The Education Select Committee today was the latest body to highlight the issue of teacher workforce numbers. All headteachers know the difficulties in trying to maintain a full staffing complement and we all know the impact on student performance when staffing shortages occur. So, ensuring that there are enough teachers in the system is extremely important.
A dozen thoughts on the issue:
1 Firstly, we need to recognise that there are more qualified teachers in England than at any other time on record. The issue is not that there is a shortage of teachers, rather that there is a shortage of qualified teachers who choose to teach. Recruitment is not the problem, retention is. Retaining qualified teachers to work in the State system means understanding and then addressing the key reasons that they leave.
2 Secondly, we need to recognise that the solution does not lie in money. It is too easy and superficial to shout from the rooftops that schools need more money. This isn’t going to happen, so unless we focus on pushing the solutions that can happen and can make a real difference, we are simply writing off year after year of children.
3 Demographic data shows that the pupil population of England’s schools is at an all time high and increasing. The trend data and projections show that the school pupil population will continue to increase until 2024. This population change is a more important factor in driving teacher shortage than the annual failure to recruit the target numbers of teachers.
4 The target is always missed and teachers leave the profession in the first 5 years of their careers in pretty much the same proportion as they have done throughout the last 20 years, although there is a slight increase in the speed at which they leave (more leaving after their first and second years). These are predictable statistics and it is unlikely that we will be able to significantly improve the recruitment figures. Again, the focus should be on retaining teachers.
5 Leaving teaching within the first few years means that those individuals didn’t even get to the point at becoming expert teachers (which takes around 10 years), and so the continual replacement of early career teachers for new early career teachers means that huge numbers of students are being taught by novice teachers. Clearly, it should be a priority to retain as many early career teachers as possible, which in part could be helped by penalising those who leave in the first few years so that they are no longer recipients of the financial incentives offered to trainee teachers.
6 Established teachers leave the profession for myriad of complex reasons, but the top reasons remain fairly consistent and account for the vast majority of those leaving the profession before retirement age. Although pay is often cited, it is not the main reason for leaving. Also, there is no way to address the money issue immediately, as mentioned above, so we should look at the high impact solutions that can happen straight away. Teachers commonly cite the following reasons for leaving teaching:
a. Unacceptable classroom behaviour, which is condoned / overlooked and leaves the teacher feeling humiliated and unsupported
b. Lack of professional autonomy, including being told how to teach their specialist subject by those who do not know what they are talking about
c. Continual policy change / initiatives, which lead to continual re-inventing of the wheel and nonsense edu-fads, which in turn create ill thought through, knee jerk reactions from school managers who repeatedly change the goalposts
d. Unnecessary bureaucracy, such as recording of data for no purpose or moronic marking policies focussed purely on proving that the teacher keeps records rather than meaningful assessment that actually helps students learn better. TALIS shows us that an average teacher spends around 23 hours per week on non-teaching activity. Scrap all of it save the most essential and impactful aspects.
e. Bullying. I have always found this incredible, almost unbelievable, but time and again teachers leave the profession because they are harassed and bullied by other members of staff or management
7 What strikes me about all of these reasons for leaving the profession is that they are all within our gift to mend immediately. Even a small decrease in the percentage of teachers leaving the profession before retirement age would have a massive impact on the teacher workforce numbers and far outweigh the issues of recruitment. Yet, as a profession, through neglect and malpractice, we create the reasons cited above and should, therefore, not be at all surprised that highly intelligent, autonomous, professional, dedicated people sometimes look to leave the profession they love.
8 Teaching is a profession of learn’d and capable intellects, it is highly demanding and complex. Yet, the profession is portrayed as failing and weak – teachers are often seen as part of the problem. Government could and should reverse this perception by espousing its belief that teaching is for the most highly capable, that teaching is to be revered!
9 The change to the education landscape since the introduction of MATs has seen a very large number of previously school based colleagues move into roles in MAT central teams, which has removed many good teachers from the classroom. Previously, with 152 local authorities, these central structures were 152 times each role. Now, with over 2500 MATs, there is a far larger number of colleagues working in similar roles, each supporting far fewer schools. The MAT system is unwieldy, overly expensive and inefficient at propagating effective practice across large numbers of schools. It would be better if MATs could move quickly towards merging until there are only 150 – 200 of them, returning large numbers of qualified teachers to the classroom.
10 Older teachers are also those who carry the canon of knowledge of our profession. They are the true experts, yet are often treated with disdain by the profession itself. Retaining these teachers is key to creating a stable and evidence informed profession – treat them with the dignity and respect that expertise deserves
11 There are simply too many managers in schools. Often used as a retention tool, classroom teachers are promoted into unnecessary roles, which take them away from the classroom. Rather, let’s create a status for classroom teachers that recognises they do they most important job in the school. The huge rise in management roles, since the introduction of TLRs, has meant thousands of teaching periods removed from timetables, deploying expert teaching staff into often administrative roles. This is a waste of talent. If a school has the money to spend on TLRs, then why not spend that money paying the teacher more to remain a full classroom teacher and doing the complex work they were trained to do?
12 Teachers are bright people, yet a career in teaching can often be a tedious bore intellectually. Let’s fix this, let’s demand of all teachers that they continue to learn, that they have time (by removing the non-teaching activities discussed above) to engage with evidence, to be researchers, to reflect, to engage in meaningful and challenging CPD. Teaching children is wonderful, but so is the process of learning. Let’s ensure that every teacher in every school is required to be a learner too.