The National Teaching Service – can it work?

5th November 2015 at 00:24

Tom Bennett considers the snakes and ladders of posting teachers where they're needed most


If you drive to the A719 road on the way to Ayr in Scotland, you can see one of my favourite examples of optical crypto magic: the Electric Brae. Park your car, release the hand brake, and boggle as your car slowly starts to roll up the hill. When General Eisenhower was posted at nearby Culzean castle, he used to bring people here, presumably to scare them into agreeing to fight Hitler. It’s a trick, of course; the road has a 1:86 gradient upwards to the glen, but the land on either side of the road is coincidentally tilted in such a way as to make the observer think the road follows the opposite incline. It’s still unnerving even when you know why it happens. But you know that cars and water don’t roll uphill. 

And teachers don’t go where they don’t want to go. In some parts of the UK, you can close your eyes, stick out your arm, and grab a good teacher like Jesus just made you a fisher of men. One school I taught in recently advertised for a Geography teacher and got 40 applicants. In other parts, you could build enormous mousetraps baited with hot coffee and Turkish Delight, leave them outside teacher training colleges and still get nada. Coastal schools, rural one-horse hamlets, island eyries and urban crucibles alike can struggle to attract the talent they need. 

I’ve worked in schools where you had to lash teachers to the mast to avoid a mass exodus. Markets are only so elastic before even the lure of demand can exceed the capacity of supply to deliver. Water flows downhill, and portable people with portable skills will trickle to the best schools and postcodes they can. But children deserve their entitlement to education irrespective of a postcode or genetic tombola, and the ones who need its remedial balm most are often the ones who face the slow starvation of under resourcing. What to do? How can you make water flow uphill and how can you get teachers where teachers don’t want to go?

Enter, pursued by Jonathan Simons, Nikki Morgan, who recently announced a hunter’s stew of policy points to attempt to address this, among other things. One interesting policy was the proposed National Teaching Service. From her address at Policy Exchange:

‘A new national programme that will get our best teachers and middle leaders into underperforming schools in areas where they are needed most…The National Teaching Service will play a key part in solving this problem. By 2020 it will have deployed 1500 outstanding teachers and middle leaders to underperforming schools. These outstanding teachers will be employed by these schools for up to 3 years. They will not only be expected to bring outstanding teaching into the classroom, but also to improve the quality of teaching and leadership right throughout the school.That programme will launch next September in the North West of England.’

This idea reminded me of something I couldn't place. Then it hit me. A lifetime ago I used to work in restaurants for far longer than was decent, and after a few tours of duty you were considered veteran enough to become part of the teams that opened new stores. They would assemble the best bartenders and waiters and door divas and parachute them into the next store opening from Basildon to Cambuslang. And the oddest thing happened: it was chaos. You took all of these heroic men and women who could run a dozen heaving parties, tables turning and burning for twelve hot hours, without breaking a sweat, and you threw them together, and it was…suboptimal. Because they weren’t a team; they didn’t know each other, they lacked the subvocal tics and shibboleths and understandings that true collaboration entailed. It was a room full of Alphas, and when everyone is in charge, no one is.  

Then something else hit me: teachers can be great, and they can be good, but one thing they can’t take with them are the relationships. I fancy I can run a room as well as many, and when I changed schools last year, I felt what every supply teacher and NQT knows like a catechism: relationships matter in teaching. Children take some time to relax with a teacher enough to trust them, and if they’ve been raised in schools where the rule was no rules, then these teachers, even if they’re Coastal Commandos, will be salmon leaping against the stream just as much as any other import. 

Here is, I think, an uncomfortable truth: you can be a terrific teacher, and have a rock hard repertoire of techniques to make a room work; you can know every gear change and hand brake turn that can help you take off, but if the school culture doesn’t support safe learning spaces, if the vision is cracked and thin, if the system just doesn’t work as well as it should, then even the best teachers will succeed despite their environment rather than because of it. Running a school is hard, remember. Running a tough school in an area where the chidden don't expect to do well, where doing well doesn't even have a name, is harder still. 

So, could this work? It could, and it was reviewed favourably by people like Brian Lightman, head of the ASCL. And I heard today that the DfE have already received enquiries from schools, teachers and providers about getting involved, so it appears to have struck a chord. And why not? Any attempt to mobilise talent where it’s neede most is to be welcomed. I remember reading that one of the reasons teachers might not stay in remote schools is because it’s hard to find partners; maybe we should send them in mating pairs, like an education ark. And has anyone called them coastal commandos yet? Because I just did.

What do you need to make this work?

  • Teachers who are happy to be mobile, which usually means single, and probably younger. Or escaping their pasts. 
  • Units of at least two or three teachers sent to the schools, so they can perpetuate the culture they brought with them, rather than acclimatise to the one they’ve been sent to help. 
  • Plenty of prep: these special foces can’t be driven by mere hope. They’ll have to expect their new classes to push back, so resilience will be necessary
  • Behaviour management skills; these will frequently be schools with the most fractious classrooms, the weakest structures
  • External support; local/ regional handlers who are trained to debrief and decompress people upon whom the heaviest burdens will be placed
  • Terraformers. In the Martian, Matt Damon’s character battles to survive on a hostile planet by making the most of what he had or brought; point being, he changed the world to fit him. These people will have to be pilgrims and pioneers. They’ll need to be more than just excellent teachers; they’ll have to be change makers beyond the classroom too. There’s no point parachuting great men and women into schools where the culture is so toxic, it dissolves them. 
  • Schools prepped for the impact, and prepared to reflect on way they can learn any lessons that the strange fruit growing in their garden brings with them.

Tall order. But no one said it would be easy.