'Amid all the gloom around teaching, we must try to hang on to the wonderful moments'

Every teacher will remember the moments when students surprise themselves with what they can achieve - it's what strengthens our vocation, writes one celebrated head

Bernard Trafford


Every problem has a solution: at least, it would be good to think so. As the chorus of concern continues to grow about the teacher recruitment crisis, David Weston, chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust, writing in The Guardian this week, offered at least a part of the solution.

The headline read: “Want to stop teachers leaving? Help them develop their careers.”

The logic is indisputable. Treat your teachers as professionals, working to guide and develop their careers. Not only do they get better at their job, they grow new areas of expertise. They may decide to climb the career ladder and help to solve that other growing problem, the dearth of people willing to take on senior leadership roles.

Above all, though, a serious concentration on continuing professional development, in the sense both of improving performance and planning career progression, is a potent demonstration that the teacher is valued.

How this contrasts with a recent headline in Tes about the way teachers are too often regarded in FE. Was the headline to George Ryan’s report an exaggeration? "'Staff are seen as a cost, not as professional stakeholders'".

Sadly, I don’t see it as a caricature. I have too often heard discussions – never, I promise, in an institution I’ve run – regarding employees (and sometimes particular subjects) as a problem for the institution, as a sadly unavoidable cost, not as something that enriches. Such attitudes inevitably lead to wrong and anti-educational decisions.

So I’ll respond to a recent exhortation tweeted by Tes own Ed Dorrell that we should take note and celebrate the positives of teaching. With so many problems out there, we should occasionally remind ourselves why so many gifted and generous people still commit themselves to the vocation.

Last autumn I thought I was retired: 27 years of headship had been enough. But I failed to resist a request to step back into harness for a while, filling a gap at The Purcell School, one of the UK’s few specialist music schools. This extraordinary day-and-boarding school of just 180 children aged 10 to 18, takes students from some 28 countries.

They’re a diverse, wacky bunch: but all share both a prodigious musical talent and a passionate commitment to developing their gift. This elite music school in no way serves an economic elite. On the contrary, almost all come from modest homes and could not hope to develop their talent without funding from the government’s Music and Dance Scheme (MDS) or from sponsorship or bursaries.

But here I want to focus on the teachers I’ve encountered. My school is fortunate in being close to London. In consequence, some of the finest instrumental teachers in the country (if not the world) give up time from their regular teaching at the London conservatoires to come and teach Purcell’s youngsters. They don’t get rich doing it: there’s precious little money in the system, as all who work in the arts know.

These world-class teachers come because they want to play their part in developing the outstanding musicians of the future. They know that, if they don’t, the next generation will not come through. Their work is supported, of course, by the full-time teachers in the school, teachers of music as well as all the other academic subjects.

Every time I see even Purcell’s astonishingly gifted students amazed by what they achieve in performance, individual or collective, and witness the joy and sense of fulfilment on their faces, I am reminded of why so many of us play our part in education.

The experience is not unique to a specialist school, of course. Every teacher who has created that lightbulb moment for a child, or seen students surprise themselves with what they can achieve, gets the same buzz and finds their vocation strengthened.

Amid the undoubted gloom around schools and the system, let’s try to hang on to that.

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist and musician. He is a former headteacher of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, and past chair of HMC. He is currently interim headteacher of the Purcell School in Hertfordshire. He tweets @bernardtrafford


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Bernard Trafford

Bernard Trafford

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher

Find me on Twitter @bernardtrafford

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