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Teachers must be encouraged to fall in love with their career again. And the profession must love them back

Teacher recruitment and retention is a problem for the education sector, writes the leader of a major multi-academy trust. Professional development is key to doing something about it

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The headlines in both our sector press and national media continue to scream that we are in the grip of a teacher recruitment crisis, and – so the doom-mongers say – it's going to get an awful lot worse before it gets better.

It is true that things are undoubtedly challenging right now. We read daily about the inability of national systems to meet demand (School Direct, Teach First) and of other schemes that barely get off the ground. We also hear that nobody wants to teach in Clacton or Lowestoft or other places by the sea, but that they'd rather take their brains abroad where it's sunnier and there is less pressure (is this proven – apart from the bit about the sun?). I do, of course, feel sad when I read articles from teachers who are considering leaving the profession, seemingly bewildered by the degree of change we are experiencing right now but, for me, the key question is how to respond to all this.

I suggest that rather than indulging in collective handwringing when the latest ad fails to generate quality candidates (or worse, leads us to fall into that terrible, but alluring trap of appointing anyone because surely that is better than having an empty post. It’s not. Ever.), we need to look at this challenge differently and from a number of different angles.

First, and I stand guilty in stating the bleeding obvious in saying this, teaching needs to be repositioned as the employment of choice. People have to want to work for you, it is as simple as that. Just as you should not settle for any “body” in the classroom rather than have an empty post, neither do we want people in the profession who have “settled” for becoming a teacher. We all know them – the people who at the end of their degree course didn’t really know what to do, so decided on a PGCE and ended up drifting into teaching, giving grist to Woody Allen’s cruel “those who can’t do, teach…”. These people do not belong in our profession. However hard, in these challenging times, we need to be pickier about who we invite into the classroom. And, dare I say it, who we allow to stay in the classroom.

Part of this is about diversifying the routes into teaching, so that we can select from a wider pool of people. Teach First has been a success, but it is not a panacea. There are talented individuals who would be absolutely perfect for teaching in all sorts of areas and all walks of life. Which is why the government’s move to introduce teaching apprenticeships is a good thing. In my own experience, the very best teachers are the "home-grown" ones: the adult you spot who might not have the right degree or qualification, or indeed might not have any formal qualification at all, but likes children and young people, gets a buzz from being in a classroom and has life experiences you want children to soak up and share.

My own personal success story here is a barista from a local coffee shop who eight years ago was serving me my americano, when I noticed him speaking a range of languages to customers. A short conversation later and I discovered he had a degree from his home country, Latvia, spoke eight languages and loved kids – he was also a gifted athlete – and was in a coffee shop as it was the only job he could find. One funded graduate training programme later, with proper mentoring and support, and this young man is a double-outstanding teacher. The more opportunities we create like this, the better.

But we need to think like this in a more systematic way. Attracting people to switch into teaching at later points in their careers should also be part of any wider push to address the challenges we face. The example of the policemen, traders and even journalists switching profession to become teachers are still seen as curiosities, rather than the norm. We have been behind the pack as a sector to benefit from the increasingly mobile workforce. A “job for life” still applies in teaching (which itself is both good and bad), but one of the downsides is that it is still perceived to be a profession that is only really accessible at the ground floor. This must change.

'We need to hang on to good staff'

And of course, once you have attracted the right individuals in – be that as school leavers, graduates or career switchers – you need to hang on to them; but again, because they want to continue to work for you. Which brings me to the second important point: talent management.

Let’s be honest, by and large CPD is pretty average in education; sometimes you are lucky if you get any professional development, let alone “continuous”. And this is simply because we don’t invest enough money into it. Which is understandable in many ways, especially when budgets are getting tighter and tighter. But just as it is always the wrong choice to appoint anybody rather than leave the post open, so too is it short-sighted not to take talent management seriously. This is something that I believe passionately in, and which I believe has been one of the main drivers of our success at REAch2 – both in terms of the results we achieve and in the motivation and commitment of our staff. And of course, not only does it keep your staff retention looking bright-eyed and pink-cheeked, it also helps on the recruitment front too. Word gets around – perhaps with greater speed and efficiency among teachers than any other profession – as we found to our benefit when we had been doing our own fair share of handwringing at the prospect of recruiting 60 teachers to teach across our academies in Staffordshire.

Instead of relying solely on running the same old advert to see what it yielded, we took a different approach and held an open day on a Saturday morning, promoted it through every type of social media, rewarded staff for recommending people and were really clear about the benefits of working for us. To our great delight over 200 teachers came along, and we were thrilled to fill every post with exceptional practitioners.

Taking CPD seriously means having structured, well-thought-out programmes of development in place for every single layer of the organisation. From the admin staff and TAs all the way through to heads, CEOs and board members. At REAch2, our leaders have a minimum of nine days of professional development each year, and classroom teachers will have hours of structured professional development throughout the school year. We are, after all, in the business of learning, and so we too should be role models for this. 

And thirdly, we have to get better at approaching this more strategically. We need to plan and anticipate each school’s needs better and get ahead of game so that we’re not just advertising role after role as they suddenly appear. The benefit of being in a multi-academy trust here is evident; we are about to recruit 50 additional teachers for September knowing that there will be a need somewhere. You don't need to be a MAT to do this though – teaching schools, local authorities and so on should all do the same.

Finally, ours is a vocational profession. But sometimes the “vocational” part overshadows the "professional" part, and we see this all too often when it comes to recruitment and retention. We need to be pickier about who we want in the profession, and once we have them, we want them to stay, not just because they have fallen in love with the job, but because they have found a career that loves them.

Sir Steve Lancashire is the CEO of REAch2 and Reach4 academy trusts

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