Teacher supply is topping the agenda again: not before time. New education secretary Justine Greening is bombarded with the same advice from all quarters: she must recruit and retain enough high quality teachers to meet the nation’s needs.
Reports highlight one recruitment problem after another. Last week, Helen Ward reported in TES that the “highest-achieving A-level students are least likely to apply to teach”. No one will surely be surprised that fewer A-level candidates who achieve three A* grades apply to teacher-training courses than any other category of pupil, given the conditions.
Teacher supply expert, Professor John Howson, of Oxford Brookes University, feels attracting students with the highest grades doesn’t matter – the opposite view to Michael Gove who, when education secretary, wanted only applicants with a 2:1 or better, a level also required by Teach First.
When Mr Gove made that announcement with his customarily airy assurance, plenty of heads disagreed. Leaders of a number of the country’s most highly performing schools lined up to say that some of their best teachers had got it all wrong at university, but had learned from their failure. They reeled off anecdotes of inspirational teachers with third-class degrees.
They could always be exception that proves the rule, of course, and maybe we shouldn’t overstate it. But, just as I don’t think it’s helpful to insist that anyone with a lower-second or third-class degree, or even without one, is incapable of being a teacher, we shouldn’t either overlook the gloomy fact that so few of our very brightest university graduates apparently want to go into teaching. So, why?
Professor Howson observes that candidates with first-class degrees “have got a wide range of choices. Attracting them is a difficult problem to solve, but what we shouldn’t do is make it more difficult – when you impose a pay freeze, reduce salary increases – that is making the problem worse”.
He’s now wrong. The language from government remains negative and critical of teachers. The rhetoric of school improvement too frequently adopts a tone of “not good enough”. Ministers’ occasional (too occasional) words of admiration to the profession cut no ice when schools’ commissioners take hostile action against schools that miss the latest government examination floor-targets, and when teachers, support staff, school leaders and governors alike suffer sleepless nights when Ofsted comes to call.
Bright graduates know that government recruitment adverts speak truth about the privilege of inspiring children and being inspired by them in turn. But in addition they’ll want an employer who pays them well, trusts them to use their gifts and doesn’t demand spurious accountability through targets and the ticking of boxes.
If government continues to drive and harass teachers while also holding their pay down, it won’t see recruitment figures rise.
And that courts a national catastrophe.
Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and a former chairman of the HMC. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets as @bernardtrafford