The end of the school year is an anxious time, says Hugh David
rfhe approach of the end of term always brings with it the unsettling breeze of change at the school gates: There is the finale of one year for the children, and the prospect of a new class teacher when they return to St Peter's in September, albeit cushioned by a healthy seven weeks away. And the departure of Year Six after their leavers' assembly, as they head off to secondary school, is the first stage in a transformation when they will no longer to be the biggest boys and girls in their small and familiar pond, but the babies in a large and potentially turbulent lake. And, of course, for us parents it is a reminder, not always welcome, that we are another year older, another year along the path to preparing our children to make their way, independently, in the world.
There is also the departure of members of staff to mark. St Peter's has eight going, a record number that has left us all a little unsettled. Some are retiring and will leave large holes. Current statistics show that our schools are going to see an exodus of experienced staff, in their 50s and 60s , in the next few years who will be hard to replace with reduced numbers coming up directly behind them. While the Government has worked hard and effectively to encourage more into teaching in the past decade with its "those who can, teach" campaigns, and financial incentives to choose the classroom over the clearing floor of banks, the products of this push remain young and inexperienced.,
At St Peter's, we are losing three old hands. There are four or five more approaching retirement — or, at least, I imagine they are. It would be far too rude to ask a teacher their age, espe.cially from the other side of the school gate. Of those who remain, we have plenty of recently qualified and highly promising individuals in their late 20s and 30s, but there is a yawning gap in the 40 to .50 age group. In three year's time who is going to make up the senior management team of the school? A relatively inexperienced bunch. I fear.
In part, it was ever thus. Primary school teaching remains a disproportionately female field, with mothers choosing it because it fits around their childcare obligations. And there remain a substantial proportion of mothers, in their late 30s and into their 40s, who take a career break away from teaching.
But there is also, I feel, something more going on here. That missing generation of forty-somethings is more or less my own and I can remember the climate in the mid 1980s when we were emerging from universities and colleges. The teaching profession was not prized, respected or well-paid by government or most of society. Indeed, they were blamed for most of our collective ills. Teachers' pay was kept down by a doctrinaire Government while investment in state schools was reduced to pay for gimmicks — like the assisted places scheme that effectively put taxpayers' money into the bank accounts of private schools rather than into the coffers of struggling comprehensives. It was a shocking abdication of Government responsibility for the majority in favour of the few.
But before you accuse me of being partisan, New Labour has come under deserved attack from a former editor of this paper. Cristina Odone (pictured below). In her study, in Bad Faith, for the Centre for Policy Studies, she accuses the Government of "phoney egalitarianism" and playing to "a strident secularist lobby" over faith schools. Her most worrying finding is that, while inaccurate, as consistently argued in this column, the Government's
drip, drip, drip of accusation against Catholic schools, to the effect that they are effectively a law unto themselves, has damaged broader public perceptions of what they are and do.
How to rebuild the respect that Catholic schools once commanded in the wider community is a challenge of the utmost importance. Contributions like In Bad Faith will help considerably, not just by the strength of their argument, but because they draw into the open and expose those who are ill-informed but unashamedly prejudiced against religiously-based education.
Even slippery old Ed Balls, the Minister responsible, felt the need, on Friday, to write a letter to the Times to answer Miss Odone's charges. "Faith schools are popular, successful, thriving and the oldest established part of the schools system," he said. "I am 100 per cent committed to that continuing." Good to have that on record, because it isn't the impression he's been giving of late, notably in remarks to the House of Commons Select Committee on Education when he made plain "it is not the policy of this Government nor my department to expand the number of faith schools". Odd that, given that he thinks they are so successful and thriving.
any thanks to Jean Keenan for her e-mail concerning my account, in the last School Board, of meeting a Muslim parent outside my children's oversubscribed school and having to tell her that we only admitted Catholics. "How arrogant," Jean writes, "to think that you were 'slamming a door' in the Muslim lady's face. They will soon open another one. A school is as good as its intake and it seems as if this family will enhance whichever school the children attend. Not the other way round." I shuddered a bit as I read that first "they", but the context shows that it is just the shortcomings of language. But I am puzzled by the last remark. Presumably Jean means that schools can't enhance families. I'm not sure if I agree. Surely the three-way partnership we talk of — schools, parish and home — is all about all three partners benefiting each other, not one-way traffic.
Do keep your letters coming in, either by e-mail at [email protected] catholicherald.co.uk \ or marked for my attention and sent by what is these days unkindly called by some "snail mail".