A teacher’s life

PENNY WINTER

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I qualified as a primary school teacher in the UK in 1976. At the time there were two pathways into teaching. The first was to take a three-year degree in a traditional subject, say history, and then spend a year at a college of education to gain a PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education). This was followed mainly by those who decided to teach after they had been to university. People who at 18 knew that they wanted to train as teachers, and most of those who knew they wanted to teach in primary schools, attended a college of education for three years. A college of education not only extended the student’s own studies in one or two main subjects, but also the psychology, sociology and philosophy of education and in learning how to teach.

Teachers who followed this path gained a teaching certificate which could be upgraded to a degree with another year of study. But this wasn’t compulsory and was quite new in 1976. Following a period of severe shortage of teachers, when some schools were forced to introduce a four day week for some pupils, 1976 produced a glut of teachers. I was fortunate, unlike many of my contemporaries, to be appointed to a school straight from college. A number of those who qualified at the same time found jobs outside the profession. By 1980, the drive towards an all degree profession was in full swing, leaving those of us, mostly in primary education, with the choice of finding the time and funds while maintaining a full-time job to upgrade, or to accept that our career progression would be limited.

When I started teaching, the guidance given to young teachers was very limited and very dependant on the management within individual schools. On the whole we were left to sink or swim. Generally we were expected to teach english and maths in the morning, and the rest of the curriculum in the afternoon, both morning and afternoons being interspersed with PE (physical education), music, TV and radio programmes which had to be timetabled to accommodate 12 classes.

 

Exactly what we taught was generally directed by the textbooks provided to each year group and by a general curriculum document prepared by the head teacher. We were able to use both the childrens’ and our own interests and enthusiasm to enhance our teaching. This system was undoubtedly rather hit and miss and when the move towards a national curriculum was suggested in the mid-1980s, it seemed to be a step forward.

The National Curriculum was introduced to bring some order into what was taught at each stage during a child’s school career. Earlier it was possible that a child might move from one school to another and repeat the areas of any subject that they had previously studied. The national curriculum is compulsory in all state funded schools; private schools do not have to follow it, but most chose to do so.

When it was suggested, we had no idea that it would become so proscriptive. I had imagined it would be an aid to help me determine what to teach but not dictate what I taught. It has undergone continual revision, with some subjects being added or dropped, or given more or less time, for most of the 15 or so years it has been in operation – meaning that teachers have had to deal with continual change.

When it was introduced there was a presumption that the teaching of maths and english had been neglected and that testing never happened. This wasn’t my experience. The school I taught in routinely used the National Federation of Educational Research tests and standardized reading tests every year to track the progress of the pupils. The pressure to deliver the maths and language elements of the curriculum drove out the more creative parts of learning. Several older teachers have made the comment that teachers are now deliverers of the national curriculum rather than educators. Spontaneity of discovery in the classroom has been driven out to ensure that goals are set and achieved, boxes ticked and everything recorded.

All these things in themselves are important, but when they become the end result rather than help grab the interest and enthusiasm of small children and actually engage in the growth of their characters and their development, something seems to be missing. The testing of children as young as five, and the constant testing of older ones, has frustrated many teachers and parents. In the past few years the government has even specified the early years curriculum to be followed not only by nursery schools, private nurseries and day care centres, but also, in theory, by child minders in their own homes, possibly at the expense of the nurture and social skills that had always been a priority. The expectations of these very young children sets many of them up for failure at the start of their 13 year school career.

 

In 1976, my class was my responsibility from 9 am to 3.30 pm. The only non-contact time was 30 minutes once a week when the deputy head took the whole school for hymn singing. Most lunchtimes and two or three afternoons after school were taken up with running sports teams or clubs. Today, almost every classroom has a couple of teaching assistants to help out and teachers are given regular non-contact time for preparation and marking. Unfortunately, the amount of paperwork has increased to fill this time and more, and so most teachers still have a large amount of work to take home in the evenings, at weekends and during the school holidays.

Teaching assistants in the classroom should free up the teacher to work with children who need support or by taking over the time consuming jobs of replenishing stocks and preparing materials. The danger is that the teacher may become the manager of the classroom assistants who actually deliver the lesson. Along with the drive to reduce class size and yet control expenditure, there must be a temptation to employ more assistants who are directed by one teacher, thus reducing the ratio of children to adults but increasing the ratio of children to teacher. Possibly we will soon see schools with one teacher overseeing nine teaching assistants and 90 children.

