Comment Blog 18 October, 2017

Rediscovering the joy of teaching

One of my weekly highlights is BBC Radio 4’s The News Quiz. Last week the topic of public sector pay came up and it was suggested that if all nurses, police officers and teachers were paid £50,000 per year then that would solve the problem and these careers would become highly attractive. In reality it’s not that simple.

There are many facets to the complex challenges of teacher recruitment and retention. Everyone seems to have a different angle on the subject. However, for me as an Executive Headteacher of three schools in Greater London, I have to deal with these challenges on a daily basis. This includes: a lack of responses to job adverts; continually trying to ‘be creative’ in filling vacancies; reconciling shrinking school budgets with providing attractive salary packages to a dwindling pool of quality candidates; and, the heart-breaking exit interviews from some of our best teachers.

For many people teaching is just not seen as an attractive career any more. As a profession we’ve talked it down, so that the unique opportunity teachers have to make a difference to so many young people is too-often forgotten.  Why has this happened?  Why, when there are more graduates than ever before, are too few choosing teaching as a career? Why are too many teachers leaving? I’ll outline a couple of reasons.

Firstly, there is the straight-jacket put upon the curriculum. In primary schools the focus upon Reading, Writing and Maths has become an obsession, leaving little time to develop pupils as well-rounded young learners. The opportunities for teachers to be creative and have fun with pupils are rare, so that the joy of teaching is often side-lined in the drive to meet age-related expectations. In secondary, the curriculum has narrowed with the EBacc so that we need more teachers in the subjects which already have the most shortages of staff. In a typical secondary school, Maths and English now account for over 50 per cent of curriculum time. There is little room in the choice of eight subjects for both creative and technical subjects. I recently had a difficult conversation with an outstanding teacher of Dance and Performing Arts, where I asked her to seriously think about changing her subject to Geography, in which she has an A-level. We risk losing her to the profession entirely, as Geography is not what she signed up for. Incidentally, we cannot find a Head of Geography for love nor money, so will have to be ‘creative’, yet again! Back to Radio 4, this week’s Desert Island Discs was with Paul Greengrass, a highly successful film director who said he did not fit into school in the era of O-Levels, to which we seem to be heading back. What would he have achieved now with the straight-jacket of EBacc and Attainment 8?

Secondly, Ofsted and the pressure on Senior Leaders to comply with every last criteria or change of direction, also takes its toll. There was a paper sent out by Sean Harford of Ofsted recently, which was very useful in explaining what we shouldn’t be doing. However, the very fact that it was necessary to tell us to stop doing the most labour-intensive actions (e.g. marking upon marking, then remarking the marking) illustrates the current state of the teaching profession. How many teachers have already said “I’ve had enough”?

So what can we do about it? I don’t think there is a ‘magic bullet’, however there are ideas being formulated that should begin to make a difference. One of my favourite suggestions is to encourage graduates to take a five-year contract with the DfE to stay in teaching, in exchange for cancelling their student debt. However, even though that may help recruit, it won’t help retain staff unless we do something about status, workload and curriculum. Somehow the joy of teaching has to be rediscovered. By reforming the workforce, it can ensure that it is a profession of choice for our graduates.