Today brought another meeting where we chewed it over, a professionals’ gathering where the image of the Front Door is often conjured, so I thought I’d press this rather exhausted metaphor into service.
Schools, like other services, are sometimes called the Front Door because that’s the place you go, the one-stop-shop, if you’re lucky, to get the support and the entitlement the state has decreed, devised and funded. The GP surgery is the front door of the NHS, the desk sergeant is literally at the front door of policing and the school is the front door to education. Our Tallis front door is rather nice, approached under a canopy with brightly decorated pillars and sometime festooned with flags for whatever we’re celebrating. We hope this is a welcoming place, where our warm friends behind the desk will try to meet your every need.
The school is the front door to the belief in and investment of the state in the future of our young. It is the place where accepted and verified knowledge is taught and the community where acceptable social norms are transmitted. With luck, it’s also a place where a good experience of growing-up may be gathered and from where a happy adult life may be approached. That’s quite a lot for one building, let alone one door, to represent.
It is reasonable, therefore, for the tax-payer to expect that, once the door is broached, the service behind it will be top-notch. In the case of a school, that should be everything that the good parent would want for the child, in loco parentis. It’s a contract made between education, the state and the population. We will take your money and your dreams and use them wisely and well. We will look after your children as well as you could possibly want, and do our very best for them. This compact is the foundation stone of our system. We fail in our duty if, once the shiny front door is opened, the education and the experience behind it is patched together, fragile and unsustainably lurching from crisis to crisis. It's no way to run a health service and its no way to run a school.
So teachers are striking because they have run out of other options to bring the parlous state of our service to the nation’s young to government’s attention. They are not just striking about pay, though that is a huge part of the problem. Poor pay for a highly trained and skilled graduate profession working in high-pressure settings means that fewer and fewer people want to do the job. Even a recession, historically the teacher workforce’s friend, hasn’t worked this time. The workload and remuneration are so out of kilter with other career options that no one wants to be a teacher. Under 60% of secondary recruitment targets have been met this year in most subjects, again, in a ninth out of ten years of missed targets. Only the first lockdown brought an upsurge in interest in teaching as a career, and that quickly failed.
And last year’s pay rise, announced in the last week of term without funding to pay it? It nearly broke us all.
Workload and burnout are significant pressures of the job. Each is inextricably linked to funding, and this is the root of the strike action. Because there aren’t enough teachers, the teachers we do have have to shoulder more of the burden. If, for example, and this is not the case at Tallis, a school can’t get maths teachers and so must rely on graduates in other disciplines to teach maths, that’s a triangle of problems (maths teachers love triangles). The French or PE or whatever teacher will find the teaching stressful, the Head of Maths will find the constant setting-of-work for a potentially floundering colleague exhausting and the children will inhabit the teacher’s anxiety, every single lesson. Behaviour will be scratchy, outcomes poor and enjoyment absent. The teachers’ strikes aren’t just about pay, they’re about recruitment and retention, SEND promises made that can’t be kept, unpalatable choices made to keep or scrap curriculum areas or behaviour support, no educational psychologists or speech therapists and six-month waiting lists for mental health services for desperate teenagers.
They’re also about better funding and a way out of crisis management and the constant attrition of the things the reasonable citizen believes we have promised and expects us to do well. It’s a crisis a dozen years in the making.
But last night was Year 7 parents’ evening, the contract in motion. I perched as ever near the front door (in many jumpers and then my coat), ready to chat helpfully and absorb complaints. I heard about a child who’s lost four jumpers so far (we’ll provide a stock of pre-loved garb) and another who’s only lost his Spanish book (we have spares). But most of all, I heard compliments and thanks from parents who trusted us with their beloved, who decided that we meant what we said about a broad curriculum and an inclusive vibe and are grateful and happy for what we’re doing. They were glad they’d found our door.
Given the prevailing gloom of the foregoing, it was a lovely experience. I just hope that we can find the funding to keep it all going, and to keep our promises. Our door is always open.