Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Solving the Teacher Shortage Crisis

The Education Select Committee today was the latest body to highlight the issue of teacher workforce numbers.  All headteachers know the difficulties in trying to maintain a full staffing complement and we all know the impact on student performance when staffing shortages occur.  So, ensuring that there are enough teachers in the system is extremely important.

A dozen thoughts on the issue:

1      Firstly, we need to recognise that there are more qualified teachers in England than at any other time on record.  The issue is not that there is a shortage of teachers, rather that there is a shortage of qualified teachers who choose to teach.  Recruitment is not the problem, retention is.  Retaining qualified teachers to work in the State system means understanding and then addressing the key reasons that they leave.
2      Secondly, we need to recognise that the solution does not lie in money.  It is too easy and superficial to shout from the rooftops that schools need more money.  This isn’t going to happen, so unless we focus on pushing the solutions that can happen and can make a real difference, we are simply writing off year after year of children.
3      Demographic data shows that the pupil population of England’s schools is at an all time high and increasing.  The trend data and projections show that the school pupil population will continue to increase until 2024.  This population change is a more important factor in driving teacher shortage than the annual failure to recruit the target numbers of teachers.
4      The target is always missed and teachers leave the profession in the first 5 years of their careers in pretty much the same proportion as they have done throughout the last 20 years, although there is a slight increase in the speed at which they leave (more leaving after their first and second years).  These are predictable statistics and it is unlikely that we will be able to significantly improve the recruitment figures.  Again, the focus should be on retaining teachers.
5      Leaving teaching within the first few years means that those individuals didn’t even get to the point at becoming expert teachers (which takes around 10 years), and so the continual replacement of early career teachers for new early career teachers means that huge numbers of students are being taught by novice teachers.  Clearly, it should be a priority to retain as many early career teachers as possible, which in part could be helped by penalising those who leave in the first few years so that they are no longer recipients of the financial incentives offered to trainee teachers.
6      Established teachers leave the profession for myriad of complex reasons, but the top reasons remain fairly consistent and account for the vast majority of those leaving the profession before retirement age.  Although pay is often cited, it is not the main reason for leaving.  Also, there is no way to address the money issue immediately, as mentioned above, so we should look at the high impact solutions that can happen straight away.  Teachers commonly cite the following reasons for leaving teaching:
a.     Unacceptable classroom behaviour, which is condoned / overlooked and leaves the teacher feeling humiliated and unsupported
b.     Lack of professional autonomy, including being told how to teach their specialist subject by those who do not know what they are talking about
c.     Continual policy change / initiatives, which lead to continual re-inventing of the wheel and nonsense edu-fads, which in turn create ill thought through, knee jerk reactions from school managers who repeatedly change the goalposts
d.     Unnecessary bureaucracy, such as recording of data for no purpose or moronic marking policies focussed purely on proving that the teacher keeps records rather than meaningful assessment that actually helps students learn better.  TALIS shows us that an average teacher spends around 23 hours per week on non-teaching activity.  Scrap all of it save the most essential and impactful aspects.
e.     Bullying.  I have always found this incredible, almost unbelievable, but time and again teachers leave the profession because they are harassed and bullied by other members of staff or management
7      What strikes me about all of these reasons for leaving the profession is that they are all within our gift to mend immediately.  Even a small decrease in the percentage of teachers leaving the profession before retirement age would have a massive impact on the teacher workforce numbers and far outweigh the issues of recruitment.  Yet, as a profession, through neglect and malpractice, we create the reasons cited above and should, therefore, not be at all surprised that highly intelligent, autonomous, professional, dedicated people sometimes look to leave the profession they love.
8      Teaching is a profession of learn’d and capable intellects, it is highly demanding and complex.  Yet, the profession is portrayed as failing and weak – teachers are often seen as part of the problem.  Government could and should reverse this perception by espousing its belief that teaching is for the most highly capable, that teaching is to be revered!
9      The change to the education landscape since the introduction of MATs has seen a very large number of previously school based colleagues move into roles in MAT central teams, which has removed many good teachers from the classroom.  Previously, with 152 local authorities, these central structures were 152 times each role. Now, with over 2500 MATs, there is a far larger number of colleagues working in similar roles, each supporting far fewer schools.  The MAT system is unwieldy, overly expensive and inefficient at propagating effective practice across large numbers of schools.  It would be better if MATs could move quickly towards merging until there are only 150 – 200 of them, returning large numbers of qualified teachers to the classroom.
10   Older teachers are also those who carry the canon of knowledge of our profession.  They are the true experts, yet are often treated with disdain by the profession itself.  Retaining these teachers is key to creating a stable and evidence informed profession – treat them with the dignity and respect that expertise deserves
11   There are simply too many managers in schools.  Often used as a retention tool, classroom teachers are promoted into unnecessary roles, which take them away from the classroom.  Rather, let’s create a status for classroom teachers that recognises they do they most important job in the school.  The huge rise in management roles, since the introduction of TLRs, has meant thousands of teaching periods removed from timetables, deploying expert teaching staff into often administrative roles.  This is a waste of talent.  If a school has the money to spend on TLRs, then why not spend that money paying the teacher more to remain a full classroom teacher and doing the complex work they were trained to do?

