Time for a change of heart;Talkback

Alan Smith

Alan Smith pleads for a return to sanity in a profession he can no longer bear to be part of

I should be at the top of my profession. Not as a chief inspector, professor or headmaster, but simply as a teacher. I should be a real expert by now, informed and organised, with my socio-psychological insights sharp and clear. I should be in my classroom delivering the goods. But I'm not, and nor are thousands like me.

As soon as we could, in my case at 50, we left teaching, vowing never to go back. Has it occurred to anybody that something might be wrong? Of course not. The new Secretary of State has fallen back on the old formula: abuse the teachers and initiate change. Again.

My introduction to change came in the 1970s with RoSLA. Since then, major change, innovating reform - call it what you will - has fallen upon us at least once a year. Serves me right for being a Troskyite in the Sixties; we wanted permanent revolution and by God we got it.

Examination and testing make a nice illustration. I began teaching when O-level was tested in the exam hall. Then there was a bit of coursework, then it was all coursework, then mode three, then back to a bit of coursework. Now I can see the exam hall-only technique coming up again. All these changes involved a labyrinth of meetings and paper and doctrinal dispute. What for? In the end, no matter what we did, the clever kids always did better than the stupid ones.

The endgame was the national curriculum - a development which I, ever the optimist, thought would be a positive force which would coherently define what we were about. But it fell upon us like a web of molasses.

There were other things too. We didn't help ourselves by embracing the seductive notion of career structure. Why did I do it? I never really wanted a career, let alone one with a structure. I only ever wanted to teach kids about literature. The best work I've ever done with children has been in that context. All the rest - the pastoral work, the careers advice - flowed naturally from it. Then, along came career structure, and its Siamese twin, pay structure, and every one of us who wanted a pay rise had to become a minor bureaucrat. We named our price and, tiny as it was, we sold out.

Some years ago I heard Baroness Warnock wonder how it would be if the classroom teacher were to become the highest-paid employee in the profession. Just think of the rush of inspectors, professors and headteachers back to the classroom. Think too of the difference it would make if no one could be found to fill their vacant posts because the pay was rubbish.

As a student I remember watching a group of tweedy teachers inventing titles for themselves in the staffroom of a Liverpool comprehensive. If they had titles they could have a pay rise and so they became director of this, co-ordinator for that. It was a new branch of fiction - and the birth of management whose morbid hand now lies heavily on all that we do.

In my first post we had one departmental meeting a year, and, if anything needed doing, the head of department would buttonhole someone in the staffroom. It was an efficient, enthusiastic and happy place. The last department I worked in had an hour of meeting time each week, plus an extra one-and-a-half hours once a month, all with an agenda and minutes. This was a good department too, but enthusiasm and happiness took one hell of a pasting.

The bureaucratisation has resulted in a reluctance to run clubs and sports teams. School trips to the theatre or trips just for fun (oh come on, you remember fun) are a minefield of procedures, insurance policies, regulations and reports. The result is that often we don't bother.

This isn't the whining that David Blunkett complained of; this is the reality of what has been happening to classroom teachers since the Seventies.

We need a change if we are to emerge from this nightmare of non-stop change. But we need change that takes things out of the system and therefore increases its simplicity. Most of all, we must be clear about what we expect schools to do. Are they there to teach people things, or are they agencies of social control or a branch of the police service or a cr che or a substitute for parenting?

Perhaps we could use, as a way to this new simplicity, the managerial device of job description. Our reward for sleeping with the enemy just one last time might be that we were at last perceived as teachers: teachers and nothing else.

Alan Smith left teaching last year after 26 years. His second novel was published earlier this year

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Alan Smith

Latest stories


Coronavirus and schools: LIVE 18/9

A one-stop shop for teachers who want to know what impact the ongoing pandemic will have on their working lives
Tes Reporter 18 Sep 2020