'Ministers need to stop treating the system like a game of Buckaroo – seeing how much they can stack on before it starts kicking'

14th March 2018 at 16:04
The changes to qualified teacher status should be welcomed – but, for the reforms to work, the government needs to understand the extent to which resources and responsibility is already vastly overstretched, writes one educationalist

Last Friday, the government concluded its consultation on reforming Qualified Teacher Status (QTS). The headline proposal is for an extended induction period with QTS awarded at the end and a new professional development framework but there are also measures on mentoring, embedding a culture of continuing professional development and piloting work-related sabbaticals.

On the face of it, these reforms should be welcomed. If properly resourced, they would help to support the development of new teachers once they have completed Initial Teacher Training (ITT).

The clincher here is the proviso “if properly resourced”. To be effective, changes to QTS must be married up with wider efforts on the three related issues of teacher workload, recruitment and retention, and funding. If it is introduced in isolation the 'strengthening' of QTS could well exacerbate existing strains in these areas.         

To make the reforms work, there first needs to be greater recognition of the ever-growing burdens on schools and their staff. Ministers seem to treat the school system as something akin to a giant game of Buckaroo, seeing just how much they can stack onto the ‘mule’ before it starts kicking.

QTS reforms

In only the last year we have seen the addition of major new roles around mental health, careers and data protection, all without additional ongoing funding. There is, justifiably, a sense among school leaders that we are reaching the limit of the new responsibilities schools can realistically take on within existing, over-stretched resources.

If reforms to QTS are introduced without addressing this, schools will struggle to provide enough time for the increased induction period and the associated mentoring requirements, not to mention the sabbaticals pilot. We could easily find ourselves in a perverse situation where the workload of current teachers is simply increased in order to give their new colleagues and their mentors more time to work through the extended induction period. This would increase stress, lower morale and ultimately work against the government’s objectives.

On recruitment, I concur with the Public Accounts Committee that a clear plan is needed to develop and retain the profession’s workforce. That much is obvious. The DfE has missed its recruitment targets for the fifth year in a row (missing the mark by around ten thousand fewer secondary school teachers) and Ucas statistics show a 24 per cent drop in applications to ITT from February 2017 to February 2018.

What might be done about it is another matter. The national schools commissioner, Sir David Carter, has made a strong case for a clear 10-year vision for all teachers to see the development routes their careers could take. But, this has yet to translate into concrete policy.

Work and listen

In January, Schools NorthEast brought together DfE officials with North East teachers and school leaders with various levels of experience for a series of focus groups on recruitment and retention. A number of ideas emerged from these sessions: some obvious, such as the effect of competent school leadership, workload and staff emotional wellbeing on recruitment, and some not so obvious, such as the desire for assistance with spousal relocation when looking for a new job out of the area.

While we recognise this will not be a magic panacea we are keen that the government continues to work with us to listen to what teachers themselves say about their motivations for getting into and staying in the profession. It was encouraging to see the secretary of state discussing the same themes that we heard from North East teachers in his speech to the ASCL 2018 conference last weekend.

As ever, the context of real terms cuts to school funding looms over all other considerations. Schools are cutting back on the size of their senior leadership teams, increasing the workload of remaining school leaders as inadequate budgets and recruitment difficulties increase their contact time. The NAHT headteachers' union has documented declines in school spending on CPD, most recently in their survey Breaking Point, which showed 55 per cent of large schools and 70 per cent of small schools had reduced CPD in 2016/17. School budgets may be unable to support the new requirements in the absence of increased investment.

Adding gravitas

The DfE has a recruitment and retention crisis. It needs to make the role of teaching more attractive to those considering it as a career. The restructuring of QTS certainly has a role to play in this by adding additional gravitas to qualified status. In career terms, it should be a part of a longer pathway to developing and refining your craft and/or leadership progression.

This is yet another reform looked at in isolation, rather than as an overall strategy to transform both the profession and to add to its appeal as a career path. The government has a perception issue and a supply-demand divide that it has to conquer. Without adequate resourcing, this could undermine the potential benefits that QTS reform could bring.

Mike Parker is the director of Schools NorthEast 

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