You can certainly feel the momentum around efforts to "solve" (if that is the right word) the desperate teacher recruitment crisis in the UK.
The government’s plans to strengthen qualified teacher status (QTS) and improve career progression places Initial Teacher Training (ITT) within a wider strategy around recruitment, retention, workload and professional development. And developments like the Early Career Framework and the Recruitment and Retention Strategy reflect the fact that the government is committed to on-the-ground action.
Up until recently, we have perhaps missed out on a harder "lobbying" approach to change, but Tes’ Let Them Teach campaign, calling on the government to support adding the whole teaching profession to the "shortage occupation list", which gives higher priority for visas for international teachers, has thrust this issue into the public eye. We can only hope for a sensible outcome from this, and indeed that wider perceptions around teaching return to where they should be: that this is a great profession, where the rewards far outweigh any potential challenges.
So, we are making good progress, but there is a "but". A big "but". A huge problem remains around exams and high accountability. A few months ago we witnessed schools minister Nick Gibb facing criticism from MPs on the health and education select committees, who said that excessive testing was causing mental health problems in schools. Emma Hardy, a Labour MP, said that high-achieving girls were “breaking”, and Sarah Wollaston, the Tory chairwoman of the health committee and a doctor, said that young people had reported exam pressures as a key cause of mental ill health. Children still in primary school are being labelled failures as a direct result of the high stakes Sats tests.
It is clear the government is committed to the exam and high-accountability culture that has developed in schools, as a result of its own policy over the past 10 years or so. Much has been said about the "narrowing of the curriculum" and criticism has been levelled at systems which result in "teaching to the test" instead of transmitting a passion for a subject. Schools and teachers are not to blame. They are under immense pressure from above and face insurmountable workload and stress overload. Ask a teacher what and how they want to teach and it will often be very different from what, and how, they have to teach to meet ever-more demanding expectations from government.
Schools and teachers are judged on the outcome of tests and not on the wider culture and commitment they have to the children they teach. League tables can make or break a school with no consideration having been given to the context in which they are working. Exam factories produce adults who can pass exams, but experience suggests they do not produce adults with the passion for a subject which they want to pass on to the next generation. Instead teachers are turning away from education and into other, perhaps more creative, workplaces.
One aspect of this debate that is being missed in the current recruitment rhetoric is the need to look through the eyes of today’s primary and secondary school pupils and what they see in their classroom. My concern is this could this be impacting on the future desire to teach among the young people. Are children experiencing a "sausage factory" approach to education which is turning them off ever returning to the classroom as adults?
Research published by Tes in January showed one fifth of UK primary pupils aspire to be a sportsperson, but found that teaching was the second most popular career choice. While only chosen by more than 10 per cent of the 13,000 children questioned, this remains incredibly positive. But this also begs the question, what happens to these children during their lives such that they don’t translate to applications for teacher training programmes 10-14 years later?
Does their own school experiences, coupled with later exposure to the plethora of negative media surrounding the profession, put prospective students off?
The briefest of forays into social media will reveal personal stories of teachers being unable to afford their own home, of taking work home in the evenings, weekends and holidays, the barriers around performance-related pay, the accountability around data and the "crisis" in schools.
I worry that prospective trainee teachers look back on a school career dominated by exams and then look outwards to find that there is very little good news out there – and this must surely be the real nub of the issue if we are to "solve" the long-term challenge.
One for us all to ponder over the summer break.
Emma Hollis is executive director of the National Association of School-Based Teacher Trainers