The voice of the teacher
From a school staff room, all the Black Paper ritual seems a distant echo in an ebony tower. Above the hum of controversy — heads crying to the heavens that their schools are all right, really they are, the Polysyllabic drone of dons defending their intellectual territory — there rises jut occasionally, but unmistakeably, the note of a real teacher, pellucid, plain, and terribly unhappy.
It is curious that teachers, who talk for a living, seldom repeat outside the staff room what they say very frequently inside it. I believe all but a few licensed bores are restrained by their modesty, their loyalty to the institution they serve, and above all by their utter weariness.
One should therefore keep one's ears open for the occasional cry of the real teacher. One such is Mr G. T. Childs, of Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, who wrote in the correspondence columns of the Sunday Telegraph, where I fear his sentiments would mainly reach the converted.
Mr Childs said what we know but keep forgetting, that schools are too big. He said that a school of 1,000 has to have a staff of 80, that so big a staff cannot support each other or derive enough strength from their head teacher, that on that scale you cannot prevent bad teachers making the Situation worse and worse.
He said that whereas once teachers aimed to educate all their pupils all the time, now they are only able to aim at educating some of their pupils some of the time.
There is the picture of how it really is. It takes the calm, sad voice of Mr Childs to move me to put on my prophetic mantle, and like proto-Isaiah, to heed the voice that says "Cry!"
What shall I cry? Not that all teachers are grass, but that all are human beings, and come in all shapes and sizes: that there are a few good ones, quite a lot of decent, acceptable ones, and a proportion who are in one way or another horrifyingly inadequate. In order to impress the sociologists, and not to overstate my case, I shall put this prop(wi ion boldly hut modestly at ten per cont. oi inv.sent. In the past, this simple fact has not been particularly significant. Out of a staff of twenty or thirty teachers, two or three passengers have been easily identified, gladly carried by the rest, and it may be in time encouraged to move elsewhere. But an amorphous crowd of eighty teachers are not able to carry eight wayward colleagues in this manner, may indeed only be conscious of their inadequacy in a general way. These eight are free to curry favour with the malcontent children; free to be disloyal; free to bore the school leavers, who only need some excuse for saying school is boring; free to suggest that their own laziness is in fact a new and enlightened teaching method.
Let us consider the young man who goes into each of his less interesting periods, says to the children, "Get on with your work", although he knows they have none and would not do it if they had, and leads his private life against a background of chatter for the next forty minutes.
In a small school this behaviour would be obviously eccentric; it would soon attract attention, and senior colleagues would spring into action: but in a large school there are already differences about styles of teaching even among the more competent teachers. This young man might just be offering a new aay of doing things. By the time he is rumbled, a lot will have gone wrong. His pupils will be half aggrieved at the school for employing him and half aggrieved at the other teachers for expecting them to do some work.
Now perfectly competent teachers begin to find their efforts to discipline and teach their classes increasingly difficult. A proportion of these lower their standards in the belief that they have been demanding too much. Others fight to retain their standards, and some are successful; others lose battles in tired moments, and begin to think "This is a bad school" or even "I am not really cut out for teaching."
So the normal leakage from the profession accelerates. There is a hunt for jobs on the fringe of the profession, or outside it altogether. Advertisers of such jobs find themselves swamped with applications.
I am well aware that all this unhappiness is mainly in the comprehensive secondary schools, and that elsewhere the scene looks brighter. I am aware also that there are other things to be said for and against comprehensives; but education depends on people who teach, and if they are not happy in the size of secondary school that now predominates I am compelled to twitch my prophetic mantle and pronounce doom: doom, that is, on the generality of schools with pupil numbers in four figures. Like many good things in education, I see this doom coming from the common sense of parents. You can fool all the parents some of the time, and some of the parents all the time; but what mainly stops parents today from marching with axes on their local comprehensives is the presence in them of a number of devoted teachers, who, having learnt their craft well in one system, are doing their utmost to shore up another. By retirement, by disillusion, by weariness, this devoted band will dwindle, and the concern of the parents will manifest itself.
But before doomsday arrives, and the axes are out, the number of classrooms teachers in secondary schools is likely to need reinforcement at an even faster rate. The decision drastically to reduce the number of teachers being trained is no doubt based on Sound arithmetic, and no doubt mainly affects primary and middle schools; but did the Department have a prophet at their elbow when they did their sums? And can they plug the leakage to come?
It may be that in five years' time there will be such a need for trained staff in the comprehensives -as to suggest that the Department over-reacted in 1975. We shall, of course, see. By then our vision will have cleared from the intoxicating effect of all that Houghton back pay.