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'Teaching is breaking. Is anyone out there listening?'

Teachers are struggling under flawed accountability and a lack of funding - they can't do it alone, writes Emma Kell

Teaching is breaking_editorial

Teachers are struggling under flawed accountability and a lack of funding - they can't do it alone, writes Emma Kell

Three years ago, I sat down to start writing a book about surviving and thriving in teaching. I was, and continue to be, a practising teacher and middle leader, and continue to consider myself, as I did then, a dedicated and proud member of the profession.

At the time, I had a huge debate with myself over the use of the word "crisis" in the context of UK teaching. I really didn’t want to use it – I felt it was unhelpful, slightly hysterical and self-perpetuating. But the 3,000 voices of the teachers who were sharing their stories with me forced me to realise that there was no other word for it. Whilst I ensured I focused on the positives and on suggesting ways forward, to ignore the mental health crisis, the recruitment and retention crisis, the staggering workload and teachers’ pernicious sense of being "inherently in need of fixing" would have been naïve and damaging.

Today, I am in the privileged position of being in contact with teachers across the UK, and I continue to explore their tales. The headlines cry that "teaching is broken", and I can’t help but feel the sad sickness that comes with having one’s profound sense of moral purpose challenged day after day after day.

When I wrote the book, I was possibly in a bit of a cocoon, but the financial crisis hadn’t really bitten yet for the teachers I spoke to. Add to the issues above the vulnerability of "expensive" established staff and the terminal shortage of basic resources, from paper to textbooks and, if anything, the increased accountability measures, and I have to admit it; much as I had to admit to "crisis" being the right word. I’m worried. I’m really worried for the profession I love. Below, I give three reasons why.

Teaching 'in crisis'

I can testify that the following examples are all very real, and I fear that many – possibly the majority of – teachers will recognise them. As ever with my writing, I do not claim that they represent one particular school or group of schools.

1. “I could walk into your classroom and find evidence that you are the best teacher in the country or evidence that you are the worst,” said a head of history once to the deputy who’d just observed him, and found his lesson wanting.

We are – and should be – accountable: our job is arguably the most important job there is; we nurture the engineers and doctors and electricians of the future. “If it’s not good enough for my child, it’s simply not good enough” is a mantra I carry around.

But how can we tell whether teachers are doing a good job? Does a scrutiny of exercise books do it? Or a colour-coded development plan? How about a learning walk, behind the scenes of which SLT discuss what "grade" each teacher would have got in "old money"?

I welcome Ofsted’s focus on tackling excessive workload, particularly linked to monitoring visits. But who decides what’s excessive? The reality is that, on the ground, teachers continue to drown under the stress of regular monitoring exercises. They continue to rally and rage against being judged against a two-minute exercise book flick or a seven-minute drop in.

My suggestion for this is to ask the students. Trust me. If I’m not giving them regular feedback, they’ll tell you. If I’m out of thwack because I’m being observed, they’ll ask me what’s wrong… in front of you!

2. “Help! I need to find another school. I’ve been left alone with two Year 11 classes, I’ve never received any feedback and my mentor is off long-term sick.”

These cries for help from training teachers are commonplace on social media now. Where are the accountability measures that ensure that we’re not driving new teachers away from the profession in their very first (expensive) year?

The way forward? Not an easy one, as those training teachers face staggering cuts of their own, but let’s properly vet the schools volunteering to take trainees to ensure that they have the capacity to offer the guidance new teachers are entitled to and so desperately need.

3. “But there aren’t enough chairs!”

“Natural wastage” is a term I hate with a passion. For schools lucky enough not to have faced restructuring and redundancies as they desperately try to balance the books, this is the term used for teachers who leave – and are not replaced. This is a quiet and apparently subtle way of cutting costs. The knock-on is that, in addition to managing cover for teachers off long-term sick, everybody’s class sizes and timetables creep up. An extra three students here; an extra two lessons there; an extra cover lesson here, an inch on the marking pile there.

For most teachers, as far as I can ascertain, little to nothing has changed since I wrote my book. The data from Education Support’s recent Teacher Wellbeing Index makes for horrifying reading, with rates of anxiety, depression and insomnia way above national averages. I fear that the drip-drip effect of "a bit more here, a bit more there" will drive yet more teachers out of our profession.

Is teaching broken? Not an option. Those of us on the ground continue to plaster on a smile in the mornings, close our classroom doors and relish our work with young people – for, as when I wrote the book, the young people themselves are almost never the problem. But if we allow teaching to "break", they will become the casualties.

We could hold an inspirational TeachMeet every Saturday until kingdom come, but the most determined and talented groups of teachers cannot solve these issues alone. Apart from anything else, we’re busy rushing to the shops to buy our own purple and green pens to ensure that we adhere to the complicated marking policies that are still very much alive and kicking.

We need help: from Ofsted, the Department for Education, the government. IS ANYBODY LISTENING?

Let us not be the generation that allows teaching to "break" – the consequences would be too dire to bear thinking about.

Dr Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching

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