I was, until last week, a primary school teacher. Now, gearing up for the release of Hollow Pike next year, and writing the second book, it was time for a career change. The last few weeks were a mixture of intense sadness and overwhelming relief to leave a profession that I both love and hate.
Allow me to elaborate. Teaching should be the best job in the world. Just in the final few weeks, with my Year 5 class, I got to: dress up as The Joker; create six versions of the Perseus myth (including papier mache sea monsters); have a mini-olympics; go pretend rock climbing; crash land a meteor in the playground. As you can see – better than any office I’ve ever worked in. Teachers (certainly primary school ones) get to go to work and play around – how many workers can say that about their jobs? Baking, art, drama, singing – it’s all in there. What’s more, when children are engaged, they do well. Maybe not in exams that you stick in front of them cold, but they produce work that they care about in class. Look at it this way – if the writing thing goes tits up, I’ll be back in the classroom in a heartbeat.
But if only that was the end of it. Any teachers reading that will do so and say ‘yeah, and the rest’. If any school in the UK put its emphasis on ‘fun’, it’d be shut down within a week. Head teachers are under more scrutiny and pressure than ever before. They need to ACHIEVE. In tests. If they do not ACHIEVE, they will be closed, or worse, forced to become an Academy. Such schools will be taken out of Local Authority control and given over to “sponsors”. If that’s not sinister, I don’t know what is.
‘Schools have failed cohorts of children’, says Education Minister, Michael Gove. Again, teachers reading this will know that simply isn’t true. My first school, as a Newly Qualified Teacher, was one such ‘failing school’. No one could have worked harder for those children than the staff at that school. The school was in an area of poverty. Reception Profile Scores (used as an assessment on entry) were very low and progress over the next six years was not enough to satisfy OfSted (schools inspectorate), who could see no reason why our children should achieve differently to the pupils at the other local primary that served the nice, big houses with pretty lawns. I don’t think deprivation automatically creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, but the government IS aware of the trend, or they wouldn’t be interested in so closely tracking pupils receiving free school meals. If they acknowledge the problem, why don’t OfSted?
I remember a meeting with a ‘Contact Advisor’ from our LEA (Local Education Authority), who grilled me on why I had predicted one boy wouldn’t achieve (there’s that word again) a level 4 in reading, writing and maths (the benchmark that all pupils are meant to gain at eleven years). I argued that as the boy’s father was about to go prison, his mind hadn’t been so much on his work. His behaviour had deteriorated. There was no way that child would get level 4s. To be honest, at the school, we were much more interested in getting him to stop harming himself, or other pupils. But ‘no’, said the Local Authority, ‘he achieved in his SATs when he was seven, he MUST do so at eleven.’ The DfES and OfSted do not blame children or families for academic failure. It is always the school’s fault. Discuss.
Now that school, I’m pleased to say, is no longer a ‘failing school’, but it took hard work and determination. It was certainly NO FUN. Life became about the acronyms. APP and SATs. These things have nothing to do with children. They are so far removed from what children are interested in, but they absorb ALL of teacher’s time, leaving them too stressed and busy to focus on the things children actually like. We’re so busy providing statistics to the Powers That Be, we have no time to plan awesome lessons. In the world of education, pupils have become a commodity – a percentage of attainment or failure. Doesn’t matter if they like school or not, frankly.
Nothing is ever enough. Even schools that OfSted has identified as ‘good’ are under threat from Academies if the exam results dip. It doesn’t matter if it’s just one of those year groups that don’t do so well…it’ll save the government money to hand control to a private sponsor. Privatization of schools, which this obviously is, can only be a bad thing. It’s frightening, and I wanted out.
Throw into the mix a retirement age of 68, and you have a deal-breaker. Come on, people, there isn’t a nice desk-job we can go to in our twilight years. You’re asking teachers to do yoga, rock-climbing, dodgeball and Catch-the-Flag until they’re nearly 70. I’m not for a second suggesting 68 year-olds couldn’t do these things if they wanted to, but they’re not being offered a choice. If I go back to teaching, I’ll have been doing these activities for 46 years. Get real.
The good news is, that in my eight years as a teacher, I saw three regimes. The first was the downfall of Labour’s “Literacy Hour” strategy, which drilled pupils into hating writing, while the second was the rise of the ‘Creative Curriculum’, which despite flaws, got kids enjoying learning again. It’s a shame, because at the end of the Labour government, it felt like Heads were being trusted to run their schools again – with more freedom to try things out. But we teach now in the dark shadow of Gove’s Academies. Luckily, any good teacher knows that in another three years, it’ll all change again. Teachers are expert hoop jumpers. Hopefully, if I ever do return to teaching, someone in office might have had the common sense to ask young people about how they’d like to be taught, and it’ll be a system where teachers are trusted to do their job without such intense scrutiny.