How far should a teacher's duty of care stretch?
Aaron Cohen-Gold, a University Student, considers the challenges facing teachers today after attending a seminar at the Department for Education.
Is a teacher a communal figure or a classroom leader – and is it indeed our place to decide? This was the central theme to a seminar held at the Department for Education on 11 July 2012, run by the national charity Family Lives. The complexities of being a teacher had never been painted in such vivid terms to me before. The line, if there is indeed such a thing, must be drawn somewhere – the question is where and by whom.
Teachers are at the forefront of helping the next generation
The seminar was an opportunity for relevant third sector, voluntary organisations to discuss the observations and lessons learned at the midway point in the first year of Family Lives’ ‘Instructions not Included’ project, aimed at improving support for parents from doctors, teachers and youth offending teams. The project is primarily dedicated to helping families in need, most of whom end up turning to one of the aforementioned groups for advice. These groups in turn require charities like Family Lives for referral purposes and information.
The focus was how to cope with a young population that is facing conditions not seen in this country for several decades. Record rising unemployment, benefit caps, the increasing cost of education and an increasingly aging population are but a few of the factors facing this generation. Cumulatively, they are a recipe for disaster and parents, teachers and doctors alike are at the forefront of trying to address these issues.
Only 14 per cent of teachers have the necessary resources to help parents
However, this is not straightforward. Last year, Teacher Support Network teamed up with Family Lives to discover the extent of family related problems in the classroom and its impact on teacher-pupil relations. It emerged that whilst 90 per cent of teachers felt that there were families in their school experiencing important problems, 33 per cent said they did not know where to go for external referrals and 29 per cent said that their school did not provide the necessary support to work well with parents. Only 14 per cent did. The hidden question here is whether or not teachers should be under obligation to work outside the confines of academia and venture into the personal circumstances of their pupils.
Teachers have a duty of care, but how far should this stretch?
As a student, I certainly believe that teachers have a duty of care to the pupils they teach that stretches beyond the classroom, and indeed, in some cases, beyond the school itself. The importance of developing and maintaining personal relations and support mechanisms between the staff and the student body is, in my view, essential for the continuity and longevity of both populations. The best way to address the unemployment problem facing many of my age today is, as a former Prime Minister once said, “education, education, education”. What better way to achieve this goal than through fostering teacher-pupil relations?
Yet, when we consider the economic changes that have engulfed the teaching profession since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008, is it justified to ask such hard working professionals for more time and effort when dealing with fewer resources, longer hours, strike action and pension reforms? This isn’t just an issue of time management, though. Whilst I hold firm to the views I expressed earlier, it would seem foolish to ignore the potential problems associated to overly close relationships between pupils and staff.
On the one hand, school is surely an institution primarily designed for learning – a place that is in many ways meant to prepare the pupils of today for the nature of the workplace where they hope to end up. For good or for bad, the hierarchical structure of almost every institution in our Western, capitalist world is not about to disappear – and would the enhancement of teacher-pupil relations adequately prepare students for the nature of society outside the school?
On the other hand (although at this point it becomes clear that the use of hands in such an analogy was perhaps not the best calculation), we have the issue of parents. Is it reasonable (and safe) for teachers to be seen as friends or social workers, particularly without the blessing of parents? The Education Secretary himself declared in 2011 that one of the reasons for the drastic decline in male teachers stems from the “legal minefield” associated to teacher-pupil relations. The confusion over the boundaries of teaching has, it would seem, directly affected the nature of the teaching body itself. However, the number of male teachers in England and Wales has hit the headlines lately, with men outnumbering women in teacher training by five to one for the first time in recent years. Yet, females still outnumber men in the profession by 114,000, so the issues and blurring of boundaries clearly remains. The case for ‘let teachers be teachers’ is plain for us all to see.
Teachers are figures of influence, not just teachers
Nonetheless, as a former pupil only four years ago, I maintain the view that teachers will always be flexible figures of influence rather than absolute in their role as a teacher and only a teacher. Taking responsibility for educating the next generation is no easy task, but it should surely involve a degree of accountability and concern that stretches beyond the school gate. Teachers are not parents, and nor should they be, but education is as much a part of rearing the next generation as anything that goes on within the confines of the home. Taking an active interest in the lives of pupils must, in my view, be encouraged to ensure both their wellbeing and their continued interest in education. Different they may well be, but carefully constructed bridges must be built across the teacher-pupil divide in order to prevent another lost generation of disaffected youth and record unemployment.
It would be no understatement to suggest that the future of our next generation depends on how we treat and support the teachers of today, but it remains to be seen how the issues of 2012 will determine the success of tomorrow’s leaders.
Aaron Cohen-Gold is a second year undergraduate at the University of Leeds and is volunteering with Teacher Support Network over the summer.