Liberal reforms pave way to teaching hell

TEACHERS' absenteeism rates are soaring and education authorities and union representatives maintain it is caused by stress. Teaching has always been a potentially stressful job but, even before I retired some years ago, I could see the pressures on teachers mounting by the minute.

A teacher's job was no longer the straightforward role of standing before a class with chalk and textbook in hand, imparting knowledge to a more-or-less quiet and, sometimes, interested and motivated class. Teachers could no longer count on the support and agreement of their principal teachers, assistant headmasters, headmasters and education authorities. Nor could they expect the backing of parents and the respect of pupils.

Meanwhile, the solid sanctions they once possessed - punishment exercises, the belt, detention, referral to the headmaster, exclusion or even expulsion - had all either been removed or made so complicated they had become more a punishment for the teacher than the pupil.

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Teachers were no longer sure of their ground. Academically, in years gone by, they had been told what standards their classes had to reach to pass the various examinations and what amount of knowledge they had to impart. If their classes achieved the expected pass rate, then all was well and they felt secure in their skills as teachers.

As for discipline, teachers were expected to maintain order in their classrooms and in the corridors and recreation areas of the school. If they did this satisfactorily and used the permitted punishments to do so, they earned the approval of their employers and there were rarely any problems with pupils, parents or education authorities.

Now school life has become much more complicated, difficult and worrying for teachers, almost to nightmarish proportions for many.

The classroom conditions are no longer quiet. A "busy hum" is applauded, but it does not take much for a busy hum to become a deafening racket. Team teaching in open-plan classrooms with three teachers trying to make themselves heard above each other and talking or shouting pupils is stressful even in ideal conditions.

The comprehensive ideal pushed to the extreme has meant pupils within almost the full range of intelligence and talent are all sitting together in the same classroom, being taught by one teacher at varying speeds in several groups.

Textbooks have often been replaced by worksheets produced by the teachers themselves in their "spare" time and the emphasis on continuous assessment has involved teachers in almost constant testing. As a language teacher involved in oral testing, I found it almost impossible to carry out all the tests demanded, to find time to fit in the presentation of new material and do the other 101 tasks required of a teacher.

Meanwhile, pupils and parents are no longer the docile, respectful clients they once were. When teachers could administer a brisk belting to bring a pupil into line, pupils were more biddable anyway, and parents more-or-less accepted that their children must have done something to deserve the punishment. Now that the belt has gone and teachers are struggling with reams of red tape and regulations on rewards and punishments, pupils are often disrespectful, bolshy, lazy, noisy and disruptive, while some, at least, get the full backing of their parents if teachers try to punish their offspring. Meanwhile, the teacher is made to feel guilty, somehow, just for punishing at all. On top of all this, there are mountains of regulations concerning health and safety, discrimination, sex education, school outings - the list is endless.

When I first set foot in a classroom as a probationer teacher in the 1960s, I had full backing by my fellow teachers, my head of department and the headmaster. The pupils were generally keen to learn and, once they saw I would stand no nonsense - wanted to be fair, but firm - their attitude was mostly friendly and co-operative.

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I should not like to begin my teaching career now. I feel sorry for young probationers faced with a situation where nobody knows exactly where they stand and where young teachers, trying to create a quiet and calm learning situation in the classroom, can find themselves out on a limb - in the position of the defendant, with an offending pupil and his parents the plaintiffs. The headmaster and education authority tend to remain neutral or on the pupil's side.

It is no wonder teachers are forced out of school temporarily or out of the profession altogether through stress.

Having said all that, I am firmly convinced that teachers have only themselves to blame for the present chaotic situation. In the 1960s and 70s, teachers' conferences and organisations voted regularly for the abolition of corporal punishment without first ensuring that there was an adequate replacement.

Teachers also applauded the introduction of comprehensive education, open-plan classrooms, group teaching, the end of the 11-plus (then known as "the qually") and of setting and streaming.

Now the chickens have come home to roost. Unfortunately, the educationists who dreamed up this hell and the teachers who lent them their support are now mostly retired, leaving today's generation of young hopefuls to pick up the pieces. God help them all!

George K McMillan is a former assistant rector at Perth Academy.