'Too many teachers suffer September uncertainty'

Spare a thought for teachers unsure of what the school year will bring - because of cuts or restructuring, says Emma Kell

Teacher uncertainty: Many teachers are currently unsure where they will be working next year, warns Emma Kell

A couple of years ago, one of my most admired, doctorate-owning, marathon-running friends decided to get into teaching. I was, and am, wildly excited on behalf of the profession. She flew through the training course and began her job hunt around April. Only there were no jobs in the part of the country she was in. May… June… still no jobs. She eventually landed herself a temporary maternity cover and did what only she could have done – made herself immediately indispensable – and has since flourished in the profession.

The thing with teaching is that, despite the cries of teacher shortages, the path isn’t always predictable or certain for the very best of people. In this case, it’s because the shortages are focused in certain parts of the country. In some areas, teachers are settled and stay in schools for years and years, resulting in few vacancies arising. In other cases, it’s because life – house moves, family changes, health issues – take priority; in others still, it’s an active decision to step off the treadmill and take a risk.

Yesterday, my dentist asked me, at my annual MOT, as he always does, when I was returning to school. I was momentarily lost for words, assailed by something approaching panic. "I’m not…," I said. For the first time in my adult life, I won’t be starting the academic year in the institution where I plan to spend the rest of the year, following a life of timetables and externally imposed deadlines and routines and neat little green payslips at the end of each month. I’m still going to be in be in schools – but in lots of different ones, on lots of different days. And it’s scary! Man, it’s scary. Exciting, but I’m petrified, too.

I wondered how many others might be facing uncertainty and unpredictability about the rapidly approaching academic year, and I asked some teachers about this.

Teachers looking for jobs

For many of the respondents, a decision on the part of their schools not to renew their contracts was left until the very last minute, leaving them with no options left for September. This strikes me as wildly unprofessional, but it’s remarkably common. Most of these people have signed up to supply agencies, with no idea what kind of work they can expect – if any. The vast majority of teachers are, in my experience, proud and humble about their professional development, so the prospect of the uncertainty of supply teaching is bringing many of them down. How does it feel? For one teacher, like this:

"Terrifying and sad, mainly, for me. I'd just began to feel like the sand wasn't shifting quite so quickly, but now I'm thinking all my learning is slipping away, and hoping supply will still keep it relevant."

However, there is hope – when I wrote about Simon the Supply Teacher a few months back, I was expecting to be drowning in stories of doom and gloom and regular maulings from disrespectful students, but many, many teachers positively relish the freedom and unpredictability of supply teaching. Here’s one:

"That’s me – supply teaching – I love the buzz of not knowing where I am going, driving to a new school, the challenges of the handed-out timetable, meeting new students, creating a learning environment, people-watching in the staffroom – satisfaction at the end of the day (usually)."

I was, perhaps naively, struck by the number of people previously in very senior positions, including headteachers, who are now in a position where they don’t have a fixed job for September. Some have become victims of redundancies as a result of changes to leadership or where new academy chains have taken over. Others still have had to take the decision to leave regimes that no longer aligned with their values and, in one case, was making them very ill. These people would rather face the uncertainty of no fixed job than carry on working in a toxic environment. One former deputy told me that she’s absolutely sure she made the right decision, but hopes that:

"Prospective employers will appreciate and value the integrity behind my decision and not view me as someone who can’t handle pressure or gets out when the going gets tough."

With many schools facing funding cuts, with members of senior leadership teams (SLTs) being the most expensive hires, it’s perhaps not surprising that there seem to be fewer SLT vacancies than ever. For SLT members made redundant, it can be a horrible limbo that they find themselves in, as described here:

"I was made redundant from my SLT post and haven’t been able to secure another post in the North East. I applied for a class teacher but was told that I was beyond the role. I’m extremely worried what September will bring and am losing all confidence and faith in everything. My dream was to be a head but I feel this is fading fast and no one will take me on any more."

Teachers judged on exam results

In our era of high-stakes accountability, it is pretty horrific but perhaps unsurprising to hear that some people’s jobs hinge entirely on the GCSE results that were due out this week. Those results will decide whether they have a job in the next two weeks or not…

"I know if our results are not good enough, as a deputy head, I will be asked to leave. I cannot explain the pressure we have been put under. I am 56 this year and have always been very successful previously. This September, if results are not good enough, I will have no choice but retire. Just very sad that my career may end this way."

One headteacher who is "lucky" enough to have secured her second headship is not being allowed access to the school until the end of August because the previous head won’t budge. This, combined with tiny children and childcare issues, makes what should be an extremely exciting opportunity massively stressful.

"Sleepless nights started two weeks ago. Have had periods of nausea and terrible headaches, too. Seems unfair that my children don’t get me at my best, and that’s the thing that helps to pull it into perspective. I know I can do the job and do it well. And I can still be a good parent."

Other teachers still know where they’ll be teaching, but that seems to be about the only certainty. What they’ll be teaching and to whom seems to be a complete unknown. Constant changes to possible timetables and groupings are, quite understandably, making some teachers extremely anxious. One said: "I do feel that I could be handed any subject and be expected to become competent in it immediately." In another "couldn’t make it up" scenario, cuts and redundancies have results in this situation:

"We had a round of redundancies last term. My head of department was laid off. I'm now the only maths teacher in the school. The deputy head (an English teacher) will be head of English, maths and science on top of his other responsibilities."

New academy chains frequently bring with them sweeping changes and, in the case of one teacher, these changes seem to have been left very much until the last minute:

"We’ve very recently been taking over by an academy chain, and are closing as a school on 31 August and reopening in September under new branding. We were told on the last day of school we have an extra day’s holiday as they weren’t ready for staff and students to come in and only SLT were due in on the first day. Have very little information on how this takeover is going to affect us. Lots of subject consultants from the chain came in during July, encouraging us to change our curriculum… it’s absolutely terrifying!"

It’s not all grim!

It’s very refreshing, given the current shortages, to hear about people moving back into teaching, but they, too, are pretty terrified. One, who is moving from a policy role into a senior team, put it like this:

"I’ve been out of the classroom for seven years, I’ll be on the executive team and I’m not a headteacher, and it’s a totally new role so I’ve no idea what to expect! So excited, but having been in my current role, think it’s so tied up with my identity I’m also totally terrified about leaving the team."

For many teachers, the unknown brings with it excitement and optimism. It was lovely to hear from a new head of ethical leadership – a brand new role that has been created to meet the needs of the school. And it is ALWAYS lovely to hear from brand new teachers excited about the journey ahead:

"I'm a Teacher Firster. I've had very little experience in the classroom. I'm really excited to get in there and do what I can for my kids. From the tiny amount of teaching I've done, I love it."

Change forms part of the very fabric of our education system – it is inevitable when working with people in such a rapidly changing world. When people feel in control of the changes or at least consulted about them, it doesn’t necessarily take the fear away, but it does create real optimism. It’s the inhumane changes – the treatment of people as natural wastage or data generators – that makes me so angry. Still, as one, now jobless, senior leader said: ‘"I’ve known loads of people who have started September not knowing what to expect – and it’s almost always worked out of the better."

Pollyanna hats firmly on, people!

Dr Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching

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