Without all due respect

20th April 2012 at 01:00
Teachers are more qualified and better paid than ever before, and a TES survey reveals that they hold their own profession and skills in high regard. Despite this, they are viewed as low-status by the public and politicians alike. Kerra Maddern asks why

When Gwen Smith started teaching in 1958, the only qualifications she needed were A levels - and the tutors who gave her a place on a prestigious training course were equally interested in her hobbies.

"They weren't after just brains, they wanted something more," Smith says. "They didn't want bluestockings. I think they wanted to know how well I would relate to children."

Fast-forward more than half a century and every teacher has to be a graduate - many even hold master's degrees. But while the pay would be almost unrecognisably high to teachers of a generation ago, and the introduction of teaching assistants would seem something of a luxury, the status of the profession is vastly diminished.

"Teachers were held in more regard in those days," says Smith, who retired four years ago at the age of 70 after having a triple heart bypass. "Everyone knew less about teaching than they do now. But we were held in more awe," she says. "The job was more private. There wasn't the situation of school vying against school. We were all held in the same esteem - unless you really messed it up, of course."

What Smith and her fellow veteran teachers notice now is that, despite the leaps and bounds made in teachers' working conditions, together with bigger financial rewards, they are almost universally derided, with slanderous aphorisms such as "those who can, do; those who can't, teach" making an unwelcome return.

So it is surprising to find that, despite the barrage of constant criticism, today's teachers are extremely positive about their profession and confident in their own abilities.

A new survey by TES has found that a conclusive 92 per cent of teachers believe that their job is more difficult than those of their friends or relatives. And they feel positive enough about their role to promote it - perhaps surprisingly, 63 per cent of the 1,041 people questioned said that they would recommend teaching to others. A total of 84 per cent said that they felt skilled enough to do something other than teaching and 61 per cent said that they were confident enough in their skills to switch careers.

But a big block of public opinion remains unashamedly dismissive of the profession. Joe Public still seems to have the impression that teachers are badly paid and have a lowly status, and that the job involves little more than constant battles with unruly children and obnoxious parents.

A matter of opinion

Research from the University of Cambridge, commissioned by the Department for Education and published in 2006, found that public opinion was almost evenly divided on the question of whether teaching was an attractive career. And teachers' status was seen as most similar to social workers instead of doctors or lawyers.

A separate study, carried out more recently by the Training and Development Agency for Schools (the former quango responsible for the supply of new entrants to the profession), found that high-performing graduates with qualifications in shortage subjects - maths, physics, chemistry and modern foreign languages - assumed that teachers' pay was much lower than it is and did not consider it a high-status job. Indeed, education secretary Michael Gove has said that the job is one of "a trade".

So how have these misconceptions been allowed to continue? And what can be done about it? How is it that teachers hold themselves in high esteem - despite a barrage of constant criticism - when the general public does not?

Lucy Boyland, who is studying for a PGCE at the University of Exeter, has heard all the jokes about the long holidays enjoyed by teachers and the assumption that she "only works from 9am until 3pm" and believes that it may be down to a lack of understanding of the teaching role.

"I think people understand that we have marking to finish, but they don't understand everything else we do," the 23-year-old says. "Teaching doesn't have the same high status and glamour as executive jobs in the City. But I joined the course because I wanted to have an impact on individuals."

Similarly, Declan Gane, a 48-year-old father of three, made the move from marketing to train as a primary school teacher because he wanted a more "worthwhile" career. Through the Graduate Teacher Programme, he is learning on the job while being paid as an unqualified teacher. He is doing his training at his children's former school in West London, the Good Shepherd RC Primary, where he also served for 10 years as a governor, and will finish the course at the end of this academic year.

Gane now earns only a third of the salary he used to take home as a marketing manager, but he hopes that this difference will be smaller when he gets his first qualified job and develops his career.

"People might wonder why I left such a dynamic industry, but I felt my not inconsiderable skills could be better deployed," Gane says. "I felt I could be doing something more worthwhile. In the past five years, I worked on a freelance basis, so I was able to devote one day a week to the school voluntarily, helping in Year 5. So I really did get to suck it and see.

"There wasn't a single moment that helped me make my decision, it was just something over time I felt I needed to do. My family have been really supportive - I couldn't do this without that support. Many of my friends have said that they think I'll make a good teacher. So far, the change is good - I'm being helped by an excellent mentor, the school's assistant head."

