When it was left to the professionals

9th May 2003 at 01:00
Sue Palmer set up the Time to Teach website so teachers could express their concerns. Demand was so great she had to abandon it to have time to live

It started in autumn 2001. Until then, the primary teachers I met while running in-service courses were quite enthused by the National Literacy Strategy - it meant a lot of hard work for them, but they could see its advantages. Now enthusiasm was waning, and weariness showing through. I kept hearing the refrain: "Why don't they leave us alone and let us get on with it?"

It wasn't surprising. After four years of frantic innovation in the teaching of basic skills - coming on the back of five years introducing the national curriculum - everyone was exhausted. It was clear that what teachers needed most now was time - time to consolidate all that they'd learned, to make it fit the needs of children in their schools, to integrate it into daily classroom practice. Time, in fact, to teach.

The 2002 national tests were approaching. Primary schools seemed likely to reach (or nearly reach) the targets for these tests, which had been used to kickstart the strategies. I fondly imagined that we would all soon be rewarded with a bit of peace and quiet. So when the Government announced a set of "challenging new targets" for 2004, I was stunned. Couldn't they see this was counter-productive? That teachers had had enough? That, anyway, there is a limit to what can be achieved by short-term measures?

In December 2001, I set up a website as a rallying point for anyone who felt the same way - www.timetoteach.org.uk . Thousands of people did, because we had an amazing number of hits over the first few months. To launch the campaign, my MP arranged an early day motion in the Commons, and on the website we asked supporters to write to their MPs, asking that the targets be dropped and a new "moratorium on change" established. Many did so, and soon the then Education Secretary Estelle Morris started sending MPs a conciliatory letter ("no plans for further innovation in the primary sector").

Some teachers left messages on the website. Reading them was an emotional roller-coaster ride. First I would be plunged into gloom at their concerns about prescription, "teaching to the tests" and initiative fatigue. Then my spirits rose as I recognised the professionalism underlying these comments.

The focus of teachers' worry was always the children. Their remarks were not "whingeing" but genuine, heartfelt concern that what was happening could have long-term damaging effects on children and schools: "It seems that targets and statistics have become more important than children."

"I like to think of myself as a reflective teacher, but am now so tired I am unable to reflect..."

"We must get back to the fun of learning if children and staff are to make the most of their talents. We need to retain the creative teachers who make children want to learn. The current emphasis on prescription is driving them away and we will be left with those who are content to do as they are told and train - not educate - children."

"I am not treated as a professional. I am losing my confidence and I feel my children are suffering. They need me to be more creative so that they can be too!"

"We all recognise the positive impact of many of the reforms of the past few years, but primary kids now seem to enter the front door of their school to be herded down the corridor and out of the back door without exploring all the fascinating rooms off ... primary education is about opening doors!"

The website was funded by me (with a couple of donations from generous colleagues), and run from home. But I soon discovered that running a campaign is a full-time job - you can't do it single-handed on top of a day job. I was ill for several months with what turned out to be exhaustion, and last summer Time to Teach had to fall by the wayside.

Fortunately, by this time other more powerful voices had begun to take up the cause. University of Toronto researchers, commissioned by government to report on the two national strategies, voiced considerable concern about targets in their final report. Then David Bell, the new chief inspector of schools, joined in. It is wonderful to hear that The TES is now launching a campaign to draw attention to what has become an educational scandal.

On behalf of the thousands of teachers who registered with Time to Teach: thank you TES - and we're behind you all the way!

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today