'Teachers over 30 are too expensive to keep'

Teachers who don't want to lead can find themselves unemployable once they're on the upper pay scale, warns Andy McHugh

Andy McHugh

Retention, teacher pay and conditions

It seems increasingly rare to find ordinary classroom teachers with grey hair. It’s not because we’re ageing slowly or that we’re under less stress. 

It’s because the UK education system has created an environment in which teachers who reach the ripe old age of, say 30, are no longer incentivised to remain in the classroom. 
On one hand, this may seem like a good thing – more experienced teachers should take on leadership roles in addition to classroom duties. But, unfortunately, it has the devastating effect of taking our most effective teachers out of the classroom and away from teaching. This is just at the point when they have refined their practice to an art form (or at least they don't make those costly, amateur mistakes quite as often).
Both sides of the argument have their merits, but it's more complicated than it first seems. Creating the conditions for the "experienced" to be replaced by the "cost-effective" on an industrial scale is at best poor planning, at worst diabolical.

Just think about it. You're on the upper pay scale and want to move schools. Perhaps, you've held a position of responsibility and want to "just be a teacher" once again. After all, didn’t we go into this job for the love of teaching? But there’s a hitch: why would a school, with the financial pressures that they now face, employ you, as opposed to a newly qualified teacher who costs almost £20K less? After all, there are situations where taking the NQT would make some sense, especially if the department is strong and could support and mentor them, at least until they are up to a similar standard to the more experienced teacher.

Schools 'left with an experience black hole'

But there comes a point where a focus on cost-effectiveness creates a false economy. Behaviour management strategies, nuances of exam technique, breadth and depth of subject knowledge, understanding of the student demographics of the school and the ability to communicate effectively with parents – these can make all the difference in teaching. But they can't always be "taught" effectively: they really have to be developed through experience. It can take years to do just that. By relying on a high turnover of new and recently qualified teachers, schools end up with an “experience black hole” – one that sucks crucial support and expertise from the staffroom.
Some would say that school leaders wouldn't do anything so drastic. But recent reports tell us that school business managers across the UK are currently being advised to cut lunch portions and reallocate money that had been raised for charities to fund the school's coffers. The thought of a £20K pay-day just by replacing an experienced teacher with an NQT or even unqualified staff (as has been reported) might prove far too tempting for some school leaders. Add into that the fact that many older teachers have taken retirement in recent years, rather than having to deal with the utter fiasco of the GCSE and A-level reforms, and you have a perfect storm. 

Funding isn't enough 

So, what can we do? Ask for more funding from the Department for Education? Would that solve the recruitment and retention crisis on its own? I suggest (tentatively) that it wouldn't. The problem is not just central government. It also lies within schools themselves.
Classroom teachers in their 30s who don't seek a leadership role have 30 to 40 years left until they retire. Without the stereotypical road-map of promotion, promotion, promotion, it's difficult to see how they can plan long-term, for development throughout their careers. Of course, they can improve their skills of questioning, behaviour management, meta-cognition and the like, but these are developmental in an ad-hoc way. They don't tie into a planned, career-development narrative, in the same way that middle and senior leadership CPD does, and it leaves many teachers feeling like they are treading water.
Let's also add in that your typical 30-year-old teacher has friends in other industries who are working shorter hours and being compensated much more handsomely for a similar level of work. All of this pushes those who are the backbone of the profession – the trusted adviser who NQTs rely upon, the teacher that the head of department knows can be trusted to get on with "it" – to look beyond teaching, for a job that fully rewards them for the extensive knowledge and skills they've accrued over the years.
The capitalist cynic in me says that this could work to the benefit of schools, by keeping labour costs down. However, not only does that treat staff as disposable, it also assumes that there is a steady supply of NQTs to fill the positions left vacant by experienced staff. We know this isn't the case.
So, our 30-year-old teachers are forced into making a choice they never thought they would have to make: stay in a job that refuses to value them for their time, effort and expertise or start again doing something else from scratch. It might not pan out. They might even have to cut their salary in half. It's a terrifying thought for those in that position and teachers aren't famed for their impulsive or reckless decision-making. They’re calm, patient and reflective.
But they're leaving in droves.

Andy McHugh is a secondary teacher in County Durham

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