We still need teachers

Ministers have overestimated the power of technology to transform learning, says Martin Johnson. Schools of the future will be much like schools of the past

WE all agree that technology can be a boon to teachers. We also agree that administrative and learning support staff can help them. But ministers are hoping that investment in technology and more assistants can solve the problems of excessive workload and the teacher shortage. We at the Institute for Public Policy Research believe that to be too hopeful.

Our book, From Victims of Change to Agents of Change, reports the findings of a year-long study of the future of teaching. One thing seems certain: schools will continue to be places where pupil-teacher interaction is central, because effective learning is normally a social activity. New technologies will change schools, but they will not replace teachers.

More IT and support staff will relieve some of the burden. But we believe teachers should use the time freed to shorten their hours, rather than taking on other tasks. They need a contractual limit on working hours - we suggest an annual cap of 1,725 hours per year. The Government should not be reinforcing the damaging long-hours culture.

There are certain things teachers do that can only be done by skilled professionals. Once again the key importance of motivating pupils (never forgotten by teachers) is being stressed. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) found recently that in most countries more than a quarter of 15-year-olds were hostile to schooling.

One of the results of bringing citizenship into the curriculum will be a resurgence of thinking about non-academic aims of schooling. Learning about getting on together, about morals and values, about finding a personal identity and a place in society, and yes, about being a citizen. There is a whole "hidden curriculum" in school life. It contains those learning experiences outside lessons. An example from our book: what do pupils learn when they notice that one in eight primary class teachers but four in 10 primary heads are men? We need skilled staff to address these complex social and cultural issues.

We conclude that the school of the future will look very much like the school of the past in important ways. This will disappoint some visionaries. They often complain that a surgeon from 1902 entering today's operating theatre would be bemused, but a 1902 teacher would feel at home in today's classroom. But the comparison is false: one is a technical matter, and the other concerns unchanging human relationships. In schools the dominant social organisation will remain groups of young people led by one or more adults although that organisation is likely to become much more flexible and varied. Those adults will need skills very similar to what teachers need today.

This presents a huge recruitment challenge, especially in the light of retirement trends. Between 2005 and 2009, about 12,400 UK teachers will retire each year (three times the current number), and between 2010 and 2014 about 17,300 a year. We will have to recruit far more teachers just to stand still.

We can meet that challenge, if the job is made more attractive. We have to target different pools of recruits, such as other school staff, returners, career-changers, and under-represented groups.

he Government is currently trying to identify tasks done by teachers that could be transferred to others. Employing qualified (not unqualified, as at the moment) assistants to undertake work with pupils seems reasonable, although this needs careful thought. For example, supervising large groups of teenagers requires a high level of interpersonal skills. But we will still need many staff in each school with subject knowledge, pedagogical and interpersonal skills, and a philosophical and sociological grounding. Our need for teachers will be greater than ever. This may seem a dull, even conservative conclusion for a think-tank. But even think-tanks have to remember that constant change is not always desirable and traditional methods are not always wrong.

The Government should not be too pessimistic about recruitment: state schools remain popular, teachers remain highly regarded, and the PISA study suggests pupils are doing well. With reasonable working hours, better working conditions, and a bit more trust, teaching can attract the recruits we need.

Contact Martin Johnson at m.johnson@ippr.org.uk. "From Victims of Change to Agents of Change" is available from Central Books, 020 8533 5821, 0845 4589911 or e-mail ippr@centralbooks.com

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