A rundown of 10 things that are currently putting worry lines into the brows of Real Teachers everywhere. Feel free to frown – it’s grim.
1. Welcome to the Free Market
Quick history lesson. Under the New Labour academies of old, money was thrown at failing schools in a bid to raise attainment. Skip ahead a few years and enter the Coalition with its very own academies initiative, under which outstanding schools are targeted and short-term financial incentives offered to encourage conversion. With the government seeking to ultimately convert all schools, the entire education sector is suddenly looking to become private – each school operating independently.
Teachers, start sweating. If every school operates independently, the very idea of a good local school for every child becomes secondary to the particular aims and ideals of each particular school. Deciding where to work suddenly becomes an exercise in personal politics and if your personal ideals don’t quite correspond with those of your chosen place of work, you may just find your career hanging in the balance. Oh dear.
2. The Production Line
An automatic consequence of this aggressive pursuing of a free market is that the education sector will become subject to market forces. Supply, demand, profit, loss, product, retail, marketing, wholesale: all that good stuff that most teachers physically recoil from. The problem is that schools and teachers don’t actually ‘produce’ anything, do we? Start sweating… In a free market, our ‘product’ is the children in our care, or more specifically the GCSE results we can encourage/ cajole/ drag out of them aged 16.
Michael Gove argues that every child, irrespective of background, should be expected to achieve equally, an ideal which could be dangerously naïve. A brutal truth is that certain socio-economic groups have a better relationship with formal education than others and, in a free market, those kids are preferable because they get the best results. So schools court those families, the post-code apartheid flourishes, and teachers of failing kids become labelled as failing teachers. Welcome to the jungle.
3. Goodbye, Goodwill
Put down that cup of coffee for a second – it gets worse. The local authority model of education actively protected teacher’s pay and conditions, with clearly defined limits and guidelines on issues such as working hours, pay-scales, holiday, maternity arrangements and so on. Get rid of local authorities, get rid of that protection. Your entire working life as a teacher becomes contingent upon the whim and goodwill of your employer. And unfortunately…
4. …We Are Expensive
Yes Real Teachers, I hate to say it, but in these austere times, teachers are drawing increasingly askance looks from policy-makers intent upon finding ways of saving a pound or two. Michael Gove has made it very clear that teachers can and should be doing more, by which he means spending more time at school of an average day, working longer terms during the year and delaying retirement until, well, death.
The result? Heads are being actively encouraged to get more out of already stretched teachers. As stated above, good luck on relying upon goodwill to protect conditions in what is already a seriously demanding profession.
5. Nobody Likes You
For all the talk of how demanding the job actually is, a lot of people will never accept that teaching is anything other than cushy: holiday after holiday, a ‘gold-plated’ pension, six weeks in the summer and a working day that finishes before Countdown begins.
This general belief that teachers have it good is worrying in as far as it undermines the very real grievances we may have against unfair policy changes. Worse still, wider problems are being ignored. 1) Everyone deserves a fair pension – why make it a race to the bottom? 2) The Teachers’ Pension Scheme has been paid into by teachers, not the taxpayer at large – if the government needs to reduce the deficit, why not start with the £28 billion or so worth of unpaid corporation tax? 3) Yes, parents would find it convenient for teachers to have shorter holidays (as Michael Gove has suggested), but why is it that childcare costs in the UK are among the most expensive in the world? Alas, without a starting point of empathy, it is unlikely that our rights (or sanity) will be even considered, let alone protected.
6. Hard Targets
Knock knock? Who’s there? Good teacher? Good teacher who? Good teacher who hasn’t hit their targets.
Not very funny, is it? Despite the fact that much of what happens at school is qualitative (the quality of teaching and well-being of children for starters), there is an assumption that the quality of education and teaching can be defined in strictly quantitative terms. Since the onset of league tables, schools have been bound by targets and results, with pressure on Heads to boost the numbers filtering directly down to classroom teachers and, in turn, children.
This is unfair. Results obsession can turn a good teacher with an underachieving class into a ‘failing’ teacher, when the focus should be upon engagement, creativity and effort. Politicians may call for more engaging lessons, but have they considered how much of a risk that is for teachers who are ultimately tied to cold, hard statistics?
7. The New Broom
Michael Gove recently stated that “more and more of the young teachers coming into the profession do so because they are idealistic” and that “they want to work as long as it takes to help children succeed”. Ok… The implication here is that older, more experienced teachers (probably including anyone two years or more out of their NQT year) are jaded cynics who are too lazy to “go the extra mile”.
If you have common sense, an opinion and anything less than blind compliance for new policy, consider yourself a Dinosaur. And god help you if you miss a few targets – all it takes is one term and the Head can label you as failing before politely asking you to get lost. It all adds up and believe you me…
8. …you are VERY replaceable
I would not for one moment suggest that teachers should expect a job for life. Standards need to be high and poor teachers must be brought to task. What concerns me is the utter disregard for experience and commitment that seems to characterise current educational policy.
The government proposes that classroom teachers should stay in in the job until 68. In the unlikely event of septuagenarian teachers being physically unable to survive a five-period day of haranguing 21st century teenagers, the alternative will have to be a conveyor belt of wide-eyed young graduates, worked to within an inch of their lives and replaced at regular three-yearly intervals. Because, I assure you, if conditions worsen, they couldn’t stay in the job even if they wanted to.
9. Degrees of Separation
For reasons that will not become fully clear for at least a decade (the time period Mr Gove has outlined for the fruits of his policies to emerge), the TDA is now awarding teacher training bursaries based on degree classification. £20,000 for a First in Physics, Maths, Chemistry or Modern Foreign Languages, £15,000 for a 2:1, £12,000 for a 2:2, et cetera. (With my First in English Lit, I would have got £6,000, but I didn’t have to pay £9,000 to do the PGCE in the first place).
The logical outcome of this strangely elitist move is a kind of results hierarchy whereby academically successful teachers will be scouted by the ‘best’ schools whilst everybody else ends up elsewhere. The worst part of all this is that there is no direct link between one’s degree classification and one’s skill as a teacher, the job being so much more than having subject knowledge (as anyone who saw Jamie’s Dream School can attest). Also ‘good’ schools (probably populated by a certain demographic of child) will end up being populated by a certain type of teacher. It’s a dystopia in the making and it’s starting now.
10. The Blame Game
Ultimately, all any Real Teacher such as myself wants is to be able to point at someone and say ‘I told you so’, but I honestly don’t know who I’ll be pointing at. By dismantling state education and formally establishing a free market, the government is ensuring zero accountability – a shrewd and cynical move. It will be individual academies, the Heads who run them and the teachers who work at them who are accountable for unmet targets and falling standards, whilst central government can sit back, purse its lips and raise its hands in innocence.
Or maybe I’m just becoming a cynical old Dinosaur… Let’s hope so. With another 39 years of teaching to get through I’d quite like to be proven wrong.
For a soundtrack to this piece, click below to hear the famous ‘Michael Gove is a Monster’ Kanye West remix (contains swearing)