'We need to change the story we tell about our profession – to the world and to ourselves'

Teaching needs to be so intoxicating that leaving the classroom early becomes unthinkable. It's up to us to create this narrative, writes ASCL leader Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

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A profession that should be one of the most joyful, the most optimistic, is too often depicted as one of the most joyless, the most dispiriting.

This isn’t just about the way teaching is perceived by the outside world. It’s too often the way it seems that inside our schools and colleges the joy is being squeezed out, mechanistic bit by bit.

The grim irony is that the people who are the custodians of our nation’s greatest resource – its young talent, hopes and dreams – too often feel under the cosh, done-to rather than done-with, locked into a role that, frankly, shouldn’t feel like this.

That, at least, appears to be the prevailing narrative around teaching in the UK. There’s been a sad tradition of people like me writing articles like this that reinforce a sense of a profession that too easily wallows in its own victimhood. That’s been the depiction outside. It’s been the depiction inside, too.

And statistics bear some, though not all, of this gloomy story out.

This week’s report on teacher retention by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) is an important and characteristically forensic one. It gives an interim evaluation of how the teaching profession looks now – our recruitment and retention patterns, plus some informed recommendations for government.

It tells us that:

  • The proportion of working-age teachers leaving the profession each year has risen steadily between 2010 and 2015, from 9 per cent to 11 per cent for primary teachers and from 11 per cent to 13 per cent for secondary teachers.
  • The proportion of teachers in the workforce in their 50s has decreased markedly between 2010 and 2015. If this trend continues, it will increase the scale of the challenge as new, inexperienced teachers will need to be recruited to replace them.

As a result, we have one of the developed world’s youngest teaching workforces, with around a third of teachers leaving within five years. That should leave us all disturbed because it means that we are haemorrhaging talent.

This is where articles like this now usually, perhaps inevitably, spiral into characteristic "it’s the government’s fault" mode.

Except, that as someone who finds himself a frequent visitor these days to the Department for Education, I look across Sanctuary Buildings, at its gleaming internal windows, its tumbling foliage, its open-plan rooms of dutiful employees, and I’m struck by how little actual influence any longer resides in that Westminster bunker.

That’s not to absolve former and current ministers of a hefty share of responsibility for the current state of our profession. But – in truth – we also have to blame ourselves. We let this happen.

As Tes editor Ann Mroz wrote in her editorial in February: “At some deep, fundamental level, the profession lacks confidence. Heads and teachers grumble and grouse, but they don’t really believe they have the right to tell politicians or anyone else where to get off.”

She’s right. We need a new collective mindset about teaching. Of course, the juggernaut of reform needs to stop. Of course, teachers’ pay and conditions must be addressed and fully funded by the Treasury, as must the funding crisis highlighted in this week’s lobby of parliament.

But we also need to look at ourselves, recognising that a teaching profession for the next phase of the 21st century will need to look somewhat different.

After all, we’re going to be expected to work to the age of 68. If anything should drive the need for us to rethink working patterns, it’s the realisation that full-time classroom deployment to that age will be a fast-track to the graveyard.

Part-time work, time at home for marking, more creative job shares, different ways of harnessing teachers’ talents using digital technology – all of these will need to become part of a reinvented teaching profession.

This, in turn, will help us to bring good people back into the profession after they’ve taken time out to travel the world, teach overseas, or bring up a family. We need the teaching profession more closely to model the world of employment our young people will step into.

Simultaneously, we need to change the story we tell about teaching – to the world outside and to ourselves.

In Shanghai last Friday, I spoke at a conference where the director of education in that sprawling city, one of the world’s top-performing jurisdictions, opened his address by asking two questions: “What kind of skills will our young people need for an age of artificial intelligence and robots? And how can we help our teachers to prepare them?”

These are the big questions the rest of the world is asking – that teachers themselves, not just politicians, are grappling with.

We need to do that too. Because we need the next generation to be better than our generation in tackling inequality, improving life for the world’s poorest, and making life for more fellow humans more successful.

And to achieve that, our young people need a teaching profession that exudes confidence and thinks optimistically. A profession that finds the collective responsibility, renewed status and creativity of the classroom so intoxicating that leaving our career early would become unthinkable.

There’s a big job for us to do, as part of a new national mission.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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