'How can we fix recruitment? Workload'

The DfE needs to take off its rose-tinted glasses and give teachers hope that their jobs will get easier, writes one union boss

Nick Brook


Earlier this month, at NAHT heads' union's annual conference, Damian Hinds made the self-evident yet welcome statement that "there are no great schools without great teachers or leaders".

In saying so, he was applauded by school leaders for recognising that not all is right with education and that there is, indeed, a recruitment problem in our schools.

This is quite the departure from the government line of old. When NAHT has spoken out about the growing recruitment crisis over the past four years, the response has pretty much been: "There is no shortage of teachers. There may be too many children, but there is no shortage of teachers." Acceptance that there is a problem may be half the battle. But what can the government do about it?

For a period during the last recruitment crisis, I was head of teacher recruitment at the Teacher Training Agency – the government quango tasked then with attracting more people into education. During that time, money was lavished on memorable advertising campaigns. Crack teams of recruitment experts worked with prospective candidates to convert the mere hint of interest in teaching into successful applications to training. And recruitment improved.

This worked, by and large, because the public perception of teaching was a blank canvas on to which we able to paint notions of "no one forgetting a good teacher" or "use your head, teach".

If anything, preconceptions helped – "You get six weeks' holiday in the summer and finish work at 3.30pm, right?" The fact that the scales soon fell away as soon as possible candidates visited a school didn’t matter – they were hooked by the chance to change lives and believed that this would be worth working hard for.

Teaching's negative public image

Fast-forward two decades and there is no longer a blank canvas in the minds of those we seek to recruit. There are over 450,000 teachers in this country. Everyone is friends with or is closely related to a teacher.

It is still true that no one forgets a good teacher. Unfortunately, everyone now knows an overworked and dispirited one.

And this will be a real problem for the marketers.

The government will find it nigh on impossible to "sell" its positive recruitment message when a negative impression has become engrained on the minds of those being targeted – an impression formed through word of mouth by talking to trusted friends or family, with deeply personal experience and distinctly different views to government on what is being "sold".

When messages conflict head-on, people will believe the view expressed by those closest to them.

The solution is, of course, to deal with the root cause of the problem. Yet attempts to make teaching great again (to coin a phrase) will not happen overnight. However, this should not necessarily be a barrier to improving recruitment in the short term.

Those considering teaching need hope: hope that whilst things are tough now, next year will be better and the following year better still.

And they need belief: belief that whilst they have it on good authority that things are tough now, enough is being done to put these things right.

The government’s campaign will have the best chance of success if it attempts to paint a more positive picture of the future rather than a rose-tinted version of the present. And this needs continued leadership from the very top.

Workload must be top priority

Our political leaders can instil hope by their words and belief by their deeds. We need them to be single-minded in their determination to address unnecessary workload: it shouldn’t be the narrative of a single speech, but the narrative of all speeches. It shouldn’t be the focus of one initiative but the motivation behind them all. And through actions and words, the message may just start penetrating public and professional consciousness.

The secretary of state’s announcements at the NAHT conference – that he trusts the profession to get on with the job and will do everything possible to crack the issue of unnecessary workload – is exactly the sort of commitment we needed.

Teaching remains a fantastic profession to join – on a good day no other job comes close. No job since has put a wider smile on my face than the one I wore in the class photos I recently uncovered from my early days as a teacher. For many though, there is undoubtedly less to smile about now than then.

It has been said to me, "What was once an enjoyable job with occasional tough elements is now a tough job with occasional enjoyable elements." I think there is more than a grain of truth in this.

And it is also true that the government cannot make this change alone. We will all need to play our part in turning words into action on the ground, and transforming the day-to-day reality of teaching so that it becomes more "as advertised".

Teachers have never been afraid of hard work, but most are despondent about the value of many tasks that they are now expected to do. Many teachers who have left the profession have reported that they still enjoyed teaching. It’s the other stuff that got them down.

NAHT’s accountability commission is looking at what has driven the proliferation of non-essential activities that have little or no benefit to pupils. We will be reporting in September with proposals for change. In the meantime, Professor Becky Allen, of the UCL Institute of Education, will lead a workload advisory group looking specifically at the issue of data collection.

Glimmers of hope are emerging. If the government and schools are willing to change, then we may well be able to make the job manageable, memorable and enjoyable once again.

Nick Brook is the NAHT deputy general secretary, and chair of NAHT's accountability commission

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