'We may face workload, funding and recruitment crises, but it’s time to break the cycle of gloom about teaching'

Parents and pupils are genuinely happy with the work that teachers do. As a profession we need to embrace this happiness - after all, it's the greatest gift that we possess

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Farewell then, Ken Dodd. The snaggle-toothed jester of the music hall has waved a final tickling-stick of farewell towards Knotty Ash. Funny yet poignant, he leaves us with some of the simultaneously worst and best jokes of all time, like this classic of the genre:

“The man who invented cats' eyes got the idea when he saw the eyes of a cat in his headlights. If the cat had been going the other way, he would have invented the pencil sharpener.”

As a youngish teacher, I was part of a small staff outing that headed one Sunday night to the Grand Opera House in York for a 7pm show. We thought that since it was Sunday night – that dreaded night of butterflies for so many teachers – Doddy would likely be off-stage by 10pm, leaving us time for a quick celebratory drink, then home to brace ourselves for the week ahead.

It didn’t go like that. Apart from a brief interval, the evening was an unstoppable juggernaut of gags, songs and a brand of ventriloquism which made no evident attempt at hiding the movement of the lips, a kind of anti-ventriloquism.

A comedy legend

By midnight, people were having to get up and shuffle reluctantly out of the darkened auditorium, needing to appease angry coach drivers who, like us, had assumed that the Ken Dodd Laughter Show would follow the normal time constraints of conventional performances. We, on the other hand, clung on to the very end – close to 1am, I seem to recall, knowing that we had been in the presence of a comedy legend at the height of his powers.

He finished as he started, with his signature theme tune Happiness. It’s a song of brash rhymes and hymn-like joy:

Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess
I thank the Lord I've been blessed 
With more than my share of happiness.

Ken Dodd, we salute you. We need more happiness.

A message for teachers

Meanwhile, last weekend, at ASCL’s annual conference, I found myself on a different stage sitting alongside the new education secretary Damian Hinds and her majesty’s chief inspector, Ofsted’s Amanda Spielman.

It was billed as the three of us "in conversation" on the subject of workload. And while my interviewing skills won’t result in job offers as host of late-night TV chat shows, I was able to ask my two guests for a final reflection on the current state of education. What, I asked, would their message be to the thousand or so school and college leaders in the audience?

Mr Hinds said: “Keep doing what you’re doing. We have the best generation of teachers and leaders, the best schools, we’ve ever had”. Ms Spielman agreed. The education system is in very good shape, she said.

They gave us reasons to be cheerful.

It’s rare that we do this – that we remind ourselves of what we do well. Instead, we fixate on our problems, on our perceived failings. Yet visitors and commentators from so many international jurisdictions still look on at our values, our leadership, our educational traditions with interest and even envy.

So, it seems, do our parents.

Break the cycle

The Varkey Foundation last week published a significant survey of parental attitudes, interviewing 27,380 parents across 29 countries, including 1,000 in the UK. Here is what they found:

  • British parents are among the most positive in all the countries surveyed about the quality of teaching at their child’s school – almost nine out of ten (87 per cent) rating it as "very good" or "fairly good"
  • Compared to other countries, children’s happiness is a high priority for British parents. Almost half (49 per cent) listed the school being a happy environment for children as among their top three criteria when choosing schools, equal to Japan and higher than any country surveyed apart from South Korea (52 per cent)
  • More than two-thirds (67 per cent) of British parents say their child’s school is preparing them well for the world of 2030 and beyond, higher than the other major EU economies Germany (57 per cent), Italy (52 per cent), France (47 per cent) and tied with Spain
  • If there were more funds for schools, 70 per cent of British parents would spend the money on more teachers or better pay for existing teachers. This is the second highest of all the countries surveyed after Germany (76 per cent)


This is why we must break the perennial cycle of gloom about teaching. We owe it to ourselves and to the next generation of potential teachers to do so. We know there are significant issues across the UK – funding, recruitment and retention, and a stifling, joy-destroying workload.

But we should keep reminding ourselves that the people we serve rate what we do far more highly than we realise. In essence, parents remind us what our campaigning priorities should be – the happiness and wellbeing of children, and more great teachers to teach them.

Parents: Ken Dodd would be proud of you.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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