Ready to call it a day?

28th April 2000 at 01:00
Warwick Taylor, Janet Draper, Helen Fraser and Stephen Sharp review the latest research findings about the morale of Scottish teachers and the views they hold about their work

"HALF of England's teachers expect to quit the profession within 10 years," thundered a recent front-page report in a national newspaper. A commissioned survey of primary and secondary teachers in England had found that more than 200,000 teachers were planning to retire or seek other employment, mainly because they find the very heavy workload unacceptable.

Coupled with this was a bureaucracy which had enveloped the teacher's role to such a degree that stress was the key word to describe how the job was experienced.

Significantly, more than a third of teachers under the age of 35 expected to quit the job within 10 years. What of the Scottish situation? Are teachers now working in our primary and secondary schools basking in a supportive work environment, where the proud traditions of the teaching profession enhance a flourishing work culture?

Does the prevailing experience of work encourage teachers to stay with the job until retirement? Or are the sentiments expressed in the English data shared by teachers in Scotland?

Scotland is not a research desert when it comes to studying teachers and their work, although the low profile given to research on teachers and their careers suggests that these matters have not been seen as being of sufficient importance to generate banner headlines in the Scottish press.

As a research team we have been investigating Scottish teachers' experiences of their work since 1987. Most recently we conducted a 10-year follow-up study on a group from our national sample who were studied when they were probationers in the late eighties: how they view their careers to date and their futures; their thoughts on promotion and plans to stay in, or leave, teaching; levels of satisfaction and dissatisfaction with various aspects of their work and work context. We have also analysed the characteristics of all those who left the General Teaching Council register during one year (1997-98). A separate research agenda has been concerned with promoted staff, their views on their jobs and future career decision-making.

What does this tell us about the profession in the lead-up to the report of the McCrone inquiry, due next month? For many teachers, satisfaction derives from the core task of teaching, from supportive working relationships with colleagues and from the intellectual challenge of the job. Teachers told us they enjoyed working with pupils and enjoyed the company of colleagues. There are strong positive messages in our findings that do not find their way into the public consciousness to balance the destructive messages e have become so used to.

This is not to say that there are not some very real sources of dissatisfaction. The areas rated most negatively by all teachers were workload, the proportion of time spent on administration and society's view of teachers. This was true of both those who have and have not thought of leaving. They were rated consistently across school sectors and across time as areas of dissatisfaction (both the five and the 10-year data are similar).

Workload and its consequences for quality of life were also perceived as career disincentives, discouraging promoted staff from applying for further promotion.

Salary has not featured as a major source of either satisfaction or dissatisfaction, although male teachers and secondary teachers were slightly more likely to identify it as a source of disgruntlement. Those who enter teaching are usually only too aware of the rates of pay and may have adjusted over time to the salary offered. However, these data derive from the views of 10-year teachers, many of whom have recently taken on new domestic and family commitments. Salary level is likely to become more of an issue for those teachers with families to support.

Perhaps, too, the low status of teachers, which is a major source of dissatisfaction, is linked to pay and it may be that some potentially good entrants to teaching are discouraged .

Perspectives on promotion appear to change as teachers spend longer in the job. There is frequently an assumption that many teachers wish to be promoted: our data dispute this and indicate that for those teachers in their tenth year in the job the majority were not intending to apply for promotion in the next five years. Some of these teachers, though, had done so (many successfully) in the past.

From this brief review of research evidence it would appear that in spite of differences between the two systems, teachers in Scotland share views about the job and future aspirations with their English colleagues.

As long as there is a ready supply of new recruits to initial teacher education to replace those teachers leaving the profession, there is perhaps little incentive for local and central government to study the workforce characteristics of teachers and how they experience the job. But recent findings on teacher supply suggest that these matters can no longer be overlooked.

Will McCrone's findings have any meaning for some teachers or will many have flown the nest to more acceptable working environments outwith the classroom and school, before any improvements in conditions of service have an impact on their working lives?

The contributors work at the faculty of education, Edinburgh University, and are members of the Teacher Careers Research Group.

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