'When it comes to teacher recruitment, the DfE has been found wanting'

Policymakers are painfully short on workable solutions to England’s intractable educational problems, writes one leading educationalist

Bernard Trafford

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The writing has been on the wall for the Department for Education. But even so, the timing of the decision to shut the National College for Teaching and Leadership and take its functions into the DfE, just as it’s becoming clear that the crisis in teacher supply is deepening, was extraordinary.

You know what the famous biblical writing on the wall (from where the expression comes) spelled out? “Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.”

The government has indeed been found wanting, and seems painfully short of solutions for the problems it faces (and frequently creates). Take as evidence this week’s appearance before the Commons public accounts committee (PAC) of the DfE’s permanent secretary Jonathan Slater, who admitted that the government needed “to focus more on bread-and-butter issues of teaching supply and standards”.

Yet it appears it isn’t. To take just one example, almost as Mr Slater was speaking, it was being reported that more than half of schools do not offer computer science GCSE and that years of missed recruitment targets mean we have an under-supply of qualified teachers. The situation is so bad that a powerful and necessary rewrite of the computing curriculum, designed to meet the country’s needs by putting coding and creativity at its heart, appears doomed to failure.

As I followed the stream of tweets reporting that PAC session, I almost felt sorry for the permanent secretary as, on teacher recruitment, he was obliged to confess to a string of failures, including the National Teaching Service, which flopped because it was “done in a hurry”.

Mr Slater also admitted: “There’s a workload issue here that we have to make progress on.”  Funny: ministers, ever since Estelle Morris, have known that, though few have acknowledged the fact.

Who, apart from the DfE, is surprised that the money offered to relocate teachers to difficult areas was insufficient? Besides, it’s not just about the money, nor even workload. In Thursday’s Guardian, Cat Scutt, director of education and research at the Chartered College of Teaching, commented that the recruitment and retention crisis won’t be solved merely by cutting workload, though it might help. She wrote: “Teachers need to be given the time, autonomy and professional development and collaboration opportunities that will help them to keep making a difference – as well as recognition of how good a job they do.”

I have no space here to dwell further on the predictable and dismal DfE decision to take recruitment in-house. Suffice to say that with ministers and civil servants in charge of managing the failure to recruit sufficient teachers, no one else can be blamed.

Finally this week, I enjoyed the delicious irony (observed by Tes editor Ann Mroz) of Nick Gibb stating, “It’s not right for schools to be asking parents to pay for the basics”, on the day that Tes reported that Robert Piggott CofE Primary School, in the prime minister’s constituency, was requesting a voluntary contribution of £190 (£1 a day) to buy pens, pencils and books.

Writing on the wall? I fear policymakers are blind to it, or aren’t themselves proficient readers. Instead, I’ll fall back on the old Laurel and Hardy line: "Here’s another fine mess you’ve got us into." Only this educational mess won’t be solved by a custard pie, a bucket of water, a ladder and a belly laugh. Prepare to cry instead.

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist and musician. He is a former headteacher and past chair of HMC. He tweets @bernardtrafford 

To read more columns, view his back catalogue

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Bernard Trafford

Bernard Trafford

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher

Find me on Twitter @bernardtrafford

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