didn't get much sleep wherever they were last night.

It seems increasingly difficult to get children statemented which would put them in line for extra help and a support assistant. Unfortunately, some are now taking so long to process that they are leaving school before it's completed. In the meantime they disrupt the class.

Discipline is a big problem. It's a regular grievance in the staffroom that heads are weak and won't expel children. Expulsion is seen as an effective form of discipline - it also gets rid of the tiny minority of children who create the majority of the problems. Unfortunately, the money comes with the children; a poor school needs all the bodies it can get.

Eventually, experienced - expensive - classroom teachers leave. Sickness, promotion, or early retirement are the most popular escape routes. They are replaced with cheaper teachers on short-term contracts. Managerial duties are split up and shunted downwards, absorbed by other members of staff.

Coffee time talk is of escaping. "But what can we do?" they ask. They stay because they have financial commitments.

As I park the car, I notice a hole in the science block wall. The previous evening a gang of 15-year-olds rammed it with the school car. It was being used to teach them engineering. They then tried to petrol bomb the office.

The teachers are still trying. One day they might give up.

Paul Butterworth lives in West Yorkshire.

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