"No education system can exceed the quality of its teachers" is a mantra that politicians used to never tire of telling.
Recently, however, government education ministers have gone a little quiet on that front. The reason? Teacher recruitment and retention are in crisis, an undeniable fact noted in a highly critical Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report published today.
The PAC concludes that the government has comprehensively failed to ensure that there are enough teachers willing to train, and remain, in England’s schools. The committee is known for refusing to pull its punches when it has criticisms to make, but this report takes its critique into a new league. It is, and I can think of no other word, devastating, particularly when Meg Hillier, the PAC chair, denotes as “sluggish and incoherent” the government’s response to the gradual decline in teachers willing to train, and remain, in England’s schools.
As education ministers go "Ouch!", Ms Hillier adds, for good measure, that it should have been obvious to senior civil servants that a growing demand for school places (over half a million extra pupils will enter England’s schools over the next decade), combined with a drive for schools to make funding cuts, was an impossible task to place on school leaders.
Instead of acting on the evidence, those in the Department for Education, in Ms Hillier’s colourful words, “seem to have watched on, scratching their heads, as more and more teachers quit the profession”.
Ministers are urged to “get a grip”. In particular, the PAC concludes, they must devote much more attention, and resources, to teacher retention. While £555 million is spent each year, by government, on teacher training, just £36 million is spent on teacher retention and development. The committee notes, perhaps more in sorrow than in anger, that "the department does not understand why more teachers are leaving the profession, and does not have a coherent plan to tackle teacher retention and development”.
It’s hard to think how the government will answer that charge, but any plans to respond to the PAC by just listing what initiatives are being taken to recruit teachers will be upended by the PAC’s conclusion that the relatively small-scale government initiatives to boost the supply of teachers are inadequate and have not been communicated adequately to schools.
'Give guidelines on teacher workload'
The PAC correctly identifies excessive teacher workload as a major driver of teachers from the profession. The DfE’s workload survey, published in February 2017, found that classroom teachers and middle leaders worked an average of 54.4 hours a week. Increased contact time, larger class sizes and the pace of change in assessment and the curriculum are the main factors identified by the PAC as increasing workload.
While the report acknowledges the DfE’s workload challenge, and the steps taken to reduce unnecessary workload burdens, it notes that the effects have been small. Only half of schools have used the workload challenge tools. This lack of engagement leads the PAC to make a major, and highly significant recommendation, which is that the DfE should work with others in the school sector to set out what is an acceptable level of teacher workload.
I can hardly overstate the importance of this recommendation. A government statement on the expected weekly working hours of teachers would concentrate minds wonderfully – giving teachers a benchmark against which to measure their working hours, and steady ground on which to stand in their discussions with line managers, if their working weeks exceed government guidelines.
A government-backed working hours guideline for teachers would also focus school leaders on those activities that are central, and essential, to educating pupils, and force searching questions about the mountain of bureaucracy under which too many teachers labour fruitlessly.
If I were a government minister, I would find the PAC’s conclusions challenging and chilling. Challenging because the PAC is having none of government ministers’ protestations that they are doing all they can to unburden teachers of excessive workload and pay them properly.
Chilling, because the PAC lays bare, in startling terms, just what a mountain the government has to climb to provide an adequate supply of teachers for England’s schools.
Damian Hinds, as a very new secretary of state for education, must recognise that he has no greater nor more pressing problem to deal with than teacher supply. He must signal a change of direction in the government’s approach to this problem, and be prepared to engage in new thinking that challenges established orthodoxies.
The most important of which, and not mentioned by the PAC, is the accountability framework and the effect it has on the workload of teachers and school leaders. In its last two manifestos, the government has promised a review of Ofsted, but has failed to carry one out.
Talk to virtually any teacher or school leader and they will tell you that workload is driven hugely by the confused, overlapping and draconian accountability pressures placed on schools. Add to this research from the Education Policy Institute showing that Ofsted inspections are overwhelmingly based on the make-up of a school’s pupils, rather than on the quality of the education it provides, and the case for a fundamental, root and branch, examination of Ofsted, becomes unarguable.
Will Damian Hinds have what it takes to tackle the most fundamental threat to the quality of education provided to England’s pupils? We await his response with interest.
Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU