Today, my thinktank, Policy Exchange, and the Association of School and College Leaders have published a series of essays on what might be done to improve teacher supply.
My contribution is around flexibility. I’m struck that of the 49,000 teachers who joined in 2014, around 17,000 were returners. The fact that teachers are willing in large numbers to come back to schools after a period of absence is an unheralded success story. But on the down side, we are still losing thousands of talented teachers more permanently; specifically women aged 30-39. Between 2008 and 2012, around 6,000 of them a year left teaching – many (my hypothesis) to motherhood.
And the limited data that we have, courtesy of the National Foundation for Educational Research, suggests that not many of them come back. This is a shocking waste of talent. It’s also deeply sad that such mothers feel that teaching, which is all about the next generation, isn’t compatible with raising their own offspring.
My essay makes a case that greater use of flexible working – and by that I don’t mean just part-time or flexible timetables, but recognising the case for teachers increasingly moving in and out of the profession during their working life as circumstances change – could really benefit not just working mothers but all teachers, and help address the supply crunch.
We need to take action on a few fronts. For school leaders, things which some schools do could be done more widely – keeping in contact with ex-staff who might wish to return, funding subject refresher courses, and considering secondments and funded sabbaticals if feasible. From government, we may need to see greater flexibility over previously untouchable issues of national pay and conditions – which would be resisted by unions, but would help aid a more flexible labour force.
The biggest change, however, is a cultural one. You don’t need to spend much time with teachers or on social media before a firm hierarchy becomes clear. At the top are those who have “done their time”, taught for many years and are still going. Below them are less experienced staff who are still teaching. And at the bottom are those who have “only” taught for a few years, have left, but still express views and opinions – particularly when such opinions are contrary to received wisdom (though such people, in fairness, often give as good as they get). Or the criticism of Teach First and its participants for doing exactly what they’ve always claimed to: put graduates into classrooms for at least two years. (As a non-teacher, and loud-mouthed policy wonk and scribbler, I obviously sit at an even lower, subterranean level in the hierarchy.)
Less anecdotally, recent research suggests widespread instances of teachers who come into the profession through a career change facing distrust and scepticism from new colleagues, leading to higher dropout rates from teacher training.
If we really want a full complement of teachers, we have to embrace flexibility, address this snobbery, and welcome back teachers who have left.
Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron