It’s possible that 2017 could be the year when, finally, the penny drops: if we carry on this trajectory, there simply will not be enough teachers to teach all the lessons that need teaching.
We start the year with the news that the government missed its teacher training recruitment targets for the fifth year in a row. It was reported that numbers of teachers in core subjects had dropped again.
Add to that the ever-increasing number of teachers leaving the profession (more than 50,000 in 2015-16), a student population expected to balloon and the continuing retirement of the baby boomers, and you can’t help but feel things might come to a head sooner rather than later.
Recruitment crisis – what crisis?
But in the corridors of Whitehall, is there panic? Are there civil servants charging around trying to come up with meaningful policy initiatives to recruit and retain teachers? Absolutely not.
Since Nicky Morgan put her 44,000 questionnaires on workload into the paper shredder back in 2013, we have seen very little worthy of note to change the landscape for teachers.
The government still doesn’t seem to see that teacher retention and hence teacher wellbeing as a key issue moving forward. It was telling that in her first speech on education last September, prime minister Theresa May did not once mention teacher numbers, instead focusing on the government pledge to make more school places available and to narrow the attainment gap between the financial haves and have nots.
Of course, Ms May’s big obsession is grammar schools. Forced academisation has been dropped but it’s been replaced with a dubious call for further selective schools, a policy opposed by many high-profile educationalists.
In other words, the government is sauntering along towards some ideologically driven utopia which will have absolutely no bearing on the most critical issue in UK education; the lack of suitably trained and adequately able teachers.
Appeal of working abroad
The second key issue that could press home the crisis, is the increasing allure for teachers to work outside the UK.
It emerged last summer that the number of teachers needed in international schools teaching in English or offering an English-medium curriculum will balloon from 402,000 to 800,000 teachers by 2026 – and many of them are expected to come from Britain.
The attraction of taking the high road out of Britain is easy to see; average wages in the Middle East for the standard classroom teacher of between £30,000 and £40,000, children who want to learn, no Ofsted or governmental interference and (usually) a better climate. Teachers are seeing an opportunity for work-life balance and they are taking it.
The (perhaps misconceived) idea that British teachers are better than all the rest is perpetuating a bounce in the creation of new schools all around the world boasting "the best teaching Britain can offer".
Enticing a teacher to foreign climbs isn’t easy and keeping them there even less so, which is why teachers can be expected to be treated with a modicum of autonomy and respect rarely afforded at home. Added to that, they can expect end-of-contract bonuses in the thousands.
Attitudes towards teachers abroad can perhaps best be exemplified in Finland, where teachers spend half the time UK teachers do marking, planning, completing administration tasks and attending meetings. These conditions are enticing many to take the road less travelled. In 2017, we can expect that road to become very congested.
Currently, 1 per cent of UK teachers are teaching abroad. Expect that figure to grow exponentially in the next few years.
‘Worst period for recruiting teachers in 15 years’
I spoke to Geoff Barton, former English teacher now headteacher and candidate for the leadership of the Association of School and College Leaders, and he lamented the struggle that UK school leaders now face. "For some subjects (like maths and physics), we are lucky to get any applicants, and for others we get half a dozen at most.
"It’s the same across East Anglia and, probably, in most of the UK. The result is a kind of financial arms race in which additional money is attached to the post. This pushes the recruitment problem onto another school. It’s the worst period for recruiting teachers that I’ve known in 15 years of headship."
Mr Barton places great importance on the experiences of staff working at his school, something many academies overlook, preferring to concentrate on finance, professional development opportunities or the academic standards of their students.
"Making sure our schools are civilised places to work, with a genuine commitment to staff morale and ensuring that the fun of the job, the joy and laughter, aren’t squeezed out, is essential to recruiting and retaining staff," he says.
Mr Barton believes that a leader’s ability to create the correct atmosphere for staff to work in is now at the pinnacle of school leadership and therefore school improvement. I wholeheartedly agree.
It is that same "joy and laughter" that can be found in abundance on the international circuit. I can vouch for that currently teaching in Spain, but have also heard it from those who ply their trade in the cities of the Emirates, Europe and Asia.
Andrew Morrish, chief executive of Victoria Academies and executive headteacher at Victoria Park Academy in the West Midlands, shares Barton’s concerns and offers a similar take, but hints that times have been harder. I was astonished by his recruitment story from 2002.
"I’d just taken on a school in London and had to find 12 teachers for that September. I ended up convincing a London supply agency to pay for me to go to Cape Town and bring back a load of teachers for them. I spent three days out there interviewing non-stop and recruited a bus-load. I ended up taking six or so for the school and the rest were snapped up by other schools via the agency."
Mr Morrish’s outlandish recruitment tale may seem far-fetched to the outsider, but those within school recruitment know that schools have been looking as far afield as Jamaica and Canada to find suitable recruits. "Ride the storm" Mr Morrish tells me in his message to other cash-strapped and hard-pressed school leaders.
"Ensure you have a good staffing profile with a good balance of NQTs [newly qualified teachers] and RQTs [recently qualified teachers]. As a multi-academy trust, we’ve recently opened our own SCITT which means that we can "grow our own" and ensure a steady supply of high quality NQTs without the need to advertise externally.
"Staff wellbeing is as important today as it’s ever been. Invest wisely in training and developing staff so that they don’t want to leave."
‘We need to recognise the crisis’
One thing is for sure, heads like Mr Barton and Mr Morrish are doing everything they can to keep their schools, and in turn their communities, well supplied with suitably qualified and able teachers.
I was also fortunate to be able to speak with Ty Goddard, co-founder of the Education Foundation and influential education commentator. He had some direct messages for those with their hands on the policy buttons. "We need to recognise we have a problem, issue or crisis. We’ll need to innovate and fast," he insists.
"I'd start with levels of flexibility for returners, properly revisit workload issues and look at how technology can support our teachers."
One thing he says isn’t going to help when it comes to dealing with the issue is "glib answers, grinding axes or following self-interest". He highlights what he says can often seem like a "ping-pong game" between those at the top end of educational decision-making, batting problems between each other with no solution being agreed on or put into action.
So, if we want to ensure that 2017 isn’t the year where things come to a head, I believe there are certain things that could happen tomorrow to make things better. Take it or leave it, but here’s my own little manifesto for change.
In 2017, the government must:
- Increase teacher pay to gain parity with other professions.
- Cease performance-related pay.
- Increase planning, preparation and assessment time for classroom teachers.
- Direct Ofsted to include teacher wellbeing in its teacher standards.
- Build up teachers and the teaching profession in the media by highlighting the work of all teachers (not just a chosen few) whenever possible.
In 2017, senior leaders must:
- Review accountability measures to ensure they are as minimal as possible.
- Not expect teachers to mark with any particular regularity or form.
- Do more to minimise meetings and administrative tasks.
You never know, it might work.
Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs rogershistory.com and tweets at @RogersHistory
For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue.