'We should be worried that with the exodus from the profession, teaching is becoming a young person’s game'

31st October 2016 at 11:15
Experienced teachers
Schools are in danger of losing the institutional memory that comes with having a profession infused with experience, writes one heads' leader

There is an old saying about knowing you’re getting old when policemen start looking younger. If you’ve recently noticed the same could be said for teachers, it turns out you might just have a legitimate point.

Recent research by the Education Policy Institute has shown that only 48 per cent of teachers in England have more than 10 years’ experience. The most recent Department for Education workforce survey has also shown that there has been an increase in the number of younger teachers and a decrease in the number of older teachers.  

My concern here is that teaching is beginning to be seen as a young person’s game – something that you can only really do when you are relatively free of life’s other commitments. This is perhaps hardly surprising based on the current demands of the role. For most teachers, long hours and weekend working has become the norm.

While you may be able to keep this up for a few years, in the long-term it is not a sustainable way to work and certainly not over a 40-year career. It may be that a young teacher without other commitments can devote themselves to their job in this way but for most this becomes increasingly difficult to maintain as other priorities begin to compete for their attention.

So the big question is, does this really matter? Perhaps it’s a good thing that our schools are increasingly full of young, energetic teachers who can devote themselves almost entirely to their job.

I think there is reason to be concerned. Yes, young teachers do often bring a welcome energy and enthusiasm to schools but more experienced teachers also have a huge amount to offer. They have been there, seen it and got the t-shirt.

I remember as an NQT constantly drawing on the wisdom of those older colleagues who had been teaching for decades. In fact, they were often the voice of reason to temper my unbounded enthusiasm. If a school is full of people who have only been teaching a few years, who do you turn to for that kind of advice?

Roughly speaking a teacher who has been teaching for ten years will have been in the classroom for almost 10,000 hours. Interestingly, this is the amount of time that Anders Ericsson pointed to as being needed to be spent practising a skill for a person to become an expert in their field. It concerns me that we are losing a whole group of teachers before they come into their prime.

We need the teachers with ten years+ experience, the ones who have been developing and refining their craft in the classroom for over a decade. They will have taught literally hundreds of children, encountered a wide range of learning needs and have had the opportunity to learn from their countless mistakes and successes.

Experienced teachers have also lived through countless reforms, strategies and grand plans (mostly from government). They know to take the latest big idea with a pinch of salt. I’m not talking here about those who will resist all change at any cost, but a healthy dose of mild cynicism from those who have seen it all before can be a good thing.

A vaccum of experience in our schools creates other problems. Experienced teachers are usually those who act as the mentors and guides to the most recently qualified. If everyone is a recent NQT, who will be there to mentor them?

This problem could become magnified if the government’s proposal for an extended teacher training package goes ahead. With less experienced teachers in post, there is also an increasing pressure in the system for younger teachers to step up into senior leadership positions very soon into their careers. For some, this will be a fantastic opportunity and they will thrive. However, there is a danger that for others this will come before they are fully ready.

Aside from all of this there is also the very important fundamental point that we are in the middle of a recruitment and retention crisis. Put simply, not only is it not desirable, but we also do not have the luxury of letting teaching become the domain of just the young.

James Bowen is director of middle leaders’ union NAHT Edge. He tweets at @JamesJkbowen 

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