David Oliver: If you want to explain what’s happening in the NHS, just look at schools and teachers

david_oliver_2015Imagine you are a teacher or headteacher in a good enough local authority school in an area with its fair share of deprivation and a shrinking funding envelope. The school increasingly struggles to balance its books, yet it’s told to make further savings.

You are experienced and good at your job. You chose and trained for this career because you cared about children’s education. Your school takes all comers—it can’t select its intake. Exclusion is frowned upon and special needs have to be met as best they can.

The school has staffing problems, sickness rates are on the rise, and it relies on supply teachers. But you’ve been told to crack down on hiring those. Senior teachers are retiring this side of 60—burnt out and demoralised.

Local birth rates are rising and so is demand for places. You now have to cope with class sizes that are just too big to be safe or effective, either for the kids or the staff. Equipment is in short supply. Money has been transferred from capital to revenue budgets to keep local schools afloat so expansion through building is hard.

You know that you and your colleagues have to work till 9 or 10 every night and often at weekends and during holidays preparing, marking, and updating your own skills.

If there’s a radio phone-in or newspaper article about schools or teaching, against your better judgement you tune in or read “below the line” comments. There’s an inexhaustible line of people with ready opinions talking about your “long holidays,” “cushy job,” and “gold plated pensions.” They don’t seem to live in the same world you do.

You are aware, of course, that most parents have their children’s interests at heart and know them well (but sometimes through rose tinted spectacles given the behaviour at school they don’t see, or the parent’s misguided belief that their child is uniquely gifted, which leads to false expectations of the child’s level of attainment). Yet there you are with years of experience at dealing with every ability level, every scenario, and yet your own expertise in children and learning in general isn’t afforded the same weight.

Politicians and know-all columnists keep banging on about returning to “making education about the children” (though it often seems that they are more interested in the parents). Isn’t that what you and your colleagues have always done? It’s hardly an innovation.

Parents even sometimes side with their kids against you. And if there is a complaint, however groundless, however malicious, however much everyone in the staffroom knows it’s a joke, the school is expected to come over all apologetic and not push back. This doesn’t exactly make you feel supported, or like it’s a fair exchange of power.

When school is cancelled due to adverse weather or power cuts, or when there is a threat of industrial action, the howls of protest are about “ordinary hard working people” having to take time off to look after their own children. Even on a normal working day, you end up with a handful of kids waiting far too long to be collected, as if you are a glorified childminding service.

You are put through inspections that seem at once superficial, officious, and more interested in documentation than the real job you do. You aren’t sure what the credentials of the inspectors are, but you doubt many have taught recently or any better than you and your colleagues. You never get to find out, but you did note that recently the chief inspector of schools dismissed a thousand or so for not being up to the job. Yet these inspection reports carry weight, are regarded as incontestable, and feature in league tables bizarrely regarded as gospel by posh newspapers and by parents who will even move house on the back of the tables. Some schools miraculously go from outstanding to good or vice versa in two years, even though nothing much seems to have changed in the ones you know about.

At least the current Ofsted chief is one of you. He may be an attack dog, but he did teach for 40 years and was a headteacher in some tough areas. You’ll forgive some of his abruptness and grandstanding. But now ministers are talking tough about bringing in a new inspector from the US—one who has experience of “taking on the teaching unions” and “tackling vested interests.” Considering that you can’t fill your vacancies and hang on to teachers as it is, and that your pay has been frozen and pensions capped while contributions increase, you aren’t quite sure why this “talking tough” is necessary.

Somewhere up there in Whitehall, you see a parade of education secretaries and school ministers come and go. They’re in post for two to three years max. They rarely have any background in education. They all come in with pet theories, and try to drive through “reforms” at an unrealistic pace before an election or a reshuffle. And every time it sends your school and your kids’ lives into turmoil and makes morale worse.

The last one seemed to want everyone to study as if they were a gifted child in a 1970s grammar school like he was. He thought he knew more about writing curriculums than people who had spent their whole lives in teaching and teacher training. He referred to them as a “blob” and the “enemies of progress.” He had clearly spent years thinking about just what he would do if he got the job and wasn’t minded to take advice.

The minister’s successor was brought in to smooth things over—to build bridges. It’s not going so well so far. She behaves like an automaton and in her own way is no more teacher friendly.

Meanwhile, the politicians have become obsessed with “outsourcing” exams to private contractors. They want parents to have the right to set up “free schools” even in areas where more local authority primary school places should be the priority. They are also obsessed with “any qualified provider” in the form of academies. They would love “chains” of academies to mentor other schools, but seem hostile to even the very best local authority schools providing this kind of support. Yet recent experience and reports commissioned by the government have shown that neither the academies nor the free schools perform better than the existing state sector. They don’t want to hear this.

On top of that, the government seems fixated with a few pet schools and headteachers, using their stories in effect to let everyone else know how good they could be—better still if they are from America. You know full well that many of these star performers are either private schools with five times your per capita funding, or urban schools where they judge their success on a handful of gifted children getting to top universities—“aspiring to excellence” and all that—but what about the other kids.

There is a final kick in the teeth in what is becoming an unbearable, undoable job. The press and politicians are obsessed with organisations such as Teach First giving “high fliers from the private sector,” “bright graduates,” or “ex forces” personnel a few months rudimentary training and putting them in schools, effectively giving you the message that your four years studying or your PGCE is irrelevant, and that you are second raters anyway. Thanks a bunch!

If you work in the NHS frontline, you won’t need any illicit substances to imagine any of this. It’s pretty much line for line what’s happening to us. And it’s why all of us in essential public services need to stick together in opposing so called “reforms” that will do irreparable damage to those services and to the workforce that will be hard to undo. Despite the snotty comments on the phone-ins and below the newspaper articles, the public still trust us far more than the politicians or the tabloids and we do essential, valued work.

Don’t let the bastards get you!

David Oliver is a consultant in geriatrics and general medicine in Berkshire and writes the weekly “Acute Perspective” column in The BMJ.

Competing interests: None declared.

  • Tish Naughton

    Very well expressed. Today there is a real chance that Teachers and Doctors will unite. A lot can change in a month. I am a parent and have been a patient and a carer. I saw a lot of this first hand. The attacks on the NHS pit families against the medical profession, in some instances, as you feel you have to fight for care /diminishing resources. Even majority conservative voters do not want to lose the NHS. It can only be done by stealth. Likewise if people understood what sponsored Academies really mean there would be outrage. (Maybe now there is)