Straitened times

Hard times come and hard times go: that is just the fluctuating fortunes of the world, and nobody is immune to the effects. Fairness may be a great ideal – but it rarely comes fully to pass. But in a week when there have been several calls for teachers to stop being so negative and get on with the job, we might consider how reasonable this is. I am not even going near the various reports that remind us of lengths to which the powerful will go to ensure that they whom, it goes without saying can absorb shocks most easily, don’t have to.

But it doesn’t surprise me to hear that the outside world is sensing the present negativity of the teaching profession. I think I can safely say that throughout my career, I have never felt so profoundly pessimistic about the future of my profession, my own place within it, and even the society which it serves. Regrettably, I ‘serve’ a society that is increasingly coarsened, self-serving and unconcerned about fairness or other civic ideals, and as the EU debate shows is even incapable of any enlightened sense of its own relative good fortune.

I also see an education service that is decreasingly able to make any real impact on this coarsening and has resorted to fiddling with obscure technicalities while Rome burns. And as I age, I am less willing to accept a system that cannot allow  even a little for the toll that this work takes.

A well-meaning colleague recently gently berated me for caring too much about these things; teaching, he claimed, is now “just a job” and higher ideals will do nothing more than give their owner sleepless nights. But is that the solution – or part of the problem?

The reason for my pessimism is not austerity itself; as I said, life has always been a matter of taking the rough with the smooth. At present, schools are enduring straitened circumstances that mean they are paring back provision. I have seen non-teaching staff made redundant, simply because the school budget could not bear their cost. The budgets more generally are being cut: as we knew all along, the ring-fencing of parts of it was not the whole story by a long way.

But here is the rub: if, as an individual my circumstances change for the worse, I have to accept that I will need to make compromises,  perhaps defer things I want to do, and be grateful for small mercies. What is not fair is to try to externalise those difficulties onto blameless, especially well-meaning others. And yet, it seems to me, this is precisely how the country and its education system seem to operate.

At times like these, more may need to be asked from people like teachers. I, for example, have been required to step vastly outside my comfort zone at short notice and teach some Year 7 Maths. I am doing consolidation work with the less able, so it is hardly intellectually challenging – but it is still requiring serious thought, particularly as so many approaches have changed since my day.

Likewise, recruitment issues have meant that an increasing number of classes have been split between teachers. This also creates extra work to ensure that pupils’ education is affected as little as possible. It makes the planning of lessons more difficult and it further constrains flexibility with marking. Less contact with more pupils means that one cannot get to know them as quickly or as well, which brings its own problems.

All of these things are bound to have an effect on the quality of the service delivered. This is not of teachers’ making or asking – it is the cost imposed by a system that is paring back. And yet that system seems incapable of accepting that as a result it needs to compromise on its own expectations. I find emotional blackmail about the impact of teachers’ actions on pupils’ prospects unacceptable at the best of times – but when the system itself is doing far greater harm to those prospects than any single teacher can, it seems deeply unreasonable, not to say unrealistic to expect educators to deliver the same standards as before no matter what the personal cost.

This is not a criticism of my school, which has, for example, accepted that people teaching away from their specialism are inevitably compromised. But the system as a whole seems to churn on regardless with reforms to examination syllabi or the organisational framework of the service or demands for increased depth in marking. At individual school level, it would still be welcome for a review of the overall impact of the situation on teachers. The demand for deep marking, for example, is simply an unaffordable luxury at present, and should be shelved at least until resources improve.

Into the same boat should be thrown the more overblown expectations of lesson observations, and indeed much of the peripheral activity of the teacher’s job. At a time when it is all hands to the pumps, we should not be expected to worry about what colour the ballroom is painted.

I do understand that basic psychology dictates that it would probably be unwise for either schools or the DfE openly to say they were lowering expectations – but at very least they could ease up on the marginal demands made on us. I am quite clear that this year the situation has compromised my work in a hundred different ways; I am not happy about this because it is not the way I wish or choose to operate.

Teachers have long been criticised for their pessimism. But it seems to escape the notice of those who criticise that teachers largely do sterling work with perceived shortcomings more to do with the unmanageability of the job as demanded than real inadequacy. And if, at times when the profession is busy absorbing the extra stresses of an austerity policy, morale is down, and even militancy somewhat up, even if they can’t cut us much slack, the very least the managers and politicians could do would be to SHUT UP.



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