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'Only raising the profession's status will help schools attract the best possible teachers'

Vikas Pota, CEO of the Varkey Gems Foundation, writes:

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD's) Teaching and Learning International Survey report, published this morning, has cautioned that many developed nations are finding it increasingly hard to attract graduates into teaching because of competition from other sectors.

There is clearly a problem on our own doorstep: not just with recruitment but with retention. Around 40 per cent of all new recruits to teaching in England leave the profession within five years.

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s head of education, has identified the trinity of “status, pay and professional autonomy” as the essential ingredients to attracting and keeping the best teachers, as well as improving educational outcomes. Focusing on one of these issues alone will not be enough.

Certainly the best graduates, with the pick of job opportunities, are unlikely to be attracted to a profession that is held in low esteem. This is a factor that countries must consider when trying to improve their education system.

The Varkey Gems Foundation recently published the Global Teacher Status Index, the first attempt to compare attitudes towards teachers across different countries. We commissioned a survey of 21,000 people in 21 countries in Asia, Europe, South America and the Middle East and asked the same questions everywhere so we could compare answers. The results are striking.

It showed the public in two-thirds of the countries that took part considered the status of teachers to be similar to that of social workers. In America, teachers were seen as most similar to librarians (probably due to libraries being located next door to schools in many small US towns). This is inconsistent with the often-heard demand that teachers should have the same status as doctors and lawyers.

The most remarkable differences of all were between most Asian and Middle Eastern countries and the West. Teachers in China, South Korea, Egypt, Turkey and Singapore had a higher status than every country surveyed in Europe and the US. In European countries, 10-25 per cent of those surveyed tended to think that pupils respected teachers – compared to 75 per cent in China. Less than 20 per cent of Germans would encourage their child to become a teacher, compared to nearly 50 per cent of Chinese people. And it was only Chinese respondents who, when asked what was an equivalent profession to teaching, compared them to doctors.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the findings show that high status for teachers does not necessarily equate to good pupil outcomes, in the absence of competitive teacher pay. Any attempt to present teaching as a ‘vocation’ where rewards are to be derived from the esteem and admiration of the rest of society, rather than adequate financial recompense, are doomed to failure. In short – there is no ‘free lunch’ for politicians.

The survey evidence also indicates money spent on attracting the best quality teachers can directly impact learning outcomes. A recent study authored by economists Raj Chetty, John Friedman and Jonah Rockoff of Harvard University found that the ‘value added’ by each teacher to a student’s test score varied wildly and the benefits over time can be profound. The authors estimate that swapping a poor teacher with an average teacher raises the average lifetime income of each class they teach by $1.4 million dollars. This is something that education ministers need to factor in when, in an era of austerity, they face having to choose between spending on facilities, technology or paying for the best quality teachers.

Regrettably, the status and reward of teachers is something that is rarely mentioned in the UK as a way of improving educational outcomes. Yet there are endless discussions about changing the curriculum, making exams harder, altering everything from the length of the school day and summer holidays to the selection criteria for pupils. Whatever the merits of all such measures, none are likely to succeed without attracting the best teachers.

Another interesting output from the survey results is that increased pay for teachers enjoys public support in many countries, including the UK. Our research showed that UK citizens believe teachers are underpaid by nearly £3,000. When asked what would be a fair wage for secondary school teachers, the average figure quoted was £23,980, 15 per cent more than the current average starting salary of £20,800.

The index also found that three-quarters of the UK population agree with the introduction of performance-related pay for teachers, which would be a cost effective way of ensuring, when government budgets are under pressure, that additional teacher pay incentivises good teachers. A study by the National Foundation for Educational Research shows that over half of teachers in state schools in England also support linking pay to pupils' progress and results. Another invaluable benefit is that this would also signal to ambitious graduates that teaching is a profession that will reward hard work and success.

Currently, those weighing up teaching against the offers of other employers will not want to join a profession that is often denigrated or treated as a second best cousin of professions such as the law or medicine. If we want to keep telling children “teacher knows best” then teachers must be paid and respected accordingly.



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