Mr Big in the high-security wing dishes out the duties

11th December 2015 at 00:00

The word “duty” evokes images of compulsion, submission to a greater will and a conscience with its arm twisted comprehensively behind its back. So in those respects, we have a perfect understanding of the school duty, that unlovely bingo wing hanging from the armpit of your timetable.

Has anyone ever loved a duty? Standing in the playground with a Cup-a-Soup watching children pinball around a playground sounds quite sweet, and it is, once or twice. It is if you’re free to do it or not. But every day? Every week? In hail and miserable smirr? Jog. On.

Many schools allocate duties like Mr Big dishing out favours in the high-security wing. I remember one old lag fondly telling me how in ancient, pre-millennial times, they were favours or privations slopped on to your tray depending on how high up the pecking order you were: rookies got remote corridor monitoring, or flash points, or dinner queues, or Siberian playground posts; the elect and ancient wallowed in comfier spots close to staffroom and succour.

As grace-and-favour appointments go, it’s hardly an upgrade to business class, but perks can become a package that turns your day around.

Take form groups: some people love having them, and some loathe them like lice, but they are undeniably an early morning Hoover on your precious time.

That half an hour at the start of the day is worth three hours in terms of efficiency and utility to the busy teacher. Watch any school before first period, as everyone approaches the event horizon of the mission bell; you’ll see two cultures in the same timeline – those with and without form classes, the former haring between photocopier and briefing, the latter gliding like a swan along the corridor, serene as an archbishop.

The most bizarre rules seem to apply to who does and does not have a form class. Good with Ucas? You’ll get sixth form for a decade. Good with transition issues? Say hello to the little ones. Fall apart like shrapnel when a kid doesn’t do as you ask? Mysteriously, you’ll find yourself with spare time at 8.30. Or not. The decision seems to be as unpredictable as an Orkney squall.

There are other planes of advantage; for example, which classes end up on your watch, and which you dodge. How many schools do we know where new staff are given the privilege of the low-ability children, the challenging kids, the classes who have suffered 15 supplies in six months?

Too many, sadly (and what other profession believes that the best way to train a greenhorn is to immerse them in the job’s most difficult bear pits? Try that with airline pilots and see how far it gets you).

Of course, such classes aren’t by any stretch intrinsically worse than any other, but it’s funny how often old hands end up with small, well-behaved rooms of older, literate kids.

Again, this used to be seen as a rite of passage in old schools where the radiators rattled like Marley’s ghost in winter: do your time, make it through a few tours of combat, and earn a warm desk job. Rinse, repeat, retire.

Of course, most schools don’t do this any more. And many will encourage staff not to do duties and so on, in order to maintain a work-life balance.

Maybe in a different, kinder world, we could appreciate the pastoral opportunity involved in duties; but in this brave new one where workload has become a wine press, we can do without it. It’s a sad thing to admit.

But until the workload fairy waves her wand, we have to make cuts of our own – even if just to stay sane.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71

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