The Way We Were and Are

7th September 2007 at 01:00
Anne Howarth has seen a lot of changes in her 35 years at Blakewater College in Blackburn nine head-teachers, two name changes and one complete closure and re-opening. Now 63, she retired as assistant headteacher this summer but will continue to work at the school teaching part-time.

"When I started teaching in 1972, I had come from industry," she says. "I had been a research chemist. I was into Ban the Bomb and things like that, and I felt the most useful way forward for me was through educating children. So I decided to change careers."

When she was a young teacher, pupils' behaviour was not considered much of a problem and, like many teachers of her vintage, she does not miss heavier tactics of the past. "I disliked corporal punishment," she recalls. "Once, when I was head of year, the headteacher asked me to cane three girls. I said I'd never done that in my life, but I did it, and afterwards I was sick. I made sure I never did that again."

She attributes poor behaviour in schools today partly to boredom with the rigid curriculum. Blakewater, she says, is comparatively good because it has adopted a more flexible curriculum, based more around what pleases the children.

"Getting the children to believe in themselves, that's a real challenge," she says. "We are in a deprived area, a lot of the parents are on low incomes and there is not a lot of interest in education. They are looking at Ds and Es but if I can get them even to think about going for Cs, that's something worth striving for."

Blakewater is small, with about 50 staff and 600 pupils. It was re-opened as a fresh start school two and a half years ago. Though she rates the present staff highly, Anne still rues the passing of the school's quasi-family atmosphere that she remembers years ago.

"Staff turnover is much greater now than before. But issues over staff stability have inevitably changed, as they have in many professions. Perhaps some people have come to school merely as a stepping stone to something else, and that doesn't really fit with the ethos of the school."

One newcomer who does fit is Paul Carr, 26. He has just completed his NQT year at the school and spent part of his training year there. A former IT consultant, his work taking technical theatre workshops into schools led him to realise that teaching was his real calling.

"The greatest job satisfaction comes with those lightbulb moments, when a child who was struggling says: 'oh, I get it now'," he says. The status of teaching has receded, he thinks, but that's not the fault of teachers. "Certainly, respect for teachers generally is not as high as it used to be. Other professions are catching up, and those public sector jobs teacher, doctor are no longer seen as all that special. I think the public understand that teachers do a good job," he says. "But the media tends to portray good results as down to lower standards or teaching specifically for exams, as opposed to just good teaching. I'm not saying exams are harder or easier, but the emphasis always seems negative and this, I think, contributes to teachers' general insecurity about their status."

For him, a friendly and supportive staff is a crucial factor, especially in a challenging school like Blakewater. "I'm not sure I would have wanted, or been able, to teach here but for that. They were all tuned in to getting the best out of a child and not giving up."

He agrees that pupils' attitudes to learning is a global concern, but worries that a restrictive curriculum does little to counter this. "Many children seem to be not so good at thinking for themselves, nor can they think around problems," he says. "It's good to try and find topics that the kids would be interested in and then link it to the curriculum." He has older teacher friends whose less rigid methods, though criticised for not being target centred, inspired him. "I think the profession has lost the ability to put the individual at the core of teaching, and that's a shame."

What do teachers think would increase job satisfaction?

1 More time for preparation and collaboration "more time to communicate and work with colleagues, to share ideas or just cheer each other along".

2 More funding and resources "to have more budget to do continued development courses".

3 Support for student behaviour "willingness of senior management to acknowledge a deterioration in pupil behaviour and attitudes, and a determination to tackle this by increasing pressure on students to increase expectations rather than putting the onus on staff".

The figures: then and now

Average (mean) salary in 1962: pound;1,115

Average house price in 1962: pound;2,600 (source: Nationwide)

Average teacher's salary in 2007: pound;33,000

Average house price in 2007: pound;223,035 (source: FT House Price Index)

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