For Love Nor Money
I'm sure you've been here yourself - dashing into a department store to purchase a gift on Christmas Eve with teeth gritted and the uncomfortable feeling of slightly sweaty armpits from shouldering your way through the other impatient and uncomfortable shoppers.
I'm sure you can imagine these impatient shoppers serenaded by the annoyingly cheerful jingles playing out over the loudspeakers of stores and conducting this merry band: a stressful parade of last-minuters.
But before that, before I have entered the store, I bump into an ex-colleague by the bike racks out the front. Hannah and I worked together for a couple of years during one of the 'hey days' of teaching (only six years ago) at a popular and well regarded good school in the local area. Since then, like many schools in the city, it has fallen down after a quick succession of headteachers and changes to middle management. It is always good to see an ex-colleague. It is always good to catch up on 'school news', scandals and successes and get the local teacher gossip. But time and time again, unfortunately, it's a similar sad story we’re hearing.
Immediately she tells me she left (said school) and had decided to go it alone – private tutoring. She LOVES teaching (most teachers do, why else would they do it?) but didn't love the administrative, bureaucratic, political game playing that dominates education these days. She was fed up of being judged on her one 'difficult' class when the rest of her 125 students were succeeding, some of whom finding a love for her subject. Oh - the dream. She didn't love the attitude, so often adopted by the 'executive' leadership teams using their business models to win over 'the customer' - ‘students are always right' they preach.
But hang on, let's be honest: kids aren’t always right, are they?
Alas, with only 2 hours of PPA (planning, preparation and assessment) time a week for all her classes, she felt that she was working more hours than she was living: she hadn't seen her husband, since he swapped to night shifts, or children - one of whom is studying medicine at University and already in £42,000 debt with 3 years left... she had decided, as you may also have anticipated I did too, enough was enough. She realised it was high risk but reassured me that, if it didn't work out, she and her husband would have a radical lifestyle change in due course; as she rightly pointed out, there is more to life.
This is one story of many teachers who refuse to be exploited anymore.
Some people may already know that being a teacher is a way of life; teaching has to be a lifestyle choice, rather than a career choice. "Yeah, but what about all the holidays?" my friends cry. Is it not 'working 9-5, trying hard to make a living?' as Dolly Parton once sung. No.
It's a job with no commission, no overtime, no flexible holiday. Duvet day? Desk day? Teachers have no experience of these.
As a way of life, the 21st Century teacher works on average from 8am-6pm Monday to Friday, often getting in early (some caretakers have refused to open any earlier than 7am recently to curb this anti-social behavior) leaving late – not including travel to and from work and the 'trapped time' when school finishes and parent's evenings or tutor evenings begin. Some nights you might not leave until 8pm.
Teachers work at home both evenings and weekends (whether they have children or not – either families are very understanding or relationships break down). They are expected to work in their 'spare time' (by spare time I mean before school, break time, lunch time and after school) to (to name a few duties): contact parents, tutors, teachers, enter data, copy data from one form to another or other administrative tasks, like responding to huge numbers of emails; not forgetting, meeting with students, intervention, detention, revision... If you’ve got a TLR you’ll be expected to attend meetings with the Head of Year or Head of Department or Head Teacher. You’ll find teachers trying to fit in a catch up with a colleague or the all-important CPD sessions - which most of us genuinely really enjoy and wish we had more time for, catch up on marking - which we couldn't face doing the night before when the clock struck midnight. Not counting: unlimited planning and resourcing for lessons for every class and to meet every child's needs.
It sounds like a typical teacher winge, but these are the bare facts and the demands of the job. And we do these things because we want to do a good job. When, in amongst all this, are we allowed to take a lunch break?
So the term 'spare time' needs to be applied loosely and flexibly. Unlike the demands of the job which are rigid and rigorous. And yet management argue: 'this is part of your contractual hours'.
When the Conservative led Government first refused to honour the public sector 1% pay rise, before the NUT, Unison and other unions went on strike, my colleagues and I worked out that a teacher, on the average main pay scale wage, would earn about £4/hour. Think about it...
No wonder Hannah mentioned she'd earn more cleaning the school than teaching in it...
But why is this important? Aren't I just another teacher moaning about their workload and poor work-life balance? No. Every public-sector worker feels like this. What's more important to every strung-out, stressed out teacher is: how will this negative, un-relenting, unsupportive, unsustainable working environment impact on the health, welfare and wellbeing of the students? And my their own health?
Schools are under pressure from our punitive Government; a Government who have reduced funding and removed the support of the Local Authority in favor of ploughing money into Academisation – which has yet to be a proven way to raise the attainment and subsequent success of schools. In 2018, we are now hearing reports of OFSTED being unable to fulfill their quota as they’ve had, in real terms, their budget cut by more than half. And staff and student wellbeing has taken a nose dive. Anxiety and stress amongst children in the UK on the rise: according to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 25% of 13- to 18-year-olds have an anxiety disorder, and just under 6% have a severe anxiety disorder. Having worked in a school for 11 years I would say these numbers are in reality much higher.
