There have been a number of press articles of late describing how much stress teachers are under due to pupil indiscipline and challenging behaviour with a general consensus that the situation has been getting steadily worse over the past five years. A recent report by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) based on a survey of almost 900 members revealed that, most disturbingly, 57 per cent of those responding had experienced "physical aggression" and 41 per cent "bullying in person".
Some 80 per cent of the teaching staff taking part in the survey put this down to a home environment lacking any parental guidance on acceptable conduct. General Secretary of the ATL Mary Bousted, claimed that "...(teachers) are frequently on the receiving end of children's frustration and unhappiness" caused by family breakdowns and she went on to imply that the "huge funding cuts" to local authorities services was and is passing the burden of social responsibility on to the schools.
Dr Bousted was speaking from the ATL's annual conference in Liverpool and just to make certain that the Government got the full message of the Association's displeasure, the BBC reported on 25 March, that a motion of no confidence had been passed "overwhelmingly" by the delegates against both the Education Secretary Michael Gove, and the Chief Inspector of Education, Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted. Both these gentlemen have been guilty of "not treating teachers or parents with respect".
A cynic might say that Mr Gove's real sin has been to make changes to the pay and pensions of teachers during the past year and, possibly worse in the ATL's eyes, changes to the national curriculum and exams - with some degree of success and some failures from the Government's perspective, however Dr Bousted claimed that:
"Michael Gove and Sir Michael Wilshaw are like blood brothers with a pact to suck the life and hope out of our education system and the teachers who work within it."
All this angst between the Department for Education/Ofsted on one side and the teachers' unions on the other is nothing new and many will recall the rancour expressed against a former Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead (1994-2000), particularly associated with support for "traditional teaching methods" and not impressed with the "progressive educational theories" favoured by the teaching unions. When Labour came to power in 1997 the unions demanded his head but he retained the full support of the then Prime Minister Tony Blair and Education Secretary David Blunkett.
Even after retiring from his post, Sir Christopher was not one to shy away from controversy, claiming that the Government's intention of raising the school leaving age to 18 was "a recipe for disaster". Instead he proposed the reduction of the school leaving age to 14 with "a combination of apprenticeship and further education training and a practical, hands-on, craft-based training that takes them on through into a job".
Sir Michael Wilshaw's sins are too long to detail but it appears that the main concern is his changing of the rating categories for school inspections and by so doing, creating a "climate of fear". The main change is the scrapping of the "satisfactory" rating as Sir Michael takes the position that all schools that pass inspection should be rated either "good" or "outstanding" in teaching. A poor rating from the Schools Inspectorate and this could lead to a school being forced to become an academy - another pet hate of the unions because head teachers of academies already have the power to vary teachers' pay and conditions.
Between 29 March and 02 April, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) held their conference in Liverpool and they called for the resignation of the two Michaels plus the abolition of Ofsted. Both the NUT and the other big teaching union, NASUWT meeting in Bournemouth, have called for a programme of rolling strike action from 27 June. Lots more stress then but likely more on the pupils.
Looking through the Final Agenda of the NUT's 2013 Conference programme in Liverpool, I could find a number of motions that concerned "stress" but all to do with attacking Government/Ofsted policy and none concerning stress caused by pupil bullying, threats or misconduct. Given the amount of publicity these conferences get from a range of local and national media sources, would this not have been an ideal platform from which to make the general public aware of such a state of affairs, not to mention the relevant government departments which have the authority to make the changes that would empower heads and teaching staff to take appropriate action.
I was once a teacher and part of my current work still involves the care of children. Coming late to university and so to a PGCE , I was probably luckier than most trainee teachers as by the time I started teaching in secondary school, I had over 30 years of diversified work experience - and kids of my own. On entering my first class, I was showered with pens, pencils, rubbers and jotters. I was able to lock the classroom door on the blind side of the pupils and proceeded to step over the debris, introduced myself to the class and got on with the lesson, inviting them to retrieve their belongings at the appropriate time. As there were still bits and bobs on the floor when the period bell went, I informed them that no-one would leave before the classroom was in proper order. Mr Jones would be most annoyed that they were late, I was informed after a couple of minutes. "Does this look like the face of concern?" I asked, pointing to my face. The class was perfect within two minutes and I never had any trouble again.
There was, of course, a learning experience for me too. Dealing with a boy whose mum was a prostitute, another with a parent who was a drug addict, a third whose dad was in prison - and it wasn't a particularly rough part of town. A 14-year old girl was late for school at least twice a week because she looked after the other children in the family and made sure they got to (primary) school before she did.
Teachers, by the very nature of their work, have a job that includes an often unappreciated, much greater social role. It is not the easy job that many perceive and often the weekend can be taken up with checking and correcting homework and the like. The problem with the union conferences is that this is not the message that the public are getting and striking or work-to-rules in the current climate, which we all have to endure, are unlikely to improve the perception of a body who are not badly paid and whose pension rights are far better than most can now hope for. If there is very real unease on issues such as the worsening behaviour of pupils and the school environment generally then, next conference, please table at least one motion which raises these concerns. People and government could be surprisingly responsive.