12   Teachers are bright people, yet a career in teaching can often be a tedious bore intellectually.  Let’s fix this, let’s demand of all teachers that they continue to learn, that they have time (by removing the non-teaching activities discussed above) to engage with evidence, to be researchers, to reflect, to engage in meaningful and challenging CPD.  Teaching children is wonderful, but so is the process of learning.  Let’s ensure that every teacher in every school is required to be a learner too.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

On Leaving Teaching

(This was written in 2011 as the introduction chapter to my book, More On Being a Teacher)

It was March 6th 2006 when I died.

Mat was a wonderful student and now that he was in his final year, he had become almost a part of the staff on our regular walking trips.

A late blast of winter fell on the Peak District National Park with a sudden and complete freeze. The low afternoon sun danced on the waters of Ladybower reservoir and Lose Hill threw long shadows across the forest. At the banks of the lake, Mat kicked a rugby ball out ahead and we both sprinted after it. The ball bounced awkwardly in front of me, one way then the next, I grappled with it for a second then pulled the ball tight against my chest and ran as fast as I could. But Mat was young and much fitter than his old teacher and he was on my heels in no time. He lunged forward, locking his arms around my shins and toppling me. My body crashed on to the hard, frozen ground. He had triumphed. Mat beamed with delight and laughed at his success. But immediately, something in my eyes revealed the secret that all was not well. His face changed and he leaned down to me to ask if I was okay. I brushed away the concern, puffed heavily to regain my breath and told him that I was fine.

But I was not fine. The two bottommost ribs on the left of my body had snapped angrily as I impacted with the solid earth and were now screaming out in pain. I composed myself and was helped to my feet by Mat. Again, I reassured him that I was okay and we both walked slowly back to the lake’s shore to join the rest of the group.

That evening, I dragged myself in to the Edale Youth Hostel canteen, sitting carefully next to my two colleagues. The students were starting to appear, presenting themselves politely at the food counter and arranging themselves in friendship groups around the room. Gill and Jon looked visibly concerned at the effort I was employing simply to sit and breathe. Gill suggested that she drive me over to Sheffield hospital to get checked out. But, as a not too careful rock-climber who has had his fair share of accidents, I knew that there would be little point. After all, there isn’t a great deal that you can do with broken ribs. You simply must wait. I had managed the rest of the walk that day, and felt fine except for my ribs protesting at every move. Three weeks would pass; the ribs would heel and I would forget all about it. That’s just the way it is with this injury. So, we carried on the trip as normal.

Three weeks did pass. But the pain had not gone. The familiar sharp, immediate pain that broken ribs throw at you each time you try to change position had indeed subsided and I was now able to turn in bed and sleep for more than twenty minute bouts. But something remained, something strange. A low, dull, aching pain. A very unfamiliar pain.

