'Ignoring the teacher brain drain is like ignoring a hole in a bucket as you try to fill it up'

Working overseas is becoming increasingly attractive to UK teachers – and action must be taken to help staff retention, writes a former schools minister

Jim Knight

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Sir Michael Wilshaw is making waves again with his comments on the teacher “brain drain” – staff going off to work in international schools. He is right to highlight the problem, even if it irritates ministers.

The status of Ofsted and its head is often misunderstood. Sir Michael is Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools. His is a royal appointment, on the recommendation of the prime minister. He heads a non-ministerial government department. He is not accountable to ministers in the Department for Education.

The independence of Ofsted is crucially important. Schools ministers will, and should, work with Ofsted. Ministers will legislate to change its powers and ways of working. But Sir Michael, and his successor, should always be able to report on schools without fear of upsetting Department for Education ministers.

Sir Michael is right that schools are struggling to recruit teachers. It is especially hard in the South East of England, in secondary and in physics, maths and English. This was well documented in the recent National Audit Office report.

But the NAO report said nothing about the growth of English-medium private international schools. The word “international” does not appear in the report. It shows 31,350 teachers leaving the profession prior to retirement in 2014, but fails to identify the new pull of this mushrooming sector.

At a conservative estimate, the numbers working in these schools will expand by 150,000 in the next 10 years. Some 75 per cent of teachers say they would be interested in working in a school overseas. The number one choice for these schools are English-trained teachers, as at least half teach the English curriculum through iGCSEs and A-levels.

To ignore this issue is to ignore the huge hole in the bucket as you keep trying to fill it with water.

'Golden handcuffs'

Sir Michael proposes golden handcuffs to help alleviate the problem. He argues that trainees’ bursaries should be conditional on their working in England after qualifying. I agree.

Bursaries range from £3,000 to £30,000 with no requirement to then work in UK state-funded schools afterwards. There is a huge risk of abuse and a poor return on that money.

The DfE spends £167 million on bursaries to attract teachers into shortage subjects. The NAO report looked at this and states:“The department’s statistical analysis examined only the impact on applications, without assessing the relationship between bursaries and the number of applicants who succeeded in starting training, subsequently qualified, or took up a teaching job. The department now plans to link data sets so it can do this analysis. Similarly, its qualitative analysis focused on applicants up to the point of taking a training place.”

Some years ago the Labour government in which I served looked at making these bursaries conditional on completing training and working for a number of years as a teacher in publicly funded schools. Such a scheme applies to officer training in the armed forces. This was rejected for teachers because the numbers of teachers is much larger and the collection of payments was seen to be too complicated. This could be revisited.

But I don’t think we should constrain everyone who has had public funding to train as a teacher from then teaching abroad. I think the golden handcuff should only apply to those bursaries above a certain level.

We have to be realistic. There is a now a global teacher labour market. We should design for that.

If a teacher has been out of the state-maintained sector for a number of years it is difficult to re-enter. Regulations and curriculum changes combine to make both individuals and employers reluctant to bring teachers back.

The DfE could commission online training that tailors the necessary refresher training to account for time out of the English system, curriculum changes according to subject, and general regulatory changes. The provider can then easily adapt what content is required for a teacher to be able to successfully return to England.

For returners from working in international schools there may also be a need to facilitate the acquisition of QTS while overseas. This is possible if the skills test can be completed. An organisation like the British Council would be well placed to offer that service through its network of offices, and to work in partnership with online or international training partners.

This teacher recruitment problem is not inevitable. Other countries, like Australia, are over-recruiting and training high-quality teachers. The likes of Ralph Tabberer, in the old Teacher Development Agency, have solved similar problems here before. Get him back, admit there is an acute problem, and let’s solve it.

Let’s start by listening to HM Chief Inspector of Schools when he speaks truth to power.

Jim Knight is chief education adviser to the TES’s parent company, TES Global, and a former Labour minister of state for schools

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Jim Knight

Lord Knight is chief education adviser to TES's parent company TES Global, and a former minister of state for schools 

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