Battle in Print: The Empty Staffroom

Richard Swan, 13 October 2009

Something is stirring in the staffroom. The strange thing is that, these days, it’s unlikely to be a teacher. If you walk through a secondary school staffroom it’s quite likely to be empty, even at break-time. Twenty-five years ago there would often be a few teachers there during free lessons, reading the newspaper or just having a cup of coffee and relaxing. Before school, at break-time, certainly at lunchtime, it would be full, to the point that there might not be anywhere to sit. So what has changed – what is stirring in the staffroom?

The answer to this question is considerably more complex than it appears. We need to consider where the teachers have gone, and why.

The first question is simpler to answer: they have dispersed around the school site. Some are to be found in departmental bases. Where once only the science staff had their private prep room and private facilities – kettle, biscuits, a technician to make the coffee – nowadays the art department, the maths department, maybe even the English department has its separate home and its jealousy guarded supply of chipped mugs. Many more teachers are to be found in their classrooms, hunched over computers and trying to reduce their email inboxes to under a thousand items, while striving to maintain a proprietorial air over their domain. Some others may be seen sharing facilities with pupils in the library or canteen. A gallant few are out in the corridors and playgrounds, holding back the barbarian hordes that threaten to sweep civilisation away, again.

There is no time to visit the staffroom, except for a fleeting visit to check pigeon-holes and noticeboards. Worse, anybody seen to be hanging around in the staffroom is likely to be thought of as malingering. An idle teacher is no teacher at all.

The latter point is enshrined in government decree, and goes part of the way to explaining why staffrooms are empty. A generation ago, non-teaching periods were designated as ‘free’, implying that a teacher could choose how to spend the time. This nomenclature was replaced by the cumbersome term ‘non-contact period’, signifying that they were still being paid as teachers and should act accordingly. Recently, this term was itself replaced by ‘ppa’ periods – planning, preparation and assessment. The language conveys the message. No teacher should be seen to relax for a moment during school time.

It is this shift that indicates the change in the nature of teaching, at least in state schools, during the past three decades. Professionalism in the old meaning of the word has been replaced by professionalism in its new guise. Thirty years ago ‘being professional’ meant acting according to a largely unwritten code of expectations: strong subject knowledge, a desire and ability to communicate, firm discipline, and commitment and loyalty to one’s school and pupils. Once qualified, teachers were rarely inspected, and were largely free to devise their own patterns of lessons. Provided the results were good, there was little interference. There was an expectation that they would make a significant contribution to the school outside the classroom too, but no formal requirement.

In the twenty-first century, ‘being professional’ means adhering to the quite specific and closely monitored codes laid down by the government. Professionalism is expressed in terms of management and performance against given indicators. Increased regulation has dominated the last two decades of teaching. From an appraisal scheme introduced in the early 1990s through to today’s Performance Management, teachers are subject to ever greater monitoring and scrutiny. There are the ‘Professional Standards for Teachers’, with the associated yearly cycle of Performance Management. There is the National Curriculum, which gives rise to set schemes of work and set lesson plans. There are league tables. There are Ofsted inspections, school self-reviews, departmental self-reviews. There are SIPs (School Improvement Plans) and SEFs (Self-Evaluation Forms). Lesson observations are commonplace. Everything a teacher does has to be recorded, monitored, evaluated, judged. And finally there is Directed Time – the government’s attempt to regulate the number of hours a teacher can be directed to work within the school year. That figure is 1265 hours.

It is the specificity of that number which perhaps best encapsulates how teaching has changed. A generation ago, nobody would have thought of trying to measure, let alone direct, how much time teachers would devote to their duties. Doubtless there were idle teachers then; there are idle teachers now. But the vast majority were dedicated to their work – professional in the old sense – and spent as much time as it took to achieve results. Many gave their time freely to support students in a host of ways, within the curriculum and way beyond it.

It is no surprise that teachers ‘of a certain age’ lament the shift from one kind of professionalism to the other. The question is whether something has been lost from teaching in the process.

