Fergal Roche, former headteacher and now CEO of The Key, the support service for school leaders and governors, writes:
As Professor Brent Davies said at the National College Seizing Success conference a couple of years ago, teaching is more difficult than surgery. Without doubt, he was trying to wake us all up...I think it was a breakfast seminar after a late night of networking.
But he has a point. These days, surgeons perform hundreds of similar operations and become expert on a very precise area of the human body. Much of their skill is honed through narrowly-focused repetition. Teachers, on the other hand, have to advance 30 individuals from quite different starting points to much higher levels of competence; individuals who become motivated and learn in a great variety of different ways. The variables are enormous. The potential life-changing impact is enormous.
When I first started teaching, there was a diffident 13-year-old in my English class, with scruffy scratchy handwriting and a complex home life. He didn’t like speaking in front of others, often failed to complete work, seemed a bit average. But, I noticed how he was the first to spot humour in some of the more complex literature we looked at and I’d see him sniggering to himself as we read. I asked to see him after the lesson and told him I was on his case. I raised my expectations of him, put a line through his next piece of terrible work, and was hugely impressed by his re-write (and told him so). Over the next two or three months his standards went up and up and up.
I made him stand up in front of the whole class. I told him how he was one of the cleverest pupils I had taught and how it would be criminal if he didn’t go on to get straight As in his A levels.
About ten years later I was standing outside a country church after the Christmas day service when someone tapped me on the shoulder. A 6ft 3in suited twenty-something shook my hand and asked if I remembered him. After a few seconds I managed to summon up his face from the past (a skill many teachers possess). He told me he had got three As, had gone to Imperial College in London and was now doing an MSc in something very clever.
You think I digress? It’s only to illustrate with a cameo image how teachers can have such power over the development and confidence of a young person. I am not claiming I was the sole catalyst in his turnaround, but I know I had a lot to do with it.
Teaching is one of the most valuable jobs in our economy, if not the most. In fact, in terms of his or her contribution to the economy, the teacher has far more impact than the surgeon. Who, therefore, should we be trying to motivate, engage, support, reward more than our teachers? Their well-being is fundamental to the welfare of the nation.
Be depressed, therefore, all who read on. In The State of Education Survey that The Key recently conducted with Ipsos Mori, as many as 65 per cent of school leaders said the teaching profession was now unattractive to those choosing a career and 82 per cent said morale was worse than it had been in 2010 (with 49 per cent saying it was much worse).
At The Key, we receive many questions from school leaders about how to boost low teacher morale, and it is clearly a subject at the forefront of their minds. There is no easy answer, but I think we have to address the issue with a mixture of support and recognition.
Many teachers cite rising workloads and increasing pressures of the assessment cycle as the key reasons for low morale. Every new teacher should be taught a rigorous approach to time management, and schools need protocols to enable teachers to prioritise high value teaching activity over competing demands on their time. I’m not talking about a book on time management, but a thorough, mentored, programme to teach them the disciplines that will help them to avoid burnout, particularly in the early years, when so many teachers leave the profession.
And, of course, it would help if, as Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads’ union the NAHT, said at his union’s annual conference last weekend, we decided to reform two or three things a year rather than the whole national curriculum, SEN, league tables, exam retakes and so on.
Much, much more should be done to celebrate teaching successes. The State of Education Survey showed that school leaders’ impression of the quality of teaching in England was highly positive, with 61 per cent saying that it is “good” and a further 27 per cent saying it is “very good”. The TES feature, My Best Teacher, is a brilliant example of the massive impact that the profession has on the lives of children from all walks of life. You don’t need me to tell you that.
Yes, select our brightest, most organised, most persuasive, most resilient graduates to enter the profession. But then invest heavily in them, particularly in the early years to protect their motivation and enjoyment of the job.
South Farnham primary school, which I visited recently, looks after its teachers like precious gold. They are obliged to take their breaks in the non-working staff room (really comfortable with not an exercise book in sight). They are served with coffee and snacks, and do not even have to wash up their mugs. On parent-teacher evenings they are served with a light supper beforehand. The point is made: “You are the teacher. We value you hugely and will do all we can to ensure you can perform to your best”.
If we get this right, we will see a revolution in converting the nation’s raw materials into high value. Isn’t it obvious?