 

The introduction of technology to the classroom has meant that many teachers now have interactive whiteboards and online lessons and so it is vital to be confident in the use of the computer and internet. This is something teachers who trained before the 1990s have had to come to terms with, with varying degrees of success. Often in primary schools there is no full-time technician or even access to a part time one, and training is often a ‘one-off’ morning course or after school. In some schools notices for staff are put on a staffroom website and teachers are responsible for checking it regularly, another job that technically may have to be done at home just in case a late notice appears.

Schools are required to provide time for the physical curriculum, around two hours a week and this is likely to grow, given the concern at the current level of children’s inactivity. One school started having dance in the playground for the last five minutes every day, adding 25 minutes a week reasonably easily without too much disruption.

 

Along with the changes to introduce the national curriculum, testing and league tables, came the policy of inclusion. The principle of educating able children alongside less or differently abled children can only be a good one, but the rush to make the change meant extra pressure on many schools. Special schools were closed down and children sent into local schools, some of them ill-prepared and underfunded. Schools now have a duty to produce an accessibility plan, showing how the school is making it possible for everyone to access premises, equipment and the curriculum, whatever their disability.

Schools are no longer able to say that they cannot accept a child as they do not have the requisite resources; they are to ensure that they have a plan that outlines how they are working towards full inclusion. There is more money available for schools, but administering and managing it is complicated. Worse, in many cases this has meant that teachers, whose expertise is teaching, are now expected to not only manage the time of teaching assistants and organize student’s access to services like speech therapy, but also administer large budgets with little financial training.

More responsibilities, which had previously been the responsibility of parents, are being loaded onto schools. Many now provide breakfast and tea – in, before and after school clubs – to enable both parents to work and all schools must have a healthy eating plan and allow children free access to water throughout the day. Though much of this is provided by contractors, teachers are still expected to run pre- and after-school clubs, and the school has to organize, accommodate, manage and be accountable for the extra use. Most of this responsibility falls on the head teacher and senior management.

Pre-1990, most of a school’s budget, school meals and building maintenance were the responsibility of the local education authority. Head teachers have now been forced to come to terms with the financial responsibilities of running what is effectively a small company. Some schools have appointed a bursar to oversee the financial management. And at least one large secondary school has appointed a head teacher with a financial rather than an education background.

 

The result of the extra time children spend in school is that schools are having more influence in the development of children than some parents. Teachers have to deal with children, some very young, who may have arrived in school at 8 am and will not leave the building until 6 pm. Effectively, this is a ten hour working day for a child, leaving many just too exhausted to learn. At the same time parents expect more influence on what their child does and how he/she is treated.

The longer one spends in a community, the more necessary it becomes to conform to the expectation and behaviour of that community. Unfortunately, conforming is not something that we are very good at, and schools today are in the unenviable position of having to juggle the values and expectations of as many families as they have children in the school. Sanctions and discipline have become a major issue, what with the rights of children to learn and the rights of a disruptive child or group of children being difficult to separate.

In a few places, schools, particularly in the inner cities, have become threatening places for both pupils and teachers. There have been incidents where pupils have carried knives into school. The incidence of assault on both teachers and students by students and parents has increased. Schools now have very few sanctions with which to temper the behaviour of pupils. It is not unusual to hear of four year olds who are at home because they have been excluded from school. In some places children have become so disaffected that providing an education at all is a challenge.

 

We are now entering another phase of teacher shortage. Those still teaching in their mid-50s have been pressured, and many are just worn out by constant change and criticism from government and media in the last 20 years. No wonder many will be relieved to retire in the next few years. For those under 45, the retirement age has been raised from 60 to 65, such that those over 50 who may have taught for more than 30 years, now find that retiring before 60 can mean a substantial loss of pension.

The subsequent loss of morale is not likely to encourage many to go on beyond 60 with enthusiasm. There is a world of difference between continuing because one has chosen to and having to continue because one can’t afford to take a loss of pension. The ability of statisticians to predict how many teachers will be needed doesn’t seem to have improved from the early ’70s when too many were trained and then lost when they couldn’t get jobs. At a time when a profession for life seems to be an outdated idea, governments may well have to find ways of making teachers feel more valued in order to retain those they have, and to attract young people into the profession.

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