The best opportunity for children to be successful is to have an excellent teacher in front of them every day. Someone who cares about their emotional wellbeing, knows their family and any issues they may be dealing with. Someone who instinctively guides them to meet and exceed their targets, on a minute-by-minute basis. In Scotland, this happens for most of our children.
Our profession has become skilled in extending outwards towards families and communities, working together to ensure that they can meet the most complex needs in classes. Professional Update and CLPL (Career-Long Professional Learning) promote continuing improvement; children benefit from working with teachers fully committed to learning for all, and for whom self-reflection and improvement are a way of being.
Teachers must to be able to access professional learning, just as we would expect that for doctors, lawyers and other professionals. We need to be aware of current research, to ensure our children are receiving the best experience they can in school and beyond. Time needs to be allocated to allow teachers to support and lead curriculum development.
But as in any workforce, teachers at times suffer illness, bereavement or have family circumstances, causing them to be absent. (Although the current rate of absence among teachers is well below the national average for employees.) So when Monday morning arrives and a class teacher is absent – or sometimes two or more teachers – there is a high level of risk to all of the key features of improving outcomes for children.
The headteacher immediately seeks supply – at present, this is highly unlikely to be available. So the head or depute might cancel all planned development, which might involve attainment meetings or additional support needs (ASN) meetings. A plan is made to cover the class, and non-class contact time (NCCT) is reorganised. The best outcome for the children is that a known teacher is able to work to a well-written and clear plan, and that learning is not interrupted.
Since the national teacher shortage became a crisis, the more likely scenario is that classes will have a mix of senior leaders, often resulting in changes in tasks owing to, for example, them having to cover NCCT, and at times also covering multiple classes during assemblies.
At times classes have to be split to allow, for instance, children with complex needs and social, emotional and behavioural difficulties to be supported by senior leaders.
The biggest losers in this case are, of course, the children. Lack of consistency in teaching and learning, and lack of emotional attachments and relationships, can have a very big negative impact; for children with Asperger’s syndrome or emotional difficulties, it is even greater.
Teachers try to support their colleagues, and a great deal of their time can be spent showing them resources and explaining the unwritten rhythms and flows of the class and school. This is both steadying and supports the children; however, it becomes a drain on teachers’ time and energies for their own children. Specific work – for example, supporting literacy within classes or groups – is lost and attainment is slowed for those vulnerable children.
Curriculum development cannot go ahead and improvements are interrupted, at best. At worst, they are lost completely if absence or lack of supply is long-term. The strategic development and planning for the school groups also suffers as leaders pick up roles and key meetings that others cannot.
There can be no doubt that this shortage is having a negative impact on attainment and developments within schools. Leaders constantly find themselves firefighting and playing catch-up, extending their working days to try to keep plans on track and secure the children’s learning.
In the longer term, the motivation to lead a school can be extinguished; increasingly, deputes do not see the headteacher role as a positive one to aspire to. There are a number of young leaders whom I have spoken to recently who are even considering leaving education altogether – what a great waste for Scotland’s children.
Finally, as the system is under pressure, there is a real danger that the quality of teachers being recruited will not be of a standard that Scotland’s children need. There are many thousands of outstanding teachers and leaders in Scotland, but the current lack of staff risks leading to a focus on quantity over quality.
Quantity, not quality?
The government, universities and schools must continue to work in genuine partnership to ensure that courses properly prepare students for the robust and demanding profession that they are entering.
With a seemingly financially punitive approach to the maintenance of teacher numbers by the government, and the chronic shortage of teachers, local authorities are seeking teachers from abroad, through new routes into the profession and, in many cases, by appealing to retirees to make a comeback.
But it has taken a great deal of time and effort to ensure that our standards are clear, and we must be wary of lowering these. We need to bring people into the profession who are aware of their holistic responsibility to young people, who see their role as guide, coach, mentor and role model, and who are fully committed to inclusion, social justice and the requirement for their focus to be on the needs of the children and families.
If we are to continue to raise attainment for all, and to support the most vulnerable children to reach their potential, we all have a responsibility to support those who would enter this rewarding profession.
We also must help our colleagues who have worked with our children for decades to remain motivated, and let them know that they are valued. And we need to create the space for school leaders to nurture improvement in our schools.
There are tricky times ahead, but education of a high standard is the only way to create a highly skilled workforce, able to understand and promote the rights of all in a truly democratic and just society.
Ann McIntosh is a primary headteacher in Scotland and past president of AHDS, the primary school leaders’ organisation