‘We all had a teacher who inspired us to learn and to become better people. But today teaching is too often only an opportunity for determined individuals to push their agenda’
Teaching should be a noble profession—and when I was growing up, it was. We all had a teacher who inspired us to learn and to become better people. But today teaching is too often only an opportunity for determined individuals to push their agenda, and mould our children as they see fit.
For the past three years I have been a supply teacher, covering for an absent teacher’s lessons (the cover has varied from one day to two weeks). Because many of us are supplied privately, it’s difficult to gauge the number of supply teachers, but I was often one of a dozen supply teachers on any given day. The cost to schools is significant, given that they must pay the salary of the absent teacher as well as ours. The National Education Union’s (NEU) annual supply teacher survey shows that 40 per cent of us are being paid between £100-£124 per day, and agencies can charge anything up to £100 on top of that.
The cover system is poorly organised. Teachers often phone in sick on the day, and the school is forced to find a replacement at short notice through an agency. The agency will then contact the supply teacher, ringing at 7am to start covering an hour later. A few times I showed up at a school that had cancelled at the last moment. Needless to say, I was not paid for the lost day. The NEU survey also found that while more than 60 per cent of supply teachers had more than 10 years’ experience in regular teaching, a quarter of respondents had less than five years.
Covering for their absences has given me a glimpse of what, and how, my colleagues are teaching. Last year, for instance, I was called into a comprehensive school to cover an English lesson. The theme was “Shakespearian insults”. The teacher’s lesson plan set out to give an edgy, anti-establishment and blatantly political slant to the lesson: she did not ask the pupils to watch or read parts of Shakespeare’s plays. Instead, in her cover note, she suggested that I should encourage the pupils to repeat after me, “Donald Trump, thou art a bawdy bat-fouling baggage”. I was then to ask them to identify five well-known politicians they didn’t like and to find the appropriate insults from Shakespeare’s long repertoire of these.
At another comprehensive school, in a very mixed socio-economic catchment area, I was covering for a teacher who was pushing a different agenda. When I walked into the classroom, I found the pupils doodling on poster paper. It took me only a short time to realise why: they had been asked to make LGBT posters, to be displayed in the school, rather than follow the set English curriculum. Only five students carried out the assignment—the rest refused and handed in doodles of varying quality.
In a third school, in a semi-rural area, pupils in an English class were made to watch a film about a black male gay ballet dancer. Many of the boys told me the film made them feel “uncomfortable” and asked me for permission to put their heads on their desks rather than watch it. One boy asked: “Why is this school always trying to make us gay?” When I raised this with colleagues in the staff room later, they explained that this conformed with the Stonewall objective of bringing LGBT issues into every subject.
Stonewall seems to wield far more influence than the Church. Christianity and the Bible may have been the major influences on our culture, institutions, and values, but Religious Studies is in decline across the country’s school system. Worse, many teachers don’t seem to take the subject seriously. In a state comprehensive school, an RS teacher whose lesson I was asked to cover had “jokingly” said to the pupils in the cover note that, although this was meant to be an RS lesson, they would do geography instead which would be more “fun”.
She was typical, sadly, of the state schools where I have taught: a humanities teacher who had been compelled to teach Religious Studies even though she may be totally uninterested in, and even hostile to, the subject. In that same school I spotted, in a corner of the staff room, a box full of Gideon Bibles that had been provided for Year 7 pupils free of charge. This was already half-way through the school year. (In Cambridge, where I did a PGCE in Religious Studies, only half of the 22 in my year’s intake had studied theology or even RS at A Level; a PGCE in another subject would insist that applicants have a minimum 2:1 in their subject at under-graduate level, but in RS the 2:1 could be in a subject other than RS because of the shortage of adequately educated applicants.)
I understand the pressures and difficulties my colleagues face. Most schools I have worked in were characterised by low-level violence—or not so low-level: last year I was hit in the back by a pupil who then overturned his desk and jumped through the window to make his escape. When, after being discharged from A&E, I rang a colleague to discuss the situation, he consoled me by saying that there was a school in Wales where a student had come in with a gun. Our school, my colleague concluded, was not that bad.
My own teacher training at Cambridge University left me woefully unprepared for this kind of abuse. Teachers’ unions warn of violence against their members—but during the entire academic year, I received a one-hour lesson in dealing with indiscipline. The main recommendation? Use a whistle.
Earlier this year, I considered applying for a full-time job at a school where I had been covering for over a month. When I asked the head of department whether he would support my application he told me he wouldn’t—not because he felt I wasn’t up to the job but because teaching had become such an impossible profession. He himself, having taught for more than 20 years, was planning to leave that school as soon as he could. “I’ve had enough.”