Make teaching a desirable career

31st August 2001 at 01:00
The staffing crisis will only be solved by turning the job into one that attracts young graduates says Matthew Horne.

As the new school term starts next week, it will quickly become clear whether schools have been successful at filling vacant teaching posts over the summer. What is already obvious is that the problem of teacher recruitment and retention is a long-term trend, rather than an economic boom-related blip.

Until teaching becomes a more attractive career option, the Government's burning desire to transform schools will remain unfulfilled.

Teaching needs to recruit an astonishing 12 per cent of all graduates, yet there is growing evidence the job holds little attraction to the present generation of university-leavers. Low morale within the profession has been acknowledged by Government itself. Teachers are second only to junior doctors as a group who have overwork and low pay virtually written into their job description. This is hardly the basis for a successful recruitment drive by a profession which should be in the market for top-quality graduates.

Pay matters, of course, but an in-depth study of teachers' experience and attitudes carried out by Demos and the National Union of Teachers over the past year shows that it is only one of a complex set of factors contributing to acute recruitment and retention problems. Low pay, increasing workload and stressful working conditions would make any job unnattractive, and all these must be addressed as a priority. But the Government will have to go much further in understanding the wider aspirations of a younger generation of graduates if schools are seriously going to be transformed in the way it intends.

What teachers increasingly feel they are lacking - and what young people in particular prioritise - is a sense of professional autonomy. This means the ability to shape one's working life within a framework of transparency and accountability. The key here is flexibility, as Estelle Morris recently acknowledged. However, her comments addressed the idea of teaching as a job which people incorporated as part of a varied career. That's fine: Demos said much the same thing in a recent report called What Learning Needs.

But there is an urgent need for flexibility to be built into the job itself, in order to meet the aspirations of this"flexible generation" who will measure teaching against their other career options. This means incorporating innovation and active research into teaching practice, and making continuous professional development a much higher priority.

Teachers felt that over the past 10 years continuous change has been imposed upon them without their having either the time to adapt, or the opportunity to shape the process of change itself. This is almost a textbook definition of a stressful workplace. If that period of pain had resulted in a transformed school education system, then at least it could be explained as a necessary evil. But the work is barely begun. There is no reason to suppose that continual change will not be at least as big a part of teaching over the next 10 years, as the pressure of economic, social and technological upheaval bears down on schools.

The key issue is the response to these changes. We need a "progessive transformation" of schools driven partly by teachers themselves. This is starting to happen in a few schools, such as those singled out for beacon status, but needs to be spread throughout the system.

The teachers we interviewed all accepted - and even welcomed - the pressure for change. The widespread popularity of the Government's Thinking Skills initiative proves this point. What teachers find difficult to accept, however, is the perception of a never-ending barrage of externally imposed and badly managed initiatives.

The result has been substantial numbers leaving full-time jobs to become supply teachers. This is the educational equivalent of going freelance, and a very modern response to a perceived lack of control over one's working life.

A way must be found to give that sense of control back to the entire staffroom. Teachers want to experience comprehensible, coherent organisational transformation and play an active part in the process. This is very different from facing a continuous demand for improved productivity with a set of basic organisational constraints which have hardly changed.

The consequence of greater professional autonomy is not that teachers become the sole arbiters of the way children are taught, without outside interference or assessment. Teachers interviewed for our report, Classroom Assistance, understood the need for rigorous educational standards and inspection. But it is becoming clear that inspection must be a collaborative process which enables and motivates schools to improve themselves. So, for instance, Office for Standards in Education inspectors should clock up a couple of months of classroom time each year. As one teacher noted:"If we are being regulated, we need to have faith in who is doing the regulating."

In a nutshell, that is the basis for a new, constructive working relationship between teachers, the government, local education authorities, professional associations and anyone with a stake in an improved education system. Only then will this progressive transformation be allowed to happen.

Matthew Horne is a researcher at Demos. "Classroom Assistance: Why teachers must transform teaching" is published by Demos in partnership with the NUT today. To order copies call 020 8986 5488.

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