Human capital squandered

9th March 2001 at 00:00
Relocation allowances and bonuses for teachers who take on challenging roles would be more appropriate responses to the recruitment crisis, says Bernard Barker.

* their rush to solve the recruitment crisis, ministers have missed the fundamental problem with a career in teaching. The Office for Standards in Education sticks and threshold carrots are unlikely to motivate men and women who perceive themselves to be in a disagreeable dead-end.

The majority of classroom teachers find themselves locked into service at a single school. As experience lengthens and families grow, promotion prospects dwindle. The architecture of the education service creates an army of jaded and sometimes disillusioned teachers who are expected to perform motivational miracles with young people. They are shackled to a repetitive annual cycle, summoned by bells to teach the same old topics.

This is contrary to all we know about motivation and personal development. When workers are confined to a single employer or institution, their perspectives and experiences are limited. Over-familiar environments digest critical faculties and encourage comfort zones that are too large for our own good. Only exceptional individuals can recreate themselves in the same place. The rest need a new role, new people and new places.

All this is especially true of schools, where repetition is an intrinsic part of the job. An exhausting cul-de-sac has emerged during the dozen or so years since the 1988 Education Reform Act. Before that time, teaching led to careers involving a range of roles and responsibilities. Kenneth Baker's decision to place individual schools in charge of their own budgets has had the unfortunate consequence of undermining the other partners in the education service and the careers associated with them. The number of local authority officers, advisers and inspectors has sharply declined. When OFSTED was created to ensure that locally-managed schools complied with government edicts, permanent careers in inspection were replaced by part-time work with private contractors. Initial teacher training has been devolved to schools, so there are few opportunities in higher education.

When vacancies occur, few experienced classroom teachers come forward. Why move for a reduced income at a distant training institution? Career advancement entails expense and disruption beyond the rewards of responsibility. Although the Government has attempted to break down the stifling conservatism generated by the dead-end culture of the modern teaching career, the world of initiative-related, short-term, insecure and bid-depenent jobs (eg literacy consultants) is less than attractive to most tenured teachers.

Education has learned to waste people on the grand scale. Early retirement has become the preferred exit route. Many teachers, with a spouse in secure employment, have simply dropped out. After 15 or 20 years, the best of us have lapsed into chronic depression and a desperate desire to leave. Offended by political rhetoric, dismayed by the ceaseless questioning of our values and methods, and deskilled by new initiatives and syllabuses, we have scrambled out in droves. Meanwhile, the schools struggle to find even mediocre applicants. Scores on recently invented tests may have gone up but the quality of education is at risk in many places. The Secretary of State has been obliged to offer a glittering array of incentives but has deceived almost no one. People know that teaching careers disappoint all but a handful.

A number of relatively inexpensive, targeted solutions are available. The Government should fund generous relocation packages, including an allowance for increased housing costs, for teachers who are obliged to move to take up a position of responsibility in another school. A bonus, related to the percentage of children entitled to free school meals at the receiving school, should be paid to those who accept challenging assignments.

Salaries in education should be reviewed, so that appropriate differentials are paid to attract and reward teachers prepared to extend and develop their expertise in unfamiliar environments. At present, the promotion points attached to head of department or head of year posts seldom attract sufficient numbers of able candidates, while potential managers may be sidetracked by the priority assigned to the threshold and advanced skills teaching.

Inspection, advice and training should be reconstructed on the basis of permanent, salaried posts, dovetailed to match the career profile of successful teachers. Secondments between teaching, inspection, administration and training should be institutionalised, so that future leadership teams have experienced a range of duties and locations. Headteachers should be moved frequently so they contribute operational experience to the management of training, advice and inspection.

The gravest threat to education in our schools is local management of teachers that micro-engineers immobility and conservatism into the classroom. Mr Blair seems not to recognise that government structures are responsible for the conservative culture he deplores.

Bernard Barker is a consultant, trainer and former secondary head

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