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March 11, 2003
Things Are Getting Worse

So, what else did my Kent schoolteacher friend have to say?

Well, he did say that getting good people to become teachers in state schools is becoming harder. He did not, however, go quite this far:

Recruiting teachers can be costly, time-consuming and ultimately unsuccessful, according to a new report from the recruitment industry.

Select Education's annual True Time and Cost of Teacher Recruitment Survey revealed that recruiting a teacher costs a school an estimated £4,000. It showed that 60% of schools surveyed had unfilled permanent vacancies and the standard of applicants had dropped.

During 2002, 30% of schools surveyed recruited four or more new members of staff, with 9% (mostly in secondary schools) appointing 11 or more new teachers.

Many headteachers said they were struggling to fill the posts they were advertising, and 40% said they had fewer applications for each post advertised in 2002, compared with 2001. About 5% reported having received no applications for an advertised post.

More than a quarter - 28% - said the applications received were worse than the year before. Headteachers complained of spelling mistakes, poor presentation, "odd pen ink/colours used", and letters that were "pompous", "rambling" or "vague".

When it came to an interview, applicants were still not up to scratch. Interviewees, according to headteachers, showed a lack of enthusiasm, interest and character; their appearance was not appropriate and their were "personal hygiene" issues that needed to be addressed.

Heads also objected to interviewees chewing gum, wearing nose rings, bad-mouthing their present school, failing to show they liked children, not giving eye contact, having no knowledge of the school they were applying to and being unable to articulate answers.

What my friend said was that it wasn't just that only bad teachers apply. The problem is that good experienced teachers leave, and potentially good teachers, when they first start out, often find that they just can't take it and immediately run away to do other things.

The most memorable vignette my friend reported concerned an experienced teacher from Australia. This man had served for twelve satisfactory years over there, but after three days at my friend's school he'd had enough. "You won't be seeing me again." Running a school must be hard if an experienced Australian teacher can't even make a go of it.

He talked about the problem of how some head teachers aren't visible enough, spending too much time crouched over their desks ploughing through the tons of paperwork they now have to plough through, and too little time out there backing up their teachers and generally keeping in touch. I compared this to the complaints soldiers used to make during and after the First World War about commanding officers whom they never saw from one month to the next. Once again the appropriateness of the "trenches" metaphor was confirmed, because it was my friend who then said that indeed, fighting in the trenches is what teaching at a state school often feels like.

"Inclusiveness" he said, doesn't help, which confirms a regular theme here. A terrible proportion of teacher time and energy is spent persuading recalcitrant pupils just to refrain from busting up the lessons for everyone else. Add the new emphasis on not doing anything that could be said remotely to resemble assaulting the pupils (a policy which, taken in isolation, makes nothing but sense to me), and you have a recipe for chaos.

Given the kind of person I am and the kind of vibes I give off about the potential wonderfulness of education, my friend several times went out of his conversational way to emphasise how impossible it is to think of his job as "educating" in the sense he feared that I took it to be. There's no time for profound discussions about the Meaning of Life or the subtleties of History and Geography and Maths, etc. Almost all of his time is spent staying in some kind of control. He teaches science. Chemistry, actually. And his biggest problem is stopping the rowdier boys from destroying all the equipment.

In short, my friend confirmed just about every Daily Mail type right wing cliché about the horrors of state education that you care to think of.

The posh parts of the education system seem to be ticking over okay, and in some places I dare say, are getting even posher. But for the great mass of the kids of the ex-manual-labouring classes, things are getting slowly but steadily worse.

I made a point of asking my friend exactly this question. Do you, I asked, ever attend big gatherings of teachers? Not often, he said. I've done it a few times. Okay, said I, but is it you understanding that the conversation at such events among those who do regularly attend such things is upbeat, or pessimistic? Is the general opinion that things in general are getting better, or that they are, in general, getting worse?

Oh, getting worse, he said. This was said calmly and matter-of-factly. This is partly because my friend is a calm and matter-of-fact person. But I also got the impression that the fact that Things Are Getting Worse is so obvious to all concerned that it doesn't merit a raising of the voice to note the fact. Everyone already knows this, so there's no need to make a big fuss of it. Things are getting worse. Yes. Of course they are. Didn't you know?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:48 PM
Category: The reality of teaching
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