Test 20 September, 2017

We need a whole-career offer for teachers

One theme emerging from the 40 interviews undertaken for Reform’s forthcoming school workforce paper is that the teaching profession lacks a clear career pathway. Teachers are supported to varying degrees for their first few years of teaching, with most then left to manage their own workload and plan their own professional development. Interviewees described a “cliff edge” of falling support once teachers have qualified. The new Chartered College of Teaching’s Chartered Teacher Status, which aims to recognise exceptional classroom teachers, is an encouraging step for the profession to identify and grow excellent practice. However, there remains a lack of ongoing support and constructive challenge for too many teachers in England’s schools. It’s also not clear how they can best progress into leadership roles, with many staff gaining responsibilities due to a combination of time served and serendipity.

A well-defined set of entitlements to high quality professional learning, ongoing mentoring, sabbatical opportunities, as well as clarity around progression routes, qualifications and standards, could all help. By developing teachers better, there would be improvements to their teaching practice and their wellbeing. Teaching would also be a more attractive career option in an increasingly competitive job market. Again, the Chartered College can take the lead here.

Such things don’t come cheap, as staff time is such a valuable and costly resource. Further, school budgets are due to fall four per cent in real terms for the rest of this Parliament. However, alternatives such as teacher recruitment, training, bursaries and agencies are all even more expensive.

Managing talent better

Workforce policy in many schools has been found to lag behind the human resources strategies of private sector employers of similar sizes. For instance, schools could learn from the mentorship and performance management expertise of other organisations, to grow a culture of career-long learning that is more aligned with teachers’ personal motivations. Typically, such policies are seen as crucial to motivating Millennials (those born in the eighties and nineties), but at least one study of teachers’ attitudes actually shows little difference between teachers of different ages. It therefore makes more sense to think in terms of individual career paths, rather than age.

An entitlement to high quality mentoring

In the years immediately after qualifying, access to a skilled and committed mentor is likely to be an important component of any strategy to motivate and develop teachers. Most teachers only receive this in their Newly Qualified Teacher year, which may contribute to the high drop-out rates in the first years after qualifying. Space should be built into school timetables to ensure that mentoring responsibilities are not adding to the workload of senior teachers, so that mentoring is more substantive than the occasional staff-room catch up. Instead, it should involve lesson observations, help with lesson and workload planning, and regular constructive feedback. Support and training should be available to mentors, to ensure the relationship is mutually beneficial. Similar measures should be in place for teachers moving into new roles,  to enable shared learning and peer support through the transition. Schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged pupils should prioritise such mentoring schemes given their lower retention rates.

More sabbaticals would also help

It is important to recognise, however, that some professional learning can best take place outside of the classroom through sabbaticals and research opportunities. A trial of sabbaticals for teachers in the UK between 2001 and 2004 showed positive and sustained results for those participating, such as increased motivation and professional self-esteem, and improved skills and knowledge. There was also evidence to suggest the benefits went beyond the single teacher, with 83 per cent of schools saying that the school developed as a professional learning community, and 56 per cent claiming that the sabbatical resulted in positive changes in practice among the wider staff, as learning was shared. However, participating teachers reported that they were uncertain of support from managers, worrying that their learning would not be valued on their return to the classroom, and some eligible teachers did not apply due to concerns that sabbaticals would increase workload. The trial was not extended, but this early review and our interviews suggest that the idea has promise if properly executed.

International examples further suggest that structured sabbaticals focused on pupil outcomes can positively impact teacher wellbeing and retention. For instance, the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust currently awards up to 150 Travelling Fellowships each year to support international sabbaticals and is gathering promising data about their impact on the wider system, beyond the individual teachers involved. As-yet unpublished evidence from 2013 to 2016 shows improvements in personal confidence and involvement in dissemination activities, both within and beyond their own school.

Teacher sabbaticals typically involve spending time conducting education research or observing other schools in the UK or elsewhere, to ensure that they add value to the individual and their school. Teachers should have the