Last Saturday I witnessed my first speech day at Wellington (watch this trailer by the student-run TV station, WTV, for a glimpse of what the day had in store). Singing, dancing, poetry, speeches and prizes, made up a breath-taking 3 hour(!) spectacular in a ‘big-top’ hired out specially for the event. One could only marvel at the sheer scale of the event and talent of the pupils. It was superbly over the top and a welcome contrast to the stuffy formality that many public school speech days involve.
The following day I came across an article on Schools Week which halted my end-of-year jubilation in its tracks. Entitled ‘Smart new teachers flock to coasting schools for an easier life‘, the article focuses on the recent work of John Brown from the IoE which sought to analyse the recruitment of new teachers to establish whether there was a link between degree outcome and the socio-economic make-up of the schools that appointed them to their first post. Although I cannot find this research paper online, the article reliably informs me that:
“higher qualified teachers were most attracted to schools with high achievement. After that they headed to those achieving greater progress and then to schools with more affluent pupils. Last came the schools that achieved greater progress accounting for pupils’ socioeconomic backgrounds.”
Whilst the focus on these factors as the key drivers of teacher recruitment is flawed – with other factors inevitably influencing a teachers’ choice of employer, such as proximity to the family home, whole-school ethos and the necessary teaching subject being offered – this article did make me think about the challenges the sector still faces in terms of ensuring the best teachers are attracted to teach in the schools most in need.
Whilst it’s true that some highly qualified graduates would choose to work in ‘coasting schools, the rise of Teach First – which places such graduates into schools with a higher than average proportion of disadvantaged pupils – has been meteoric. It recruited over 1,500 new teachers last year, resulting in current position as the top graduate recruiter in the country in 2014. However it is also manifest that new ideas are needed in order to keep excellent teachers in the schools in which they’re needed. Teach First’s own statistics show that 46% of teachers who have completed the Teach First programme have since left the profession. Thus, rather than the quandary of how to get ‘smart new teachers’ into the classroom, I believe the more complex question is how to get more teachers to stay in the classroom after teaching for two years in a challenging state school.
To understand how to achieve this, one must understand why many good teachers (either via Teach First or other entry routes) are leaving the profession. Whilst the NCTL doesn’t produce qualitative data on this (something they should aim to do in the future), I believe that the reasoning behind the majority of leavers is common: they are worn out and frustrated. Worn out after the daily battle to engage students with learning and the gruelling workload. Frustrated at school leaders who micro-manage rather than lead and at the politicians who posture but, to be frank, have no idea what they’re talking about. Even though the genuine reasoning behind poor teacher retention may be more nuanced than this, there is undoubtedly an issue if high quality teachers are not kept where they’re needed. It is not sustainable to have teachers come in for two years to be replaced by the next pair of of bright eyes, like a kind of post-university national service for teachers. As the OECD’s special adviser on education wrote in a report published in 2012 “people who see themselves as knowledge workers are not attracted by schools organised like an assembly line, with teachers working as interchangeable widgets”.
So what can be done about this? I don’t claim to have all of the answers, and every teacher will have a different opinion, but here are some thoughts:
1) Teach First needs a clearly defined ‘phase 2’. The current offer of a (mostly) self-funded Masters, additional workshops and a bit of coaching on the side is not enough to keep talented teachers on the gruelling treadmill. Teach First – or even a new organisation which could also appeal to non-Teach First teachers in the year after their NQT year – needs to offer a pathway for teachers to stay within disadvantaged schools but within a context that motivates them more than the general aim of ‘tackling educational disadvantage’. Teachers need scraping up, shaking down and re-engaging with the ‘mission’. Teaching Leaders already exists for middle leaders, and Future Leaders for aspiring headteachers, but what about ‘normal’ classroom teachers; what options are there for them? Teachers could be placed with another school within the Teach First network which matches their short and mid-term career aims, and which has a particular challenge which appeals to them. Whether this is supporting any one of the alphabet soup of SEN, EAL or G&T pupils, or a particular key-stage (for me it was KS5), individuals could be assured they were working in a school with a focus on that which inspires them. Relevant conversations could be had between Teach First and participants at the end of their first-term of their second year on the programme. At present, there is no formalised way for teachers to find out which schools might match their interests beyond broad searches on TES or word of mouth. This might have some complications and some might argue that teachers should simply apply for a new job at another school if they are unhappy with their current employer but I believe that the current situation is a wasted opportunity to keep teachers engaged. We should be helping teachers move ship before they end up jumping ship.
2) Quality teachers need a pay-rise. This is perhaps the most challenging to administer, but the government needs to put its money where its mouth is. A recent study by the OECD showed that the potential cost to the UK economy for failing to educate a more highly numerate and literate workforce will be up to £1 trillion by 2095. The incentive to the government is clear; they must invest their resources into securing the proven and best qualified teachers money can offer. This must be comfortably more than they would achieve in less challenging (‘coasting’) schools and in the private sector. Alan Milburn, who chairs the Government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, has already called for a ‘teachers’ pay premium’ under which 2,000 of the best teachers would be given a 25% increase in salary for teaching in tough schools. No doubt this would have its own criticisms and there are obvious challenges with regards to best identifying which teachers have had and will continue to have the best impact in schools.
It is sometimes said that law and accountancy firms in the private sector have to pay their employees significant amounts because no rational individual would work such long hours and in such a mundane environment for the same salary achieved by those working in 9-to-5 jobs in more conventional surroundings. The same argument must follow for the government remunerating teachers working in particularly challenging schools where could have a transformative impact on those children but also on the wider UK economy. This is much an argument about economics as it is about social justice.
Of course there are other ways in which teachers could be persuaded to work and stay working in challenging schools. Long-term and sustainable school reform requires exceptional school leaders and programmes such as Future Leaders will do huge amounts in helping to achieve this goal. However there is a danger that the UK system as it exists will not provide sufficient flow in the number of high calibre candidates needed to take on leadership roles in the future.