Why we are alienated

13th September 1996 at 01:00
Colin Butler has a list of things the profession could really do without. One of my responsibilities is to help new teachers settle in. I can tell them honestly that they are joining a good school; but if they ask whether they've chosen the right profession my answer has to be: "That depends."

As a vocation, teaching will always satisfy; but the realities of the job attract no one, deter many and foul everything up for the lot of us. So, here's my list of things teaching could do without.

First, the propaganda. When I first heard of the failing 15,000, I thought, "Good. Sack the lot. We don't need them." Then it turned out that they were a statistical extrapolation (i.e. didn't exist). Furthermore, there was not a single headteacher or inspector among them. The real solution would be to make the profession more attractive and upgrade the intake. But do you ever hear Mrs Shephard or Mr Woodhead say that?

Second, there is the small matter of grotty premises. One of my first classrooms was a decrepit hut overlooking a pigsty. Even then there was an Education Secretary (Mark Carlisle) saying there was no connection between spending and results. The fact is, there is nothing more demoralising for pupils and teachers alike than shabby rooms and poor equipment. If teaching matters, then premises matter, too.

So do big classes - my third point. Class size had been going down; now it's going up and we get the "no connection" line from on high. But there is a connection. With too many in a room, you simply can't cater for them all. If teachers are constantly awash with books and marking, exciting initatives to raise the quality of teaching become all but impossible.

Fourth - those initiatives. The fact is that carrying out someone else's long and complicated instructions is the essence of the modern teacher's daily round -scarcely a recipe for getting the best ideas or the best minds into education. Even new entrants from Mars would know that dominance and OFSTED mean the same thing, OFSTED's emphasis being on compliance with the rulebook rather than constructive, long-term support. But, as if that were not enough, there are moves afoot to make appraisal part of the checking-up process, too. That really is authoritarianism run riot. Teachers are already accountable, pupil by pupil, via exam results. There is no justification for harassing them further.

Not when you consider their poor pay - my fifth gripe. MPs were honest enough to link salaries with quality of intake, at least when it came to their own earnings. So, by MPs' own criteria, teachers must be in line for a handsome increase, plus a medal or, better still, a sanatorium voucher. All that chopping and changing and still you need to read the press to know what your job will look like next year.

So, here we are at the beginning of a new academic year, and, on every front that matters, we - those of us who actually teach - have lost the initiative. And that is a loss for education too.

The six unions (five too many), parents' associations and governors all know this. Individual teachers expect them to get the education budget back into the public eye and keep it there.

As for the rest, governments have powerful political reasons for wishing to appear tough on teachers, so not much will change there, either before or after the general election.

Meanwhile the present Government could still make us more receptive to change. Alienation is no way to get the best out of teachers; and macho management is simply one more reason for early retirement.

Dr Colin Butler is senior English master at Borden Grammar School, in Kent.

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