You can have your card back

4th May 2001 at 01:00
Jenny Owl tells Tony Blair why she will not be renewing her membership of the Labour party.

Dear Tony Blair Thank you for inviting me to renew my membership of the Labour party. In the enclosed "consultative survey", you asked me to mark your government's achievements. These included "reduced class sizes for more than 450,000 primary school children" and "introduced the literacy and numeracy hours". The former, as I explained to you (Friday, January 5), is an "achievement" that produced plenty of losers. And over these past four years, I don't suppose you and David Blunkett have been moonlighting as primary teachers. They're the people who really deserve the credit for introducing the literacy and numeracy hours.

Your "consultative survey" then asked me to rank some manifesto ideas in order of priority. The true test of a good school has nothing to do with league tables and everything to do with answering one simple question: "How many of this school's teachers would I want for my own children?" In my last school, which languished towards the bottom of my local authority's GCSE league tables, one in five teachers was outstanding. In my present - selective - school in the same authority, the combination of good teaching and highly biddable students means I would ask: "Which teachers would I not want for my own children?" (Answer: a handful.) It is far easier to teach effectively in an easy school than satisfactorily in a difficult one. Your highest priorities, therefore, need to be not only teacher recruitment, but the recruitment of teachers of the highest quality. Mysteriously, neither "recruitment" nor "teachers" appears on your survey. David Blunkett has suggested that teachers are part of the recruitment problem, as we don't spend enough time telling possible recruits that "teaching can be a damn good job". Tell that to the almost one in four newly qualified teachers who quit the profession within three years. Then consider whether the absence of any reference to "retention" in the consultative survey is an oversight.

Mr Blunkett wishes he had asked the Treasury for more money sooner to help teacher recruitment and retention. Your refreshingly honest former sports minister, Tony Banks, recently pointed out that all governments, including yours, want to "do things on the cheap". And you? You constantly remind us how much has been spent, but are far more reticent about hw much needs to be spent to make a real difference.

Three weeks ago you told the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' conference that you wanted some acknowledgement that progress has been made. Progress has been made. Happy? It's just that the gratitude I feel is the same as when I have repeatedly kept back a pupil to produce a simple piece of coursework, which she finally produces with the magnanimous words:

"I've done that coursework for you."

You see, Tony, I'm not sure if I'm angrier with you for raising my expectations in the run-up to the last general election with your mantra of "education, education, education" or with myself for believing that you meant it.

Chief Inspector Mike Tomlinson has identified a direct link between the increase in the number of lessons covered and worsening pupil behaviour. In my previous school, I spent my final term setting daily cover for two former colleagues we could not replace. I also spent a huge amount of time supporting supply teachers with the disproportionate number of discipline problems rife in difficult schools - some of which have since become, thanks to your worthy but disastrously flawed policy of social inclusion, impossible schools. Is it any wonder I sympathise with colleagues voting for action over cover?

As Professor Richard Pring has written: "Nothing of quality can be achieved unless able and committed young people are attracted into teaching and can be persuaded to stay" (TES, March 30). Professor Chris Husbands has said that we need a framework "which recognises the challenges the disaffected pose for schools and (which) generates the energy, resources and commitment to address their needs" (TES, April 13). Such initiatives demand a long-term public spending strategy and a simultaneous determination to improve teachers' working conditions; not your present ad hoc system of funding, where you belatedly offer incentives to those trainees in most limited supply as you add their subject to the ever-lengthening list of shortage subjects.

Someone once said: "If we are in politics for one thing, it is to make sure that all children are given the best chance in life." That someone was you, Tony. Please put our money where your mouth is. And please take it personally if I don't renew my membership of the Labour party just yet.

Jenny Owl is a pseudonym. The writer is a head of department


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