Finally accepting that the pain was not simply going to disappear by itself and that I should try to join the modern world occasionally, I reluctantly visited my GP, who immediately packed me off to the General Hospital, where I was prodded and probed in every conceivable way. Finally, on a wet Tuesday morning, I rang Helen at school and asked if she could find someone to cover my first lesson while I made a quick detour to the doctor’s surgery. I had been asked to attend a “discussion” about my test results.

And then my car was up on the verge. Yards in front, a fisherman looked at me with alarmed eyes. The car was stalled and muddied.

Moments earlier I had been sitting in the GP’s office. She looked too young to be a doctor, I thought to myself as she continually bounced her shiny blond hair with her hand. Her lips were moving, but I could not hear the words. She softly touched my knee with her hand and stared for long moments in to my eyes as she mouthed silent words. As I left the surgery, the world was like treacle. Then I was in my car driving slowly and deliberately along the wooded lane. Everything felt very far away, my hands were numb and I could not hear the hum of the car, the trees in the wind nor the passing traffic.

Then, out on the road in front of me, The Word bounded terrifyingly towards me. Hurtling along the lane, getting bigger and bigger. The Word smashed through the windscreen and rattled my brain. Yelling at me. Shaking my entire body.


I couldn’t breathe. My hands fell by my side. The car mounted the kerb and gunned up the grassy bank, scraping the underside and throwing dirt and branches along the doors.

I sat for very long moments. The fisherman was shouting words at me. But I was only aware of The Word.

Suddenly I could breathe again. I drew in massive gulps of air and could hear everything. Every sound was deafening. I could hear a howling scream. It sounded like a wounded animal and I panicked at the thought that I had run over a deer. And then I noticed it was coming from me.

It was March 6th 2006 when I died.

What I did next mimics what I always do when faced with tragedy. I thought and thought and thought. Then I slowly collected myself back together and drove to work.

When I arrived, Helen met me at the main entrance with a worried look. I apologised for being later than I had expected and assured her that everything was okay. And then I taught. A normal day. I had fun with my students and consigned The Word to a secured place deep inside of me where it could not see the light of day. I arrived home that evening, chipper as ever and did not utter a word about The Word.

It was March 6th 2006 when I died. The man who existed before that young doctor had spoken those words would never again exist. This was the day, as a lifelong devotee to teaching, I decided, as I watched my Year 10 group happily working, that I was leaving teaching. There were so many things left to do, so many dreams, so many challenges not yet met. I would leave my beloved profession to pursue these in whatever time I had available to me. My mind was set. I resigned the very next day.

I have never spoken or written of any of this until this moment.

There is a look that people affect when they hear that someone is suffering with cancer. A slight tilting of the head, a dilation of the pupils and gentle furrow of the brow. A look that one might give an injured puppy. It is pity. And I would not allow that look to be shown to me. For many of my friends, family and colleagues reading these words now, this will be the first that they have known about any of this.

As I write these words, it is 2011 and I am in terrible pain. My pancreas, my spleen and I are not the best of friends. But, I am well.

When I left the teaching profession, it was like having a very special part of my soul removed. I cannot begin to tell you how hard it was for me to go.

Cancer stole from me the most precious thing in my life: the ability to be a teacher. I yearn constantly to return to the classroom, to be with incredible students like Mat, who are so eager to learn and grow. I yearn to be a teacher, but five years on and the pain is too much; I cannot summon the energy to give teaching my all and I will not be a suboptimal teacher.

As I sat and listened to the young girl solemnly tell me that I would not see the end of the year, at the front of my mind was my classroom. I have so much to do, I thought.

Five years on and, for whatever reasons, my body continues to fight on. Those wonderful people I met at the beginning, diagnosed at the same time with the same condition have died one by one. Only two of us remain now. I don’t know why that should be the case, I don’t know how much longer it will be the case, but I do know that I yearn to return to teaching and that one day, if I am able, I will.