There is no recruitment crisis. Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief. No, what we’re seeing is a “challenge”. That’s what schools minister Nick Gibb told us last week, giving the word a whole new meaning. That wasn’t a crisis for Napoleon at Waterloo – merely a challenge. The Siege of Yorktown didn’t represent a crisis for the British. No siree, that defeat by George Washington was just a challenge.
The government uses its own figures to play down the issue. These show that vacancy rates have remained stable at about 1 per cent for the past 15 years, rising to 1.4 per cent in 2001. Unfortunately, they fail to expose the extent of the problem because they do not compare like with like. Once collected in January, these figures have been collated in November since 2010, thus no longer picking up on Christmas vacancies.
And the recruitment problem is not contained to the classroom. There is also a severe shortage of headteachers, with one in three school governors saying they are having difficulty finding a leader. Recruitment expert John Howson predicts that this will hit crisis point by 2017-18 at the latest (see pages 16-17 in this week's TES).
Despite not wanting to face up to a crisis, the government does concede that there may be a few teacher shortages in key academic areas, particularly in the English Baccalaureate subjects of maths, English, science, foreign languages, history and geography. Here, education secretary Nicky Morgan has had a bright idea, no doubt prompted by Baroness Warnock’s Teach Last wheeze: get the recently retired into the classroom to help out.
The Americans call this “the encore career”, a final bow for the baby boomers before the curtain comes down. After a lifetime spent on the devil’s work, it allows them to do a meaningful job that has a social purpose and collect their reward in heaven.
These people may well be blessed with good health, skills, experience and wisdom. But what they will not have is the energy to work in the classroom. No matter how fit a retiree, the stamina required day after day should not be underestimated. As a TES forums user points out: “I am 33 and I feel burned out after eight years of teaching. Lordy knows how someone in their sixties would cope!”
However well-intentioned the education secretary’s suggestion, it only tickles the surface of the issue. Ministers should listen to the experts, the headteachers, the unions, just about everyone who is telling them there is a crisis, instead of sticking their fingers in their ears and humming “You’re my Teach First, my Teach Last, my everything”.
Most importantly, what the government response does is undermine the people already doing the job under increasingly stressful circumstances. On the one hand, the government says it supports further professionalisation with a College of Teaching; on the other, it deskills the profession by suggesting that people from any old walk of life can saunter into the classroom and teach.
Teachers deserve more than that. Publicly acknowledging that there is a crisis and that drastic action is needed would be a good place to start: a little more Churchill after Dunkirk, a little less Nero watching the flames engulf the Palatine Hill.
Read more in the 10 July issue of TES. You can read it on your tablet or phone, or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents.