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While pay concerns might put potential teachers off, the challenge of education will draw them in

Getting recruitment right is difficult, but inspirational examples at home and abroad point the way, writes former schools minister Jim Knight

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Last Thursday I met up with some old school friends; by predictable coincidence we are all 50 this year and we thought we should celebrate. At the end of the evening, I walked to Waterloo with Jerry, who had just qualified and started work for his local authority as an educational psychologist.

Until five years ago Jerry had been a very successful management consultant. We talked about the massive decision he made with his family to abandon high income for vocation. This in itself was inspiring, alongside the affirmation that it is never too late to retrain and go into education.

The same applies to teaching, where we have schemes and incentives for people to change careers and come into the profession. As a graduate profession this is, like Jerry’s, a decision primarily based on personal vocation. 

I wonder if more would make this decision if there was stronger external recognition of the value of teachers.

Last week I also facilitated a breakfast discussion for Camfed. This inspirational charity educates girls in parts of Africa. It was founded by Ann Cotton, who won last year’s WISE prize, and is led by chief executive Lucy Lake.

The discussion was about their Learner Guide programme. Having motivated and helped girls to complete secondary school, the charity could see many struggling to find work, making their job harder with the next cohort of girls. Thanks to a grant from the Queen’s Trust, they were able to devise a solution.

African girls completing school are invited to become learner guides, a one day a week commitment. The guides are trained to go back into their schools and mentor girls to complete their education, helping to spot and support the most vulnerable. They are also given access to business start-up finance and mobile technology to connect with other guides and support each other.

High-status profession

The outcomes are spectacular for the girls, the schools and their communities. These girls are being recognised for their ability and asked to contribute to local government committees, and even as election monitors in Tanzania. 

Most striking is that they are given respect in their communities as teachers – a very high-status profession. They are greeted as “madam”, their parents as the parents of “madam”, their husbands as the husband of “madam”. This social recognition is a key part of the programme’s success.

Aspects reminded me of Teach First: young people who have been very successful in completing their education, are recycled back into schools to help educate and motivate the next generation. Teach First is a top graduate recruiter, and has made teaching a higher status profession among graduates.

The decision by the Department for Education to run TV recruitment ads is very welcome. Experience of past teacher shortages tells us that this is crucial.  However the ad itself has attracted criticism for what is says about teacher pay, which I think was a mistake. There is no evidence that people come into teaching for the pay.

Indeed this week also saw the publication of the excellent report by thinktank LKMco. The paper, Why Teach?, finds that the top two reasons are “making a difference to pupils’ lives” and “subject interest”. Pay is almost at the bottom, just above quality leadership and below “long holidays”.

We should be taking every opportunity to recognise teaching as a great profession. We must celebrate the challenge and non-financial rewards of teaching. Social recognition is working with the learner guides in Tanzania, and it works for Teach First. My school friend Jerry gave up a lot materially to become an educational psychologist, but all his friends are really proud he made that decision to focus his talents on some of our most vulnerable children.

It is hard to get these recruitment messages right. It is urgent that we do. Worries about salary may be holding some back but I hope the message can be changed to something more positive.

Jim Knight is chief education adviser to TES Global, parent company of TES 

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