The problem with politics

In other countries - Finland, Singapore and Japan, for example - teachers enjoy better social status and only the top graduates are deemed acceptable for this highly regarded profession. In a bid to mimic these systems, the UK has spent years increasing levels of public spending on education, while reforming schools has been a constant priority for government ministers.

So why have perceptions not improved? Why do teachers still languish in the status stakes, considerably behind university professors or lawyers?

The answer, according to Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL education union, is because they are not respected by the decision makers - our politicians. "Teachers know that they work harder than their friends, and they are right. They think that they are highly skilled, and they are right," she says. "But teachers need to be valued more highly. The messages from government are not consistent. There are different mantras. One minute ministers say they value teachers and the next they are accusing schools of falling through the floor."

Politicians and the new head of Ofsted, former superhead Sir Michael Wilshaw, seem to be taking turns to direct potshots at the profession, criticising teachers for consistently failing children. Wilshaw recently implied that headteachers in more than 5,000 schools were "not up to standard" and laid the blame for unacceptably high levels of poor teaching firmly at their door.

And Gove did not appear to woo teachers on the need for new academies and free schools. He announced it as a given - possibly a sign that he does not value their opinions.

If this is true, it is a poor message to pass on to parents, according to David Trace, headteacher at Ramsey Grammar School on the Isle of Man, which does not fall under the remit of Ofsted and has no league tables. His school, and others on the island, are always consulted by the Isle of Man government over any proposed legislation affecting children.

"We see this as a real sign of the respect with which the profession is held here," says Trace. "It sets an example to children and their parents."

At Ramsey Grammar, every child says hello to Trace as he strolls along the corridors. And impressively, 10 per cent of his current sixth-formers plan to become teachers.

"There aren't many graduate-level professions on the island, but incomes as a whole are higher than those in England, so teachers are not well paid in comparison," Trace says. "Yet we are held in a high degree of respect by the community.

"I don't think the (English) government trusts teachers in the same way they trust people in other professions - for example, doctors. They don't inspect other professions in a negative way, yet Ofsted points out failings rather than celebrating success."

'Stakeholders without a stake'

Trace has seen a raft of changes since he qualified in England in 1975 - a time when the profession had been so poorly remunerated that the government was forced to act to stop the haemorrhaging of teachers to better-paid jobs. The profession won substantial increases in income after the Houghton report in 1974, but inflation soon took away some of these gains.

The introduction of the BEd degree in the late 1960s had meant that teaching had become an all-graduate profession for the first time, which should have seen teachers' status grow. Yet by the 1980s, it had hit rock bottom.

Teacher strikes over pay lost parental support, and many employers had come to the conclusion that the abandonment of grammar schools and the focus on comprehensive education had been a failure. At the same time, politicians were suspicious of teachers, whom they saw as unaccountable.

In 1976, James Callaghan chose to become involved in education policy - unheard of for a prime minister at the time. His "Ruskin speech" stressed the need for a core curriculum, more effective use of government education spending and schools being made accountable to the public. His words were effective. By 1988, England, Wales and Northern Ireland had a national curriculum, and Ofsted was formed in 1992.

However, in England, according to London secondary teacher and TES behaviour expert Tom Bennett, political meddling has damaged teacher morale. "Other focus groups are given greater priority - parents are given a huge opportunity to give input and feedback. Teachers are like stakeholders without a stake.

"Their status is incredibly low. The emphasis is on student voice and parental voice, not teacher voice. Politicians see education as an attractive ball to play with. It allows them to enact the biggest changes to society because they can mould and craft children.

"Politicians tell teachers what and how to teach. The emphasis is on getting all children to achieve above-average results when this is a mathematical impossibility."

But there are ways forward. Teach First, a charity and mission-led teacher training programme, has shown that it is possible to convince the country's brightest young people that teaching is an appealing career prospect.

Set up 10 years ago with the aim of tackling educational disadvantage, critics said that the scheme would never persuade Oxbridge students to go into teaching. But today, Teach First is one of the top 10 graduate recruiters, placing graduates in challenging schools where they undergo on-the-job teacher training.

"I think, when we started, the status of the profession was poor, but (10) years in and we have really raised its profile," says James Darley, director of graduate recruitment for Teach First. "The problem was that other industries had become sexier. Professional services and internet businesses overtook teaching in the graduate recruitment market. Their recruiting machine on campuses was slick and impressive.

