This is a funny, moving and worrying book. It tells the story of a young teacher with a vocation as he goes through his training and takes up his first job in an inner city comprehensive. The book is fiction but based on real experience. The story is one of disorder, low achievement, disillusioned and burned out teachers mixed with flashes of affection for the children and commitment from some of the teachers.
Having spent a week last September in a similar school, I am left with the same sense of affection for the children, respect for many of the teachers but deep concern about the way in which respect for teachers has been undermined by successive governments.
My week as a teacher – accompanied by TV cameras, which of course makes it less than realistic, resulted in bitchy commentary from columnists like Lynn Barber and Anthony Howard, but dozens of letters from teachers, ex-teachers and teacher trainers supporting my efforts to get the children to take responsibility for order and their learning, rather than the more punitive disciplinary approach advocated by my mentors.
MyI am left very concerned that our teaching force is being undermined and demoralised and that the constant criticism of teachers from successive Ministers – Tory and Labour – has undermined the respect with which teachers are treated by parents, pupils and the wider society. intention in spending a week as a teacher in a BBC series which encourages MPs to swap places, was both to have a go at teaching since I always meant to be a teacher and also to get people to think rather more respectfully about the valuable and difficult job teachers do. Probably unwisely, I opened myself to some unpleasant criticism from columnists whose concerns lie far from schools and teaching, but I also learned a lot about the state of schools and teacher morale both during the week and since.
I am left very concerned that our teaching force is being undermined and demoralised and that the constant criticism of teachers from successive Ministers – Tory and Labour – has undermined the respect with which teachers are treated by parents, pupils and the wider society.
Chris Woodhead, the former Chief Inspector of Schools under the Tory then Labour governments, told us repeatedly that there were large numbers of inadequate teachers. He also helped put in place a national curriculum that ensured teachers operate in the straightjacket of an academically biased curriculum, that squeezes out the flexibility needed to reach out to children with other talents. Ofsted tells teachers exactly how they should teach.
The curriculum is dominated by an intolerable burden of tests, which determine where the school comes in the league tables. And this of course means that schools catering for less privileged neighbourhoods do less well and thus face more Ofsteds and bureaucracy which in turn undermine teacher morale.
On a visit to Japan some time ago, I met a British man who was married to a Japanese woman whose children had spent time in both educational systems. He was struck by the way in which the systems were changing places. Japan had become increasingly concerned that is rigid, competitive, exam driven system had been producing inflexible and uncreative young people who were not able to help Japan adapt to a changing world. The Japanese had therefore studied alternative models across the world and taken a lot of interest in the British system. But just at the same time, Britain was moving to an obsession with testing, league tables and a rigid national curriculum, which looked more and more like the system that was thought to have failed Japan.
I have become increasingly concerned that many of the dedicated teachers that I know are giving up teaching and retiring early. I read recently of a DFES study that showed that half of all British teachers considered leaving the profession last year! I fear that the control freakery, targets and bureaucracy that are the current model of public sector reform, risks leaving the country denuded of teachers which will have a damaging impact on generations to come.
One of my sisters now lives in Cape Town and tells me that many South African teachers who had previously worked in the townships. took up the opportunity to teach in Britain when we were recruiting abroad because of our teacher shortages. When they returned to South Africa, there was as flurry of articles and discussions about how difficult it was to teach in Britain because pupils had so little respect for their teachers. I am told that it is widely recognised that British schools are much more disorderly than those elsewhere in Europe.
I’m a Teacher, Get Me Out of Here is funny and poignant, but is also a cry of pain. I think it should be compulsory reading for successive Secretaries of State and all senior staff at the DfES. I am afraid that we are storing up serious trouble in our schools.