It is unlikely to have escaped the notice of anyone reading this in the UK that this Thursday, 30th June, there is a mass-walk out over pensions by teaching unions, the national discussion of which smacks of the "old days" of left v right as words like "Armageddon" and "bringing the country to its knees" are bandied about. I have never supported striking action, but then I have never been in a position when I felt desperate enough. Neither would I criticise or condemn a profession I am so out of touch with as a member, although I hold views as a parent on the education system. Certainly in the current economic and educational climate I am surprised the Government is further challenging teachers, who have by and large coped amazingly with the legislation of the past two decades. Also concerning is the potential far-reaching implications for future recruitment into the profession when morale is already low.
It is a comment on the vocational nature of teaching that after over a decade out of the job I still feel very much one of the profession. For me, teaching was my dream, the only job for me despite my father's very best efforts to tempt me with something more financially appealing. Just as my daughter does now, I would line the teddies and dolls up and play "school" writing out endless tasks for them, drawing elaborate pictures and plans and creating pretend schemes of work. Even around the age of five I was aware that a certain amount of planning had to be involved and Sindy and Strawberry Shortcake needed different support and imput if they were to realise their potential and keep pace with the bears.... so you can imagine my shock to learn that the parallel classes at my son's school do almost no cross-year planning, there are no agreed schemes of work and one child's experience in a single class is not guaranteed - or even likely -to be similar to his or her peers in parallel classes. This was straight from the new head, sheepishly admitting this was a point she wished to tackle - almost apologetically claiming she needed to "convince" the teachers to work together. Similarly, her staff were "legally entitled" to an hour's lunch break and she could not force them to offer clubs. Whatever happened to contractual responsibilities? Lunch supervision is no longer the responsibility of teachers, who also get planning time within the usual timetable. one lunch break a week running a club? Hardly a sacrifice and something I know many friends, former colleagues and teachers elsewhere offer without a second thought.
H's school has a reputation for apathy - but I believed this to be parental apathy. The turnout to the Year 4 "Meet the new Headteacher" meeting was indicative of that - with approximately ninety families in Year four, our school managed a turnout of seven parents. Seven. And two of us are former teachers. Even if two thirds of parents work..... that's just pathetic. Other school events are similar, and there are outstanding parent-governor vacancies from a year ago. This apathy it seems is endemic throughout the school however, and is as much caused by as a product of the lack of professionalism from the school. I commented that it has taken nearly a year for us to START feeling part of the school, since there is no "New parent Handbook", no newsletter, no parent/class reps, nothing. No way to contact parents of new friends to facilitate your child's settling into a new school and no information on how the school runs. I have no knowledge of the topics he is learning (you can be sure he won't tell me) and no concern with getting anyone to achieve anything over the average. Small wonder Ofsted down-rated them. If it were not for the sterling special needs support it would have little to offer us and many other families.
It IS unprofessional. Teaching is not a turning up to class five minutes before school starts, delivering mediocre lessons, hiding out in the staff room at break times in case you might get asked to do something and scuttling home the minute the children have left the premises. That is NOT what teaching is about for the vast majority of dedicated professional teachers in this country.
Is it an illusion that the majority of teachers teach because they want to, because something inside of them yearns to share in the educational journey of children who hopefully want to learn? I actually think it is the case for the vast majority of dedicated teachers in our schools. The long holidays enjoyed by teachers are always the butt of jokes but there was a trade off. As with any vocation, during term time you gave your heart and soul to the job. No one relished the extra lunchtime break duty having just sat down with a still-warm cup of coffee, the loss of any planning time when covering for a sick colleague - but everyone wanted the best for the pupils. I have some experience in both state and private sectors and job satisfaction and commitment to the profession was evident in both. But this professional pride has gradually been eroded by government initiatives, targets and second-guessing. Too many teachers leave the profession disillusioned, despairing at pupil behaviour, lack of respect from above and below.
As far as I can see the only way of steering the ship through such choppy seas is with a strong, charismatic leader. A Captain who has vision, energy and commitment. Who KNOWS who is in charge and is willing to make unpopular decisions. Someone who has enough belief in themselves, their staff and the school to carve a way forward through uncertain times. I couldn't do it, and I'm not sure I would want to in a sea of apathy and low morale. But what concerns me as my son moves into Year five with a new Captain at the helm is that I'm not sure she can either. His is the largest primary school in Suffolk and only the most dynamic, committed and positive Headteacher is going to have a hope of making a big enough difference. That's probably not someone who quotes their employees legal rights over lunchtime to a parent enquiring after school clubs.
Thursday 30th June may well be a landmark strike, certainly it is huge headache for the coalition. But for many teachers at my son's school it is a good excuse for a day off and little more. Which is incredibly depressing.