Should I stay or should I go?

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Under the threshold: Timing is essential when moving to a new school.

For new teachers keen to scale the career ladder, the question of whether to move schools can be a tricky one. There is little doubt that a change can offer new challenges and opportunities. But move too often in the early part of your career and prospective headteachers could question your staying power.

So how do you know when it's time to head for pastures new? The answer is a rather unsatisfactory "that depends", says Geoff Barton, head of King Edward VI school, an 11-18 comprehensive in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

Previous roles and responsibilities, length of service and the type of schools the teacher has previously taught at all have their part to play.

"I think it's fair to say most head teachers try to treat all prospective employees in an individual light," says Mr Barton. "But it's a difficult call, particularly with teachers in the early part of their career, because on the one hand you're keen to see some evidence of continuity, such as taking at least one GCSE or A-level class through a complete course. Then again, if someone has started at a single sex or selective school, for example, they may need to move to another school in the early part of their career to get the full breadth of experience they need to move their career along."

According to Geoff Wybar, head at Gravesend grammar school in Kent, experience of more than one school can be advantageous, particularly for teachers seeking promotion at their own or another school: "It definitely suggests a breadth of experience. Seeing how different schools run can be real bonus."

The reality for teachers, regardless of the quality of their teaching skills, is that it can take several years to become an established member of staff, to earn the recognition and respect of colleagues, students and parents. Starting afresh can be a challenge, so teachers do need to ask themselves what, if anything, they are likely to gain from a move in the early stages of their career.

Catherine Bourne has asked herself this question many times during her six-year teaching career. She still works at the school she attended as a student and where she later did her teaching practice. "In the early stages of my career, I did worry about moving on," says the English teacher from Bennett Memorial Diocesan School, an 11-18 comprehensive school in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.

"I wondered whether prospective heads would question the fact that I've been a student, a student teacher and a teacher at the same school. But I was soon promoted to assistant year team leader and now I'm head of Year 10. I'm getting experience of the kind of work I enjoy in a fantastic school. When it is time to move on, I feel confident I'll be able to sell myself just as well as the next person."

It's a crucial point, says Mr Wybar, who believes the way teachers market themselves in the application process can be far more important than career moves they may or may not have made. He does admit, however, that applications from teachers who have taught at more than two schools in the early part of their career might be subject to closer scrutiny.

"I'd definitely want to probe more deeply about their reasons for this," he says. "I'd also be interested to hear what the teacher felt they had gained from the different experiences and how it had informed their approach to teaching and learning. Obviously, you'd be looking for reassurance that it wasn't due to a lack of commitment on their part, difficulties with professional relationships or other issues that might set alarm bells ringing."

Adrian Jones is a primary teacher and key stage 2 co-ordinator at St Thomas C of E primary school in Kensington, London. He taught at four schools in the first two years of his career, but managed to turn the situation to his advantage. "It was all circumstantial," he says. "After teacher training in Wales, I wasn't sure where I wanted to work. My girlfriend got a job in Kent, so I thought I'd give it a try. At the time, there weren't many primary posts there so I took a term's maternity cover. Through word of mouth, I got two more terms of maternity cover in different schools and another in London. It suited me at the time and I wasn't really thinking about the long term career consequences. But when I finally went for a permanent post, I knew I'd really have to sell myself."

In his application and at interview, Mr Jones highlighted his experience of four contrasting primary schools. "Because I'd worked with so many different people, in so many different ways, I talked up my ability to adapt and take on new challenges," he says.

"I'd worked in a range of schools: rural, inner-city, one form entry, three form entry, so I stressed the variety of experience I had. I genuinely believe change is crucial for teaching. It's all too easy to get into a rut, teaching the same class or classes in the same way, year in, year out and I made my feelings clear about that. It must have hit the right note, because I got the job."

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