'Teachers are now expected to be social workers, anti-terrorist police, dieticians and the rest - no wonder there's a recruitment crisis'

We need to sort out workload, assessment reform and endless political meddling if we're going to ease the teacher recruitment crisis, writes one teacher trainer

James Williams

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The Department for Education (DfE) is, at last, recognising that there is a teacher recruitment crisis. Providers of teacher training can now, without penalty, recruit up to 25 per cent more than their target number.

Good news - or at least it would be if we had top-class graduates hammering at the door waiting to be let in. The problem is, you can’t recruit from a poor or non-existent pool. Mathematically, 25 per cent of nothing is, well, nothing.

The crisis in recruitment and retention is not new. For years, teacher recruitment has been in decline. Targets for key subjects such as physics, maths or foreign languages have been missed consistently for the past six years.

Why is teaching now a turn-off?

The DfE response from Gove to Greening has been to dismiss any notion of a problem or crisis and simply trot out vacuous statements on quality and numbers (while ignoring the increasing numbers of pupils needing teachers).

At the heart of the crisis is the question of why, in an economically difficult and politically turbulent time, is teaching so unattractive? When I started in initial teacher training (ITT) 20 years ago, a recession or tough economic times saw an increase in numbers of applicants for ITT.

It was a safe job (for life for the good teachers), with reasonable pay and a good pension that ranked as one of the best bar the civil service. In difficult economic times, who wouldn’t want such a job?

Today, it’s clear that the years of turmoil over curriculum and exam reform, the major - and, for the most part, ineffective - structural reform, turning schools into academies and the failure to tackle workload has turned an attractive profession into an unattractive job.

There are constant claims that "teachers are not doing enough" to tackle this or that problem. Endless snide comments about how much easier exams are today or how poor teachers are at managing behaviour are a body blow to every committed teacher.

No longer are teachers just teachers. They are expected to be social workers, terrorist prevention police, mental health professionals, dieticians, psychologists, child psychiatrists and countless other ‘professionals’ that have been systematically stripped from their positons in the health service and other public sectors by this government’s austerity drive. The profession of teaching is now a series of other ‘jobs’ all rolled into one.

The mental health of teachers seems to have declined – though this is a tricky one to establish. Mental health, rightly, is an issue that is coming out from the shadows where anyone who previously had problems hid the truth rather than be thought of as weak.

But suicides amongst teachers have certainty increased according to the office for national statistics recently. Stress is undoubtedly a major factor.

A checklist for the future 

If we are to solve our teacher recruitment and retention crisis we must address the fundamental problems we have in the profession.

  • Schools need to be funded fairly – I support a new funding formula. But, and this is vital, the funding must be increased and the £3billon cuts reversed
  • Teachers must have their workloads significantly reduced. Contradictory DfE ‘advice’, which on the one hands aims to reduce teachers’ workload yet on the other urges schools to save money by increasing teacher contact time, must stop
  • Teachers must be supported, with time and funding, to engage in meaningful professional development that increases their subject knowledge and their professional knowledge of what constitutes effective teaching and learning
  • We should aim for an entry level to teaching being at Masters level (as it is in many of the best performing countries in educational league tables) within a generation
  • We must stop education reform being set to political timetables. Reform should be considered by professionals. Timetables should be created for effectiveness rather than speed, validated through pilots and trials
  • The ‘marketisation’ of schools and education must end. The idea of an ‘open market’ as a means raising standards does not work in education.
  • Accountability for schools and education should be with the local community those schools serve, ideally through a locally-elected body

We need an education revolution in England, but not a violent one – we need a quiet revolution.

Stand up and be accounted

Teachers need to refuse the unreasonable workload demands of bureaucrats and bean counters. They must demand professional development and to be treated as professionals, not untrustworthy, dodgy factory workers.

Local people - parents - need to stand up at the forthcoming local elections and demand their elected officials seek to resist government cuts in funding and the "sale" of schools to unaccountable bodies.

We must all respect the job that teachers do in very difficult and tense situations. We must support them and all our local schools. Only with such support can all schools strive to be good – market forces, by definition, will always have losers and ‘bottom of the table’ schools.

If our revolution succeeds, then we will have a profession that graduates will see as the worthy profession it is. Then, perhaps, the pool of good graduates we have will increase and our crisis will come to an end.

James Williams is a lecturer in Education at the University of Sussex School of Education and Social Work. He tweets @edujdw

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