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'Potential teachers need impartial, honest advice'

To attract people into teaching, we need to stop ‘selling’ courses and offer supportive guidance, says Sue O'Brien

The key to attracting more people into teaching is to get current teachers to offer honest guidance, writes Sue O'Brien

To attract people into teaching, we need to stop ‘selling’ courses and offer supportive guidance, says Sue O'Brien

Pupil numbers are rising but the number of recruits into teaching is falling and more people are leaving the profession than are entering.

Recruiting new teachers is high on the government agenda. The approach appears to be “do more of the same” – there appear to be more recruitment events than ever of various sizes up and down the country.

But in South Yorkshire, we’ve been looking not at how much teacher recruitment we’re doing, but how we do it. At Sheffield Hallam University, working with local initial teacher education providers, we’ve developed a new approach based on our research. And we believe it’s bearing fruit.

We used surveys and focus groups and my colleague Dr Emma Heron devised "Listening Rooms", which allowed participants to have authentic conversations. 

In total, we gathered the views of around 420 people: sixth-formers thinking of teaching, undergraduates not considering teaching, current trainees, NQTs, recently qualified teachers and some teachers who had decided at an early stage that teaching wasn’t for them.

The outcomes suggested that current recruitment might be starting from the wrong place. Maybe, we concluded, it was time to shift the narrative.

Reassuringly, 55 per cent of people said that the number one reason for wanting to teach was that they wanted to make a difference to the lives of young people – they want a career that matters. 

A further 11 per cent had been inspired by their own teachers or schooling, while 8 per cent cited a love of their subject. The listening rooms research backed this up: some had negative views of teaching based on their own experiences, but their identity through their chosen subjects was crucial. 

Interestingly, money was not a major concern to our sixth-formers, who said rather that teaching would provide stability “when life settles down”. 

Those thinking of teaching did have questions and concerns. Some worried about how confident they would be in the classroom and how much support they would get. Some worried that they would be expected to walk straight in and just have to get on and do it. Some talked of the stress and workload challenges they had heard about, often from teachers themselves but also on TV and in the media. When we asked about routes into teaching, they were confused. 

For trainees and early career teachers, the perceived need to be the perfect teacher from the outset was also a concern. Teachers who felt they had been “left to it” after their training spoke of a feeling that they didn’t belong to the profession. Conversely, teachers who were well supported felt a stronger sense of belonging. This appeared to have a marked impact on their resilience and on their satisfaction with their chosen career. Scaffolded support and a sense of belonging were crucial.

Inspiration from real-life teachers

This chimed with trainees: how they were treated in their placement schools was a huge factor. Mentors who had helped trainees to feel they belonged and had something to offer were making a huge difference. 

So how did this affect our approach to recruitment?

We looked at the current approach to teacher recruitment events and decided that we were going to start from a different place. Traditional events involve providers selling their wares to potential applicants: “Come and train to teach with us”, “If you come to us this is the experience you will get.” This meets the needs of those who definitely want to teach and know which route is for them, but it leaves potential teachers who have questions confused.

We took a step back: how do people get to the point where they are ready to choose a provider? How could we do this in an inspiring and impartial way that fed their motivations and gave them the information they needed?  

We fed all this into the planning for our Get into Teaching event in September. Firstly, we wanted to showcase inspirational teachers at all stages of their career to confirm participants’ beliefs that teaching was indeed a fulfilling and rewarding profession and that South Yorkshire schools were great places to work. 

We invited colleagues from across our partnerships to be on panels at the event. They were incredible: they spoke from the heart, they spoke truthfully about the challenges and they spoke of the supportive enriching schools in which they worked. Potential applicants could ask them any questions they wished, we encouraged them not to hold back, and they didn’t. 

We put on an Advice Zone where applicants could have their questions answered impartially – it wasn’t about promoting one provider over another. Getting potential teachers on to the right course for them is crucial in terms of satisfaction, course completion and, therefore, retention. We agreed that we needed to put the needs of future teachers ahead of individual provider targets.

And then, having been inspired and having had their questions answered, they went into the “marketplace'” with providers and School Direct partners from South Yorkshire.

We haven’t got hard numbers on recruitment yet, but the evaluations of the day were overwhelmingly positive and show that so far, we're generating positive feelings about the profession and energising applicants.

We’ve given impartial teaching training information to potential applicants, we’ve opened up the participants’ horizons and we’ve allowed them to get a real feeling about the courses and the life of a teacher.

We know we have more work to do. What about those who won't walk into a recruitment event, because they haven't considered teaching, either because their own experiences have told them it's not for them or they feel they are not right for teaching?  

There are many teachers in well-supported schools who are proud to stand up and talk about the privileges of the profession. We need to give them a platform to support potential teachers in one of the most crucial decisions they will make.

These future teachers need to hear in an authentic way how supportive schools scaffold them through the challenges, and they need clear impartial advice about what their route to teaching could look like. Crucially, they need to be able to see themselves in that role. 

We think we've made a good start. But there’s lots more to do if we’re serious about solving the decline.

Sue O'Brien is the strand lead for South Yorkshire Futures at Sheffield Hallam University and chair of Partnerships for Attainment

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