It is at least clear what has been lost: trust. The raft of legislation has had a single tendency, and that is to take away the autonomy of the teacher. Teachers are no longer free to teach as they think best. They are no longer trusted to carry out their duties, or even to behave, professionally. There is a current furore about the General Teaching Council’s new ‘Code of Conduct and Practice for Registered Teachers’ (October 2009), which has as its final section that teachers should ‘Demonstrate honesty and integrity and uphold public trust and confidence in the teaching profession.’ The final clause of this section reads as follows, exhorting teachers to:

• Maintain reasonable standards in their own behaviour that enable them to maintain an effective learning environment and also to uphold public trust and confidence in the profession. (1)

No teacher would argue otherwise, but it is not merely teachers who are querying the wording of this. It is not just that the Code seems to invite intrusion into teachers’ private lives; it is more the implication that they cannot be trusted to ‘maintain reasonable standards in their own behaviour’ without enforcement from above. This ignores the fact that the existence of the Code will make not the slightest jot of difference in those high-profile cases where teachers fall noticeably short of ‘reasonable standards’.

If the over-regulation of the profession suggests that teachers are not trusted, there is plenty of evidence that they are not valued either. Despite the apparent implication of the government’s recruiting slogan ‘Everyone remembers a good teacher’, there is a growing tendency to suggest that teachers are not central to education any more. Again, the language gives it away. ‘Child-centred learning’, ‘project-based learning’, ‘experiential learning’, teachers as ‘enablers’ or ‘facilitators’. Quite genuinely, staff are exhorted to talk about learning, not about teaching. Connected to this is a move to view teachers and pupils as somehow equal, all taking part in a ‘learning journey’.

Progressively, it is claimed that new technologies will make the traditional teacher role redundant. Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) offer on-line education without any teacher at all. Some authorities are exploring the use of video conferencing and lecturing, so that a single teacher (or ‘facilitator’) can address hundreds of pupils in different locations simultaneously.

In the classroom children may well not be taught by a subject specialist, or even a trained teacher. Higher Level Teacher Assistants (HLTAs) and Cover Supervisors regularly have sole charge of classes. The following is a typical admission from a county authority:

• The modernization of school workforces, creation of PPA time, use of cover supervisors and ever broadening opportunities in PE programmes offered to pupils, both on and off site, has led to supervision and teaching responsibilities being given to adults who may not hold a teaching qualification. (2)

Many parents might find the last phrase disconcerting, or be surprised that their children should be taught by non-teachers. The change is encapsulated in yet another acronym: AOTT (Adults Other Than Teachers). This is not to say that these Adult Others are ineffective; a good AOTT may have more to offer than a poor teacher. It is just that the old distinctions are being, deliberately, blurred away. Perhaps in twenty years we’ll all be saying, ‘Everyone remembers a good Adult Other Than a Teacher’.

Institutionally untrusted, unvalued – that is the modern reality, whatever government rhetoric may say otherwise. Teachers can no longer afford to seek solace and refuge in the staffroom, with its chance to recuperate and mingle away from prying eyes. Indeed in many secondary schools staff may not even know the names of all their colleagues. They are too busy meeting targets, ticking boxes to ensure that their performance will be judged acceptable, working out which responsibilities they must take on to ensure that they gain promotion. In these days the spontaneous teacher, the risk-taker, the maverick, is an endangered species. Inspiring teachers exist as they have always done, but their room for manoeuvre is infinitely more restricted. New teachers know no different; it is the older teachers who lament what has gone. Does it matter? Yes, it probably does. Many good teachers are likely to be found, not only away from the staffroom, but away from teaching.


Richard Swan is an English teacher and Vice Principal of the Harvey Grammar School in Folkestone, where he has taught for over thirty years. In that time he has watched the staff room empty, and has witnessed every educational reform and ‘initiative’ from GCSE to the unremembered N & F proposals.

A medievalist by specialism, he laments the passing of the trivium and the quadrivium. When not teaching he likes to relax by writing A Level resource packs and study guides on Chaucer. He has also published critical articles on Mervyn Peake, and occasional reviews and poetry.

When he grows up he wants to become a novelist.



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