Maybe teachers’ morale is not low enough

A gloomy survey of teachers missed the most depressing thing of all: the loss of any sense of what education is for.

Dennis Hayes

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My grandmother always wanted me to be a either a chiropodist or a teacher. Her reasons for this dual career guidance were simple. In the first case, it was in her self-interest, as she had bad feet. In the second, it was in my self-interest, as she said, ‘if you’re a teacher you’ll always be in work’.

Her Lancashire working-class pragmatism is reflected in the motivation behind the current popularity of teaching as a career today because, even in times of ‘austerity’, there will always be work as a teacher. Teaching is held to be a high-status profession by 80 per cent of third-year university students thinking about careers and, despite a recent fall off in applications, it is hard to get a place to train as a teacher. So why be so miserable about working in such a safe and relatively well-paid job?

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) YouGov survey of 804 teachers, that came out to welcome the profession back to school after the Christmas vacation, claims that, since the coalition government came to power, morale in the profession has fallen dramatically, with 55 per cent of respondents saying their morale was low or very low – an increase of 13 percentage points – while 69 per cent said their morale had declined since the 2010 General Election. The survey also found that 71 per cent of respondents felt rarely or never trusted by government compared with 54 per cent in April 2010 and 77 per cent thought the government’s impact on education had been negative, with only five per cent thinking it was positive.

The reasons given by the respondents are the usual suspects, including the promotion of academies and free schools, linking pay to appraisal, pension and public-sector cuts and the introduction of the English baccalaureate (EBacc) with little consultation. In answer to the silly question what the secretary of state for education Michael Gove’s New Year’s resolution should be, the most popular answer was for him to ‘resign’.

Commenting on the survey, Christine Blower, the general secretary of the NUT, rightly took up the broader issue of education policy and argued that it should provide ‘an education that was exciting and fulfilling’. But her statement is neither necessary nor sufficient as a condition of a decent education. Lots of activities in schools might be subjectively exciting and fulfilling but not be educational at all and much in education demands discipline and hard work, something that even young pupils need to understand.

The trouble with a consultation rather than a dialogue with teachers is that it can do nothing but reflect the educational status quo. The status quo in educational thought is essentially an emphasis on methods and processes over the content of education. Opposition to any particular way of organising of schools or the examination system, and the promotion of therapeutic concerns with children’s social and emotional well-being, have replaced what was once a general consensus from the left to the right about a liberal or subject-based education for all children. In other words, teachers have mostly forgotten what education is.

If teachers understood this, there would be even lower morale about education. They could, of course, properly blame Michael Gove in this case for their low morale because he has consistently defended a subject-based education. It is this aspect of the government’s education policy that has not been debated by teachers or their unions as they usually rely on the equally silly notion that subject-based education is ‘elitist’ or merely for well-to-do, public-school children. This attitude effectively denies the possibility of education for the vast majority of children.

Trade unions may hide behind the belief that teachers can’t be criticised, but they are ultimately avoiding the greatest challenge to the profession that comes from the Lib-Con coalition government: that over the past few decades, and particularly under New Labour, education has been emptied of content. Unless teachers and teacher unions are prepared to open up a debate about what education is, their morale will get worse because they will not be able to answer the challenge that they don’t know what they are doing.

The childish plea to sack Gove and let us get on with whatever we are doing does the profession no good. Teachers as educationalists have to engage in debate or they let themselves, their profession and their pupils down. A New Year’s resolution for the teaching profession should be to do away with the ‘debate deficit’ and discuss what ‘education’ means today.

Dennis Hayes is professor of education at the University of Derby and the co-author of The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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