Ever growing pressure caused by this is 'business model' means that staff are stretched beyond their means and are increasingly exploited. What is more pressing is that, without the intervention of the Local Authority, the new School Managers and Executive Heads – a new breed of powerfully dogmatic and dictator style leadership - are doing away with Education Welfare Officer visits, reducing the number of Teaching Assistants in schools and are more interested in shiny new window stickers in the strive for outstanding results. But we’re not hearing about this enough in the news headlines, are we?
So, what are the LA doing nowadays, if they aren't needed in schools? Local Authorities are arranging local public meetings to discuss new legislations - set out by the Government. A current objective? 'Tackling' anti-social behavior and public spaces protection. What this really means is that the poor – those living below the poverty line – the same ones who are falling victim in schools due to disintegrating support systems – are demonized and alienated even further from the 'every day' person as they are branded 'anti-social' and as begging 'aggressively'.
I was utterly shocked to hear that in Exeter, the sleepy yet thriving capital city of the South West, has the highest number of homeless women. As you walk the streets, it is undeniable that the numbers of homeless are ever increasing. I was terribly saddened, then, when I discovered that a student I used to teach had been homeless. He had taken an accidental overdose and killed himself. He was vulnerable. He was not 'naturally' academic. He was lost and alone once he left the old school system which used SEN funding to cater for his needs. Funding that is so rarely available now. But even so, I repeatedly asked myself and my colleagues if we could have done more. The terrible truth is: we feel like we can barely do enough as it is, and what we do manage to achieve isn't quite good enough, under existing legislation.
I can't help but feel that this Government's drive for Academies is pushing in the wrong direction: a quick cover up rather than a life-long cure. And this reflects a broader, national drive to 'hide' social problems instead of finding solutions.
Today, as well as being faced with the archaic, but very real, dangers of children being neglected, malnourished, victims of domestic violence and - yet again - victims of the political game being played out by the Gods in the House of Parliament, there is a new pack of predators: society now suffers the cancerous effects of child sexual exploitation, cyberbullying and online child exploitation, mass unemployment of parents and carers, low paid and zero hour contracts: modern day slavery, as well as no options for our school leaver. Altogether, this is contributing to thousands upon thousands of hard-up homes. This coincidentally but not surprisingly sees a rise in mental health issues affecting 1 in 4 people (www.mind.org.uk) and yet CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) is failing to operate due to falls in funding. As I type this, the demand increases five times faster than the work-force. Is this the future we want for our young people?
Disdain for the Government's (and subsequently local councils) negligence to care for the poor and (chronically under-funded yet over-subscribed) children's health services has never been stronger: "Child poverty imposes costs on broader society – estimated to be at least £29 billion a year. Governments forgo prospective revenues as well as commit themselves to providing services in the future if they fail to address child poverty in the here and now" (cpag).
If we agree with the Government – if we think we can just pop a pill for every failing school - we have ourselves a very sick state of society.
Are we returning to the not-too-distant rumbling criticisms by the Archbishop of Canterbury? In 2015 he warned of the "seductive" language used by Government, which labelled society as the "deserving" and "undeserving"? This reminds me of Orwell's 'Animal Farm': the Governing pigs' lead mantra was: "all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others". This was the ultimate example of the systematic abuse of logic and language to "control their underlings".
Investing in child development is the key to saving these poor souls from absolute poverty and reducing the demand on public services.
A current trend or borderline obsession of Brexit for breakfast is distracting us from the current realities and sufferings of life on the hopeless streets of our towns and cities; it's distracting us from the ever-widening class divide and pay-gaps between the bottom and the top. With the success of article 59 we can only look forward to further criticism from the UN regarding the spiked rise in child poverty and a relentless attack on benefits in the UK. Taking the food from the babe's mouth. Literally. And we haven't even talked about the intricacies and idiocies of Brexit. But I've got marking to do so we'll have to save that for another time.
Back at the bike rack: after a brief but intense catch up with Hannah, before she pedals off into the traffic, I push my way to the 'Mens' department to choose another gift to satisfy demands at this commercial time of year. I can't help my reflecting, as the glaring price tags catch my eye and I mentally run through how much money is in my bank and in my purse and whether I can afford a 'Big Issue' off the young vendor outside, who is standing in the blisteringly cold wind and who, more likely than not, will not have a home to go to this Christmas: 'what does it all mean?'
The future of teaching is hanging in the balance – staff are exploited: over-worked, efforts under-recognised and punitively penalised, undermined by management and, on the whole, face unfair and derogatory treatment. A radical change in attitude is long overdue.
The teaching profession is made up of hard working, committed individuals who strive for every child in their care to succeed. However, the Government changes to curriculum and reductions to, or misguided allocation of, funding make it harder than ever before for students, particularly those from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds, to do their best as 'their best' is deemed not good enough.
So, once you've dashed into the department store and grabbed those final presents, how about doing something for free but that could make a big change this Christmas?
Who is your local MP? Maybe it’s time to send them a letter or an email, send them a tweet or follow their fb page. When was the last time you told them, as well as your Facebook feed, how you feel and what you want from your society? We are supposed to be living in a democracy. That means - WE, as a nation, voted these people into power. And, whether we voted for this part or not, WE have a right to tell them what we want done. What society WE want to live in. Why WE want it done. And when WE want it done.
Once they know – because if you don't tell them, they won't know, and they'll carry on doing whatever they feel like doing – WE will start to see the changes WE want to see.
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