'Continuing the 1 per cent pay cap for teachers will only exacerbate the already raging retention crisis'

Austerity seems to have won the day, at least for now, for teachers, with Theresa May deciding to stick to the public sector pay cap. But how long is this sustainable?

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Gone is the prime minister’s claim to strength and stability. In her weakened state, her cabinet ministers bicker in public and break ranks. And the seven-year wall of pay restraint, imposed first by the coalition government, and then retained by the Conservatives, has begun to crumble as firefighters are offered a 2 per cent pay rise.

Yesterday the School Teachers’ Review Body recommended a 2 per cent increase for some teachers and has made it clear that all teachers will need increases of more than 1 per cent because schools are facing "substantial pressure" in recruiting and retaining the staff they need. 

On BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze last week, I was quizzed about whether public servants deserved more pay because they were more moral than their private sector counterparts? “No,” I replied. Public sector workers deserve more pay because low pay is negatively affecting the quality of the work they do.

Put simply, the droves of nurses, teachers, social workers, probation officers and others leaving their profession, driven out by a toxic mix of inadequate pay, insane working hours and stress, cannot fail to have a negative impact on the public services they provide.

How can the health service maintain acceptable standards of care when, for every five nurses and midwives recruited, six experienced staff leave – citing low pay and stress as the factors which have driven them away from the vocation they love?

In schools, it is clear that the teacher retention crisis is having a real impact on educational standards. Over half (52 per cent) of England's secondary teachers have less than 10 years' classroom experience.

Burned out by stress and overwork, and inadequate pay, they leave the profession in droves – over 50,000 teachers left English state schools in the past year, more than 10 per cent of the workforce (Table 7a School workforce in England: November 2016).

Politicians are fond of telling us that no education system can exceed the quality of its teachers. The English education system is now being systematically undermined by teacher shortages, particularly in the core subjects.

The 2015 Ofsted report Key stage 3, the wasted years? found that, generally, pupils were able to study a broad range of subjects at key stage 3, but in too many schools the quality of teaching and rate of pupils’ progress and achievement were not good enough.

In one in five of the routine inspections analysed, the inspectors had raised concerns about pupils’ slow progress in English and maths at KS3 and the lack of challenge for the most-able pupils.

Ofsted concluded that the weaknesses in teaching and pupil progress reflected the lack of priority many secondary school leaders gave to KS3, with most leaders surveyed saying they staffed KS4 and KS5 before KS3.

This resulted in some KS3 classes being split between more than one teacher or taught by non-specialists.

I have been working in education for about 30 years, and have seen three teacher recruitment and retention crises. In the end, these crises always have an impact on educational standards.

Teaching is hard enough, with an average 55-hour working week for classroom teachers, and 60 for school leaders, without the added stress of teaching out of your subject base. And the problem is getting worse.

In a recent report, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) reported that turnover rates are highest for teachers of core subjects. Every year, around 10 per cent of science, maths, English and languages teachers leave the profession. And teachers in the early years of their career are more likely to leave.

This catastrophic wastage rate has hugely negative consequences. As a nation, we spend £700 million a year recruiting trainee teachers. We bring them into the profession, burn them out and then wave them goodbye just at the point where they could be talking middle leadership positions in schools.

So, we have enormous churn in schools. We have school leaders desperately seeking teachers and doing what they need to do – putting someone in front of a class. At KS3, that someone is more likely to be a non-specialist. This has direct consequences on the quality of education offered to pupils.

This is not, I would emphasise, the non-specialist teachers’ fault. It is the consequence of the exodus from an overworked, overstressed, underpaid profession. But the effects are being felt.

The government cutting its target from 90 per cent to 75 per cent of pupils being expected to take English Baccalaureate subjects by the end of this Parliament (whatever you think about the EBacc) is absolutely grounded in the teacher recruitment and retention crisis.

Seventy-six per cent of voters said they want to give public servants a pay rise, and would be prepared to pay higher taxes to fund it. Or the government could reverse its cut in corporation tax, which would enable a 3 per cent to 4 per cent rise in public sector pay.

Sooner, rather than later, Theresa May will be compelled to act.

Voters are beginning to notice the deterioration of our public spaces, the closure of libraries and the increase in rough sleeping on our cities’ streets.

Parents have become acutely alert to the funding cuts facing their schools – leading to school funding became a major election issue; it was cited as the reason for more than 750,000 voters changing their voting intentions in the last few days before the election.

Politicians can only govern, ultimately, with public consent. This is increasingly being withdrawn as the public realm deteriorates. 

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL teaching union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedATL

For more columns by Mary, visit her back catalogue.

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