You can keep the change

6th July 2001 at 01:00
A disillusioned Jenny Owl calls a temporary halt to her correspondence with Tony Blair

Dear Tony Blair

I would like to thank you for my school achievement award cash bonus, but I can't. You see, Tony, I have realised that it amounts to tipping: it exists because people are not paid enough in the first place. When people ask how much to tip, they mean: "What is the smallest amount I can get away with?" This sums up education spending in your first four years. I taught in difficult schools for as long as I could, and I now know that even where Excellence in Cities, education action zones and Fresh Start have made a difference, it is superficial. GCSE A*-C pass rates may have risen significantly in my previous school, but the conditions in which pupils are expected to learn there - and in other challenging schools - deteriorated beyond recognition during your first term of office.

I will never forget the induction day for new pupils in my first year teaching in a deprived secondary modern. A Year 6 pupil cried uncontrollably from the moment he arrived - he knew that the consequence of his failing the 11-plus was a second-rate education. For every dedicated teacher he would have over the coming years, there would be a string of inexperienced supply teachers doing all they could to cover lessons they were ill-qualified to teach.

In every group of children keen to learn would be a disproportionate number of children with such disturbed backgrounds that the disruption they caused would tear away the most experienced staff from their teaching. While thousands of children at secondary moderns have poor self-esteem and little confidence, they are not the only ones.

When I taught in one, I saw my own self-esteem and confidence plummet. The increasing gap between what I wanted to teach and managed to teach amid the disruption made me doubt there was a future for me. More and more teachers in difficult schools are finding themselves in this situation.

Yet the fact that many secondary moderns achieve exam results far higher than significant numbers of non-selective inner-city schools, despite having higher attainers at 11 creamed off by the grammar schools, paints a worrying picture of how difficult conditions in deprived schools have become.

When David Blunkett had the audacity to regret not having managed to "wholly change the morale of the teaching profession" (TES, May 11), I wanted to tell him that you should have considered teacher morale before your school inclusion policy gave thousands of difficult children carte blanche to behave appallingly at whim; before you allowed the recruitment crisis to reach such epic proportions that, for many children, having the same teacher all year would be a novel experience; and before you imposed so many initiatives that the support network within schools, which is crucial to self-worth, professional development and effective teaching, evaporated because colleagues never have time to see each other, let alone train new entrants.

You promise more teachers, as if numbers were everything and quality irrelevant. Though harsh, one Kent headteacher's verdict on the six applications he received following an eight-month, worldwide search for maths teachers sums up the nature of the recruitment crisis. John Atkins told Mr Blunkett that he would not allow some of the applicants to "walk my dog, let alone teach a class".

As Ted Wragg points out (TES, May 18), if we hire barely competent people now, problems will compound themselves. Now you have been re-elected, it is time to draw this correspondence to a close, though I dare say that figures close to you - and others in education - will prompt me to put pen to paper again in the future.

Jenny Owl is a pseudonym. The author is a head of department in a selective school

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