"Our earliest message was that we needed these graduates in order to have an impact on these children and schools. We have found that graduates come to us because they want a challenge, because they want to help children, because they want further professional qualifications and because they want to gain transferable skills."

Teach First is marketed as an opportunity to rid England of social ills. Graduates are told quite clearly that their work will be difficult. The TES research shows why this rebranding exercise appears to have been such a success.

A total of 78 per cent of those surveyed said that they chose the job because they thought it would be a rewarding career; 72 per cent because they were interested in education; and 63 per cent because they wanted to work with children. Only 9 per cent thought that it would be an easy profession to get into and only 21 per cent were attracted by long holidays or other benefits. Teachers, it would seem, reject the cliches embraced by the wider public.

Teaching is a calling

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says he was "encouraged to see the sense of vocation and moral purpose" reflected in the TES survey.

"These teachers have come into the profession to make a difference to the life chances of young people," he says. "Their responses are a testament to the quality and commitment of the current generation of teachers who work tirelessly in the interests of their students. The survey emphasises the need to look after our profession."

Bousted, however, is doubtful that teachers will ever be viewed in the same league as doctors by the public - there are almost half a million teachers and their job does not have the same mystique. By the time they reach the age of 18, most people have had extensive experience of the teaching profession, for better or worse.

Teachers' status could only be raised, Bousted argues, if they are allowed to teach free of political interference. "Our professional practice has been colonised by government and government agencies, and league tables and inspectors. It's good in a way because now there is nowhere for ineffective teachers to hide," she says. "But teachers need more autonomy, less time doing 'busy tasks' like lesson planning and more time to think about teaching."

Julian Stanley, chief executive of the Teacher Support Network charity, believes that it is the duty of everybody to "hold teachers in good esteem". "Unacceptable performance must be dealt with, but we need to stop a culture emerging where it's OK to knock teachers and the teaching profession," he says.

But education leaders have found it encouraging that, despite its low status, many talented and highly qualified young people are attracted to teaching as a calling.

Lizzie Latham, a 22-year-old trainee teacher from Manchester, who is in the second year of a BA primary education course at Manchester Metropolitan University, has always wanted to be a teacher - she used to role play as a child teaching her teddy bears and her interest was reignited after working as a teaching assistant. And she is unconcerned that her job is not the envy of her friends. "Being able to teach is a wonderful gift, but it's not cool. However, being a teacher makes me feel pretty good about my life," she says.

It's a sentiment that echoes through the generations. Smith, the 74-year-old retired teacher, who is now chair of the Rotherham Retired Teachers' Association, says that she "couldn't have cared less" about the status of her job when she joined the profession - despite insisting that teachers were more highly valued then.

"I just wanted to teach," she says. "I'm still stopped regularly by former pupils who recognise me and want to tell me the difference my work made to their lives. They are grateful."

So the next time you hear somebody mock teachers, or laugh at a demeaning joke about the profession, maybe it is time to step in and tell them the facts. This is, perhaps, the only way to ensure that those out-of-date, all-too-familiar quips finally go out of fashion.


Of those surveyed:

59.3% stated that "teaching is my first and only job"

63.5% would recommend teaching to other people

83.6% feel they have the skills to do another job

91.6% think teaching is harder than the careers of their friends and relatives

77.7% decided teaching would be a rewarding career

Source: TES survey of 1,041 teachers


A new advertising campaign for the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) aims to raise the profile of teaching with facts that dispel the myths.

Paul Cohen, director of initial teacher training recruitment at the TDA, believes that the campaign offers "an opportunity to improve the perception of teaching among high-performing graduates, and therefore attract more of them to the profession."

"They are interested to hear more about salary, bursaries and career progression opportunities," he says. "The campaign focuses on communicating these facts to encourage a reappraisal of teaching as a job."

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says: "A high-status profession needs people of this calibre to stay the course and become the next generation of school leaders."

James Noble Rogers, executive director of the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers, believes that the profession needs to become a master's-level job. "The status of teachers is enhanced by their academically robust training and will be enhanced even more by making it a master's-level profession," he says.

Chris Harrison, president of the NAHT heads' union, agrees. "In Finland, the government actively targets the top school leaders and encourages them to do a five-year master's programme. It's a highly prized occupation. That's the kind of ideal we need to foster in this country."

The previous Labour government introduced the Master's in Teaching and Learning, but funding for the course was withdrawn by Michael Gove. There is now a National Scholarship Fund, to which teachers can apply for funding for courses that will "deepen their subject knowledge".

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