Tortured by failure's label;Platform;Opinion

2nd April 1999 at 01:00
In the drive to improve standards, schools are dying. What happens to their rejected teachers? Bernard Barker speaks for staff threatened by failure

I magine Anna, a year head in her fifties, working in a large Midlands town. She's been a teacher all her life and loves it. "I don't want to stop, not ever. Since my own children left home the kids are everything for me." Stout, comfortable and tired, she arrives for interview and tells her story. She's only ever taught at one school. "Some of us have been there that long we're family."

Three years ago, a favourable report from the Office for Standards in Education praised her school's work with disadvantaged children and families. Inspectors said the staff were coping well, although the free meals entitlement was more than 50 per cent, attendance fluctuated below 80 per cent and the exam results were an embarrassment.

"But HM Inspectorate came and put us in special measures," says Anna without emotion. Now the council has decided to close the school and send 300 pupils across the borough. "The children are frightened, to tell you the truth. I know they've got a reputation but they're no different to kids anywhere."

She talks about special measures and termly monitoring. The inspector would scrutinise schemes of work and lesson plans. "Where's your mark book?" he would ask whenever he spotted a weak teacher. On one occasion he pulled her cupboard open, unleashing a minor earthquake of hidden rubbish. Another time he was pleased with her wall display about consonants and vowels. "In the end, we realised we'd never win out."

Anna utters no complaint or criticism, makes no appeal to fairness or justice. Instead, she describes her work on the estate with a local community project and how she helps people fill in forms. "The women know me, I taught them, so there's no shame in admitting they can't read." With the school's closure, it's her turn to have a problem. "I'm desperate for a job, any job!" "How do you keep your morale up?" I ask. Anna's face crumples "I don't, quite honestly. I've had four interviews this week and I've got nothing. I don't know what to say, I don't know what they want."

Last week, she joined 20 teachers interviewed for three assistant head of department posts. The panel lacked management experience and subject knowledge. Governors and officers read questions off a card and sometimes appeared not to understand the answers.

Earlier today she was interviewed for a post, apparently inside the ring-fence. The school appoint-ed an outsider, leaving the disconsolate local candidates to complain to their unions.

Equal opportunity is supposed to drive the process but this candidate hadn't had an interview in 30 years. Without advice or preparation, Anna is shuttled from school to school, clutching sheets of paper containing the bare particulars of each post. One school has no head, no staff and no name.

Anna lacks the formal educational language to describe her work in persuasive terms. Instead inspectors have has taught her to doubt everything she believes and does. Colleagues, friends and students love her, but English education in its post-modern phase has learned to despise all the good that's in her and all the good that she does. Now she is a petitioner, a stateless person pleading her case without a lawyer.

Local heads are worried about their budgets. How can we afford top-of-the-scale teachers like Anna? You've got to watch the age profile because incremental drift could break the bank. We need new blood, youth, enthusiasm, ideas. We're sympathetic, but she's a teacher at a failing school. All the good ones left long ago.

Although 200 teachers in Anna's town share her experience, you will not read the story in the local or national press. No investigative journalist has smelled a rat, Anna won't blow the whistle. No one will speak out. No dissenting voice will be heard.

This silence is surprising but not difficult to explain. A year ago when the names were named, there were protests, marches, meetings and letter-writing campaigns. Now it's too late. The schools are dying and the children fled. Last summer the threatened teachers agreed with this process as the least awful of the options available to them. They are resigned to their fate. They know the machine must run its course. Like the victims of torture, Anna has been isolated, made to feel ashamed and responsible for her own humiliation.

Each interview she attends confirms her own worthlessness. She is powerless, a human animal whose habitat has been destroyed. If she hangs on in there, causes no trouble, talks the right game, she may survive. After all, there is a teacher shortage, isn't there?

As this latest, improbable quest for standards unfolds, other questions suggest themselves. Suppose there were no local authority to disorganise, reorganise and demoralise the schools. Suppose no inspector called. Suppose there were no government initiatives, no supply cover, no out-of-school meetings. Suppose we stopped believing in magical schemes to improve education. Suppose we gave up our restless dissatisfaction with the way other people do their work. Suppose we let Anna look after the children. Would that be so terrible? Would it be as terrible as this?

Bernard Barker is a lecturer at the School of Education, University of Leicester

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