Schools – pressure becomes bullying

When does pressure become bullying?

Parents need to be aware of pressures on schools

Yesterday, I called to see a friend whom I had been trying to contact since the start of the Christmas holidays. She was all apologies; her only excuse was exhaustion, the pressure of work. A year into a new job she had taken over additional responsibilities from a colleague on maternity leave. Jane has taught English for twenty years. She teaches in a school that is something of an improvement on her previous school and has taken to a new head. Her workload, and that of her colleagues I suspect, is overwhelming. She explained.

Subject “specifications” are being changed yet again by the government, but not simultaneously, so two systems are being run in parallel. Grading schemes are also being changed. With all the work required to monitor and implement changes it strikes me that the likes of Jane have little time for exploring new ideas for her teaching, or running extra-curricular activities or visits with students out of school hours, things that reward teachers’ efforts as they better engage with students.

In Switzerland I taught in an international school; there we were pleased to introduce the International Baccalaureate, not least because we would not have to change things every time the British Secretary of State for Education had a bright idea. One of the attractions of the IB is the five-year moratorium on change; change is only possible at minimum intervals of five years.

In the UK teachers complain about the frequency and extent of changes imposed by government and about the heavy-handed nature of OFSTED inspections, but they are not prepared to take the political initiative to protect their students. The imposition of a General Teaching Council some years ago, with subscriptions docked from teacher’s pay was surely a challenge to their professionalism to which, sadly, they failed to rise. Even now that there are moves to establish a College of Teaching run by teachers there seems to be no awareness that they will not be given control over their profession, that they will have to take power if control over their profession is to lie in their own hands.

Just before Christmas the aftermath of an OFSTED inspection of a prep school provided just a glimpse of what might be achieved. In three inspections the school was castigated: in one the inspectors branded the school as inadequate, in another there was concern that health and safety policies were out of date, but there was no suggestion of actual or potential harm to pupils. Fortunately, the parents of Hill House Preparatory School in Knightsbridge have kept their heads and have come to the defence of the school. They have discovered that one of the inspectors had convictions for child grooming and possession of indecent images of children and that another had resigned from a headship after allegations of bullying staff. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? OSTED cannot, it would appear, keep its own house in order.

I am not surprised for while undergoing two OFSTED inspections, as a deputy and as a head, I had to cope with two heads of English departments, two of the best teachers with whom I ever worked, demoralised by subject inspectors who refused to communicate with them.

It is not difficult to sense the outrage of parents whose children’s education has been undermined by government inspectors. These parents clearly have the sense to recognise bullying when they see it, and the courage to take on the bullies. One pointed out the injustice of the inspections and another made it clear that despite the criticisms of the school parents loved it. Perhaps other schools will see the strength here of powerful, determined support for teachers on the part of parents and wonder if they too could bite back.

Under pressure, the last thing to do is whatever the bully wants. Perhaps teacher unions could ask parents, when push comes to shove, whether they would rather trust their children’s teachers, or inspectors imposed by government.

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