This was the week when the Department for Education’s Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy was finally published. In general, it was welcomed like a long-awaited Christmas parcel that went missing in some obscure provincial sorting office and then, battered but intact, gets stuffed through the letter-box at midday.
Indeed, I’d be busily hanging out the bunting if it weren’t for the way that such a positive story about education has been overshadowed in the past 24 hours by the DfE’s woefully inadequate response to the issue of teachers’ pay.
Put frankly, it’s no good simply talking about the value of teachers and then not seizing the opportunity to translate good intentions into action. In a single stroke, the DfE has signalled a pay award for 2019 capped at a totally inadequate 2 per cent, and erroneously suggested the extra cost can be afforded by schools that are in the grip of a funding crisis so severe that many have had to set deficit budgets and implement major cuts.
The positive vibe of its recruitment and retention strategy already seems like a long time ago. That’s a shame, because I’ve rarely seen so many disparate voices speak so enthusiastically about a new education policy. From where I sit, it looks like a strategy that finally starts the process of reinventing what being a teacher might look like in the next phase of the 21st century.
Media comment has focused largely on the introduction of phased bursaries and the scrapping of the floor and coasting standards. But there is a lot else in the strategy worth exploring. Here’s a few of them:
• The Early Career Framework, a funded two-year package of support for all new teachers, including a dedicated mentor and a reduced timetable. We know that far too many teachers leave the profession early in their careers. This is exactly the sort of positive step forward needed to support and nurture them during those tricky early years and keep more people in teaching. It’s good for teachers and good for pupils.
• Plans to introduce new specialist national professional qualifications to develop areas of expertise. Traditionally, NPQs have been taken by teachers stepping into leadership posts, but the DfE is proposing to develop qualifications for other routes. Specifically, the strategy mentions developing areas of expertise such as assessment, behaviour management, subject and curriculum expertise, and pedagogy. This all needs to be properly funded but it has the potential to broaden and deepen the range of expertise within schools and provide new opportunities for teachers.
• The first steps in a scheme to support schools to implement flexible working. The strategy notes that many teachers leave the profession because they cannot access part-time or flexible working opportunities. It promises to support flexible working with a “find your jobshare” website and technical back-up such as timetabling tools. It is, of course, timetabling that is the big challenge here, and introducing additional factors into what is already an immensely complex exercise is no mean feat. But the evidence is clear that if we want to improve the retention rates in teaching – which we simply must do – then we are going to have to do better in accommodating flexible working.
• The final chapter of the strategy acknowledges the fact that the current process of applying to become a teacher is far too complex. It contains the stark finding that in 2017-18, more than 150,000 people registered on the Get Into Teaching website, but only 45,000 people applied for mainstream postgraduate teacher training: “In the current system, applicants have to work through three separate systems to register interest, find and apply for a course. At each stage, we see potentially great teachers – put off by these cumbersome systems – opting to pursue alternative careers.” There is a plan for an “easy-to-use one-stop application system”. This is long overdue. Too many people tell me that trying to find a route into the profession is more complicated than trying to crack the Da Vinci Code.
All of this signals that here is a DfE trying to be just that – a department FOR education. After years of big structural stuff and piffling small-time distractions, here’s a strategy that addresses the thing that really matters: making teaching the best career option for anyone who craves intellectual stimulus, a sense of social mission, and the optimism of preparing the nation’s young people to be our future citizens.
But then the DfE goes and blows all this good will with yesterday’s dismal pronouncement on teachers’ pay. It will have left teachers and leaders feeling utterly deflated and undervalued, and schools facing yet another unfunded cost pressure on budgets that cannot take any more strain.
Strategy or no strategy, it is hard to see how this week’s statement of intent on teachers’ pay can do anything other than demoralise the profession, and deepen the recruitment and retention crisis.
Geoff Barton is the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders