I have been a teacher for 28 years, a headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 51, this much I know about how we are on our own when it comes to the teacher recruitment crisis.
On 13 July 2016, in her first staement as prime minister in Downing Street, Theresa May said: "If you’re from an ordinary working-class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You can just about manage, but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few but by yours. We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives."
It is a truth universally acknowledged that only great teaching will make our country’s education system great. It’s that simple.
And it is not just a matter of having enough teachers to stand in front of classes, it is the quality of those teachers which is an equally serious concern. In 2009 the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development concluded that: "The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers and principals, since student learning is ultimately the product of what goes on in classrooms," echoing the McKinsey report’s findings from 2007. It is hard to disagree.
In the past four years, whilst the number of pathways into the profession has proliferated, the number of recruits to teaching has been insufficient to meet demand. In 2015, for instance, 18,000 teachers left England to teach abroad whilst only 17,000 teachers were trained.
I know of a school whose science department comprises 17 teachers, but only two have science degrees. The school is in one of the most deprived wards in the country. More than most, its students need the very best teachers.
If you cannot recruit enough teachers then just find a way of teaching which requires fewer teachers. I have heard the notion of a single teacher in Sidcup video-conferencing physics A-level lessons to classrooms scattered across the country lauded as the Next Big Thing. I have had sufficient conversations with policy makers to convince me that 60 students taught in a hall by a teacher supported by a teaching assistant is The Future as far as the DfE is concerned. The DfE’s obsession with all things Chinese makes so much more sense if teaching students by the hall-full is where we’re heading.
The thing is, you see, the DfE seems to have almost given up worrying about recruiting teachers to the profession. The first finding of the public accounts committee Report entitled Training New Teachers, published on 10 June 2016, was damning: "The Department for Education has missed its targets to fill teacher-training places four years running and has no plan for how to achieve them in future." When it comes to recruiting teachers, the DfE isn’t much help.
Other government policies are actually making it even harder for schools to recruit and retain good teachers. Many teachers working in our schools come from Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Canada, but they will only be able to remain working in the UK if they earn over £35,000 thanks to Theresa May’s genius piece of legislation which became law in April 2016. The new rules state that anyone from non-EU countries working in the UK from 6 April 2016 must earn over £35,000 or be deported. The impact on schools is being felt already. A headteacher friend of mine has recently lost two mathematics teachers, one who returned to Canada and one who went to work in London at a school able to offer a salary above the £35,000 threshold.
When I asked Dr Gary Holden, executive principal/ CEO of the Williamson Trust multi-academy trust, at a Teaching School Council regional meeting recently about what needs to happen to address the teacher recruitment crisis, instead of answering the question he threw it back at me and asked me what I planned to do to recruit more teachers. He may as well have been JFK: "Ask not what the DfE can do for you, ask what you can do for the DfE." It was a moment of illumination for me.
With the demise of the local authority, there is little left locally to support schools. At a national level, the school-led system will result in an arm’s length relationship between the DfE and schools. The bottom-line is suddenly clear: we are on our own.
How can we stop teachers leaving?
So, what should we do to recruit and retain high-quality teachers?
Firstly, school leaders need to eradicate the fear from our schools’ corridors. We have to stop the madness of overbearing quality assurance systems, penal performance-related pay policies and ridiculous policy which has no grounding in evidence. Why, for instance, do some schools insist upon teachers marking books after every five hours of teaching, no matter what has gone on in those five hours, or whether that marking will impact positively upon students’ learning? Stop such nonsense before we drive even more teachers out of the profession. Much of what is forcing teachers from the classroom is imposed by school leaders themselves.
Secondly, even though most don’t teach for the money, we have to pay our teachers as much as we can. Six years of pay freezes and below-average pay rises have led to real terms pay cuts of around 10 per cent since 2008. As the government cuts school budgets by 7 per cent in real terms over the course of this Parliament, school leaders have to prioritise teachers’ pay if we are going to recruit and retain enough high-quality teachers.
Thirdly, we have to prioritise continuous professional development and learning (CPDL). I have come to realise that we are the worst trained profession in the country. Think about it: when did you last receive training which changed your classroom practice and improved your students’ outcomes? In 28 years of teaching I can think of no more than three moments when I have changed my teaching as a consequence of my training. The new DfE standards for continuous professional development are a good place to start planning better CPDL. If you support your CPDL provision with a focus upon evidence-informed practice, you won’t go far wrong.
If we do not make teaching a much more attractive profession we are in danger of seeing the school system in England implode. We do not have the capacity to lead our own system right now. The school-led system is doing what the key stage 3 strategy did: taking our most talented practitioners out of the classroom and making them consultants and trainers, when they should be in classrooms teaching brilliantly.
Which leads me to 'The Huntington School Contract with Teacher Colleagues, Present and Future…'
"At Huntington I want to work with teachers who are academically well-qualified, who enjoy working with children, who are prepared to work really hard for those children, who have genuine humility, who are open to improving their practice for the entire length of their teaching career, who are idealists, who acknowledge the fallibility of the human condition, who always see the funny side of things, and teachers who teach for the love, not the money.
In return I want to provide teachers with the very best opportunities for continuous professional development and learning, give them as much professional autonomy as I can over how they manage their working lives, treat them with respect, honesty and kindness, show them unqualified humanity, acknowledge that they have a life to live outside of school, give them free tea and coffee on demand, and, even if they do it for the love, to pay teachers well."
It’s a matter of love over fear.
Sitting here in the holiday sunshine, reflection comes easy, as easy as the words uttered by Theresa May on the steps of 10 Downing Street as she took office.
If May really does care about the "ordinary working-class family" then sorting out the teacher recruitment crisis should be a priority. The thing is, it has to be a priority for us, for school leaders across the country, not for her, because with Brexit to deal with, education has already fallen off Theresa May’s priority list.
We are on our own.
John Tomsett is a headteacher at Huntington School in York. He blogs at: Johntomsett.com