On a busy high street in Exeter, a two-metre high poster on a telephone box screams the parting words of a local teacher so angry about the way children are being taught and assessed he is quitting teaching after nearly two decades. “CHILDREN! YOU ARE NOT DATA,” it shouts in capitals: “LEARN, INSPIRE, DREAM, CREATE. THE WORLD NEEDS YOU TO BE THE BEST AT WHAT YOU LOVE.”
The poster was created by Kevin Payne, a year 3 and 4 teacher at Landscore primary school, who left his job last week after 17 years in the profession. “I wanted to send a message to children that teachers care about them – and that they are worth more than just a piece of paper that says whether or not they are meeting an expected standard.”
Payne says he adored teaching, but “the emphasis on data and the constant driving of objectives has stripped away lots of the fun and enjoyment. I went into teaching to help children develop a love of learning, not to teach them they must achieve at all costs.”
He is worried that the education system now undervalues creative and non-academic skills, and many children will grow up thinking all that matters is passing tests. “As a teacher, you are torn between the constant pressure to get your pupils to achieve their objectives, and a desire to help them find what they love doing and are passionate about.”
The latest government statistics show that over the 12 months to November 2016, more than 50,000 qualified teachers left state schools – a “wastage rate” of 10.5%. Overall, 2,620 more teachers left the profession than joined it that year – and this may only be the tip of the iceberg. In a recent poll of teachers by the National Education Union, more than 80% said they had considered quitting the profession over the past year because of heavy workloads. Government research shows more than five times as many male primary teachers are leaving the profession as their female colleagues, and three-quarters of UK teachers reported symptoms of stress, including depression, anxiety and panic attacks, in a YouGov survey last year. Furthermore, figures from the Office for National Statistics showed the suicide risk for primary and nursery school teachers in England was 42% higher than in the general population between 2011 to 2015. At the same time, since 2012, the government has allowed a teacher recruitment crisis to develop; with 20% of teacher training vacancies at secondary school level unfilled, it has been estimated there was a shortfall of 30,000 classroom teachers this year.
Before he quit, he wrote letters to all the children in his class telling them what amazing non-academic qualities he sees and values in each of them, to accompany their school reports. “I told them things like: I would have loved to be in your class as a child, or I like your energy, or you have shown great leadership. Education, for me, should not be about the data on graphs. It should be about getting children to ask questions, to put their hand up for the first time, to choose just the right word, to get an idea and run with it.”
It cost him £150 to put the poster on the phone box for two weeks (he had wanted a billboard, but found it was too expensive). He is hoping teachers will order A4 versions. “I hope it will act as a reminder to children, especially during Sats, that there are many things they can excel at. Children need to hear that message, because it’s being forgotten. Often, if a teacher feels under pressure, that is then passed on to the child.”
When teachers get caught in this trap, he says, they end up feeling stressed and unable to cope. “Who would want to be in education and not value children? My message to teachers feeling this way is: you are not alone.” He wants the poster to trigger a debate about the way children are being taught, and to grab the government’s attention.
“Teaching is an all-encompassing job and I never felt like I had enough headspace. As soon as I had written my resignation letter, I felt at peace, like a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders.”
Payne is planning to work as an illustrator and poet, but will also be visiting schools to encourage children to be creative.
“I can’t wait to go into schools and teach without the shackles of targets and tests.”