‘Morale could not be lower’

‘More than half of all teachers are considering leaving the profession in the next two years due to workloads and low morale,’ reported the Daily Telegraph recently.1 Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), was clear that the blame lay with the education secretary: ‘Nicky Morgan needs to wake up to the fact that it is her government’s policies that have created this crisis.’2

With the best will in the world, though, it’s hard to hold out much hope of Morgan coming up with a convincing response. It’s a difficult problem, this business of morale in the teaching profession – not least because it’s such a long-standing issue. Here’s a sample of newspaper reports, taken at five-year intervals, from the last three decades…

Back in 1985, thirty years ago, the Financial Times reported that David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, had ‘said morale was already so low that premature retirements among teachers had risen almost sevenfold in five years’.3

In 1990, the Times was still concerned, noting that ‘teachers’ pay is a great cause of dissatisfaction, and low morale within the profession is a prime factor in the growing shortage of staff, particularly in schools in London and the South-East.’4

Meanwhile the NUT was surveying its members and concluding that ‘the main causes of stress were classroom disruption and violence, a general lack of respect towards teachers, too much administrative paperwork and low morale caused by poor pay’.5

As the long period of Conservative government wore ever onwards, Peter Smith, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, wrote wearily to the Independent in 1995, ‘Morale in the teaching profession is, sadly, almost endemically low’. He warned, ‘It will be a challenge for all of us to restore it.’6

By 2000, with the Labour Party now in power, it was the turn of the Liberal Democrats to express their disquiet. Their leader, Charles Kennedy, called for a concerted attempt ‘to halt the crisis in recruiting and retaining teachers, which the Lib Dems blamed on low morale and stress resulting from what they saw as an excessive workload.’7

It wasn’t all bad news, though. A new day had dawned, had it not? Because this was also the year that saw the departure of Chris Woodhead as the chief inspector of Ofsted. And he had always been a problem. In the words of the Daily Telegraph: ‘Mr Woodhead’s enemies, including virtually the entire education establishment – have accused him of abusing his powers, distorting his evidence and destroying classroom morale.’8

Maybe Woodhead’s exit did finally make the difference, because five years on, in 2005, the education secretary, Ruth Kelly, was able to trumpet proudly the Labour government’s achievements: ‘There’s not a school in the country that hasn’t improved. Teacher morale is better than ever. So are exam results.’9

Yet that assessment can’t have been entirely right, because the same year Kelly went to the conference of the Secondary Heads Association where, according to the Guardian, she was jeered and heckled and was given what delegates described as ‘the “coldest reception” for any education secretary in the last quarter of a century’.10 Clearly not everyone in the profession was satisfied with New Labour’s performance in the three Es (education, education, education).

And things did not get better. Here’s a teacher (‘who must remain anonymous’) being interviewed in the Sun in 2010: ‘Targets, bureaucracy and bold initiatives with inadequate resources to make them work have left me and my teaching colleagues exhausted, stressed and questioning whether we will stay in a profession where morale could not be lower.’11

Lest our historical perspective imply that the rot set in with the coming to power of the dreaded Thatcher, however, let’s cast the net back a little further. In 1980 the Observer reflected on the dark days of 1974, when ‘Teachers were in short supply and their morale was low thanks to low pay. Teacher turnover reached an alarming peak…’12

And so it goes, on and on. It really feels as though it’s going to take a greater politician than Nicky Morgan to turn this particular ship around.artwork-nicky-morgan











1 Daily Telegraph 4 October 2015

2 teachers.org.uk 23 October 2015

3 Financial Times 31 May 1985

4 Times 28 February 1990

5 Times 24 January 1990

6 Independent 17 April 1995

7 Guardian 14 July 2000

8 Independent 3 November 2000

9 People 17 April 2005

10 Guardian 5 March 2005

11 Sun 23 February 2010

12 Observer 20 July 1980


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