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How to stop thousands of teachers fleeing the profession? Better pay and, most importantly, a new deal on work-life balance

Ministers must be living in Cloud Cuckoo Land if they believe there isn't a teacher supply problem, argues the general secretary of a major teachers’ union

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Hold the front page – something remarkable is about to happen. I am about to strongly agree with Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw.

Sir Michael has been banging the drum on teacher recruitment and has implied that government ministers must be living in an alternate reality if they believe there isn't a teacher shortage. He has publicly disagreed with schools minister Nick Gibb on the scale of the teacher recruitment problem, and Mr Gibb’s assertion that teacher recruitment is a "challenge".  No, says Sir Michael, we are in the middle of a serious teacher recruitment problem especially in "isolated, coastal and disadvantaged areas”. This is a view with which I entirely concur.

Throughout my working life in education there have been three teacher recruitment crises, all driven by two key factors which periodically combine to depress entry to the teaching profession – a prolonged period of pay restraint, which makes teacher starting salaries unattractive when compared with other graduate occupations, and a strengthening graduate recruitment market.

But to this toxic mix there is, this time, an added ingredient – the reality that for too many teachers the job has become impossible to manage if they are to still have personal lives. So, in addition to inadequate pay rewards and the lure of other career options, there is the daily grind under which too many teachers labour. Teacher retention is now as great a problem as teacher recruitment.

However, this government is nothing if not inventive. To the toxic mix of issues I have just listed it has added another: incompetence. The government’s helter-skelter drive to a market-based model of teacher training, with schools and higher education institutions competing to offer training places, has worsened a teacher recruitment situation that was already bad enough. As the government's Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission states: "It would be perfectly reasonable to create a diverse market for teacher recruitment if the incentives in the system were well aligned to the problem. But they are not.”

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty commissioners note that a market in teacher training recruitment favours schools which are already advantaged – those which are deemed to be good or outstanding by Ofsted, teaching schools, and schools in major cities with the cultural and leisure facilities that appeal to young teachers. Sir Michael makes the same point when he argues: “There is huge competition for good teachers. With fewer trainees coming through, it has become a buyers’ market. Trainees can take their pick of the schools they want to work at when they qualify. Unsurprisingly, the majority opt for a well-performing school in a nice area. So it is no surprise that challenging schools in deprived or isolated communities find recruitment hardest.”

The uneven playing field for school recruitment has led to struggling schools being “left out in the cold”. And too many teaching schools, argues Sir Michael, are not fulfilling their responsibility to support other local schools. This comes as no surprise to me. If you create a shortage in a market-driven economy, those who have the purchasing power, in this instance advantaged schools, including teaching schools, will snaffle up the goods; in this case, newly qualified teachers. The pupils being taught in struggling schools, which face almost insurmountable recruitment difficulties, suffer doubly. These pupils are already more likely to be disadvantaged economically and socially – to which is added the further detriment of a shortage of appropriately trained and qualified teachers – and we know from research that good teachers benefit disadvantaged children disproportionately.

Politicians of all persuasions have chanted a mantra in recent years – the key route to higher education standards lies in the quality of teaching which pupils receive. So a teacher shortage must, if we accept their view of the importance of teaching quality (and I do), be the single biggest threat to educational standards.

There are early signs that education standards are being affected. In its recent report, ‘Key stage 3: the wasted years?’  Ofsted found that students were not being sufficiently supported and challenged to make the best start to secondary school. Ofsted accused school leaders of treating key stage 3 as the poor relation of key stages 4 and 5.

School leaders are, however, in an invidious position. If they cannot recruit teachers, they have to make choices – and it can be no surprise that they prioritise GCSE and A-level classes because this is where pupils’ life chances are hugely determined, and the quality of their school judged.

It is now the case that one in five maths and English lessons is taught by teachers without an A-level qualification in those two core subjects (see table 13). In the current recruitment drought, school leaders are putting a teacher in front of a class, but too often a teacher with inadequate subject knowledge. This is unfair: unfair to the pupils who deserve to be taught by an appropriately qualified teacher, and unfair to the teacher who must constantly run just to stand still, one page ahead of the pupils, insecure in the face of challenging questions, and driven to hours and hours of preparation for each lesson.

Once it has started, a teacher supply shortage is the devil’s own job to stop. Any solution will require three key elements: an effective, national structure for teacher training which provides clear entry routes and pathways to Qualified Teacher Status; better pay to attract graduates into teaching and to keep them there; and more rewarding and manageable working lives for teachers. Until these three nettles are grasped we will see the current teacher recruitment problem, or challenge – call it what you will – turn into a crisis.

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. She tweets at @maryboustedATL

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