‘I keep hearing of new teachers being used as cannon fodder – it has to stop’

Heads and ministers alike need to understand that educational standards will not rise if we have an under-trained, overworked and hollowed-out teacher workforce, writes one union leader

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"How can we stop young teachers being used as cannon fodder?"

This was the question put to me recently by a young man who is in his third year of teaching. He told me about the excessive demands being placed on beginning teachers – being asked to take on responsibilities for which they have neither the experience nor training.

I am hearing more and more tales, told by teachers setting out on their careers, about the weight of responsibilities being placed on their shoulders right at the start of their career when, quite frankly, they have more than enough to do planning lessons, developing their teaching and assessing their pupils’ work. 

All these central elements of teachers’ work take beginning teachers longer. They do not have the years of experience of their more established colleagues and it takes them longer to prepare properly for their pupils. It is simply unfair to require them to take on management responsibilities for which they have no time and are not trained – but this is what, increasingly, I am hearing. 

One young teacher, in her second year of teaching, told me that she was now the acting head of English, due to the prolonged absence of two colleagues. She was tasked with setting work, managing exam entries and leading the assessment of the speaking and listening component of the English GCSE. She was highly stressed and hugely overworked. She had no confidence in her ability to properly fulfil these weighty responsibilities and to do justice to her pupils.

The tragedy is that she was right to lack confidence, but wrong to blame herself for not having the necessary experience. Quite simply, she should not have been put in this position. She was being set up to fail.

All this points to a growing problem in schools which is that teacher retention is now as big – or an even bigger – issue than teacher recruitment. Teachers are walking away from their jobs – 50,000 of them, 11 per cent of the profession, left teaching before retirement age in 2014.

A recent report by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) suggested that England had one of the fastest reductions in the proportion of teachers aged over 50 in secondary education between 2005 and 2014. As experienced teachers left the profession, younger teachers took their place. But without the support and guidance of more experienced teachers, it is too easy for beginning teachers to flounder – there are, simply, not enough more experienced hands to help them at the start of their career when they should be concentrating on improving their own teaching, rather than taking on whole-school or departmental responsibilities.

Other statistics, revealed by the EPI, make for uncomfortable reading. England has one of the highest proportions of teachers under 30, and only 48 per cent of its teachers have more than 10 years’ experience. The report’s authors consider that the relatively young teaching workforce in England may be a signal that teachers are experiencing "burnout" even before they step into leadership roles.

We're losing our experienced teachers

The hollowing out from the profession of teachers who are mid-career, at a stage where they feel confident to take on management roles within a school, is leading to a whole range of intractable problems. Where, for example, are school leaders going to come from if so many teachers are leaving the profession mid-career? As more and more teacher training takes place in school, who is going to mentor and support trainee teachers?

A recent Association of School and College Leaders survey revealed the acute concerns that school leaders had about teacher recruitment and retention. Some 84 per cent of respondents said that teacher shortages were having a detrimental impact on the education they were able to provide.

Many were having to use more supply agency staff (70 per cent) or ask teachers to take subjects in which they were not specialists (73 per cent). Some 25 per cent said that they had had to resort to merging classes. And not surprisingly, most said the recruitment situation was creating additional workload and stress among staff.

Education ministers need to learn one fundamental lesson. Constant changes in school structures, a proliferation of new types of school, constant revisions to the curriculum and qualifications, will amount to nothing – and certainly to no rise in educational standards, if the teaching workforce is depleted, inappropriately deployed and drowning in unsustainable workload. 

The TUC has found that teachers work the most unpaid overtime of any profession. The EPI research found that full-time teachers in England reported working, on average, 48.2 hours in the week, including evening and weekends. This is 19 per cent longer than the average amongst Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries of 40.6 hours.

Not surprisingly, these long working hours hinder teachers’ access to CPD. England ranks 30th in terms of the average number of days spent in a year on professional development – spending only an average of four days on CPD opportunities (including courses, observational visits, seminars and in-service training), compared with an OECD average of 10.5 days. (Nick Gibb, the schools minister, might, perhaps, want to note that teachers in his beloved Shanghai spend an average of 40 days a year on CPD – 10 times more than teachers in England.  Perhaps he might consider this CPD gap before he is tempted to exhort English teachers to teach in the manner of their Shanghai colleagues?)

We will not improve educational standards if we have an under-trained, overworked and hollowed-out teacher workforce. Education ministers need to understand that, and do something about it.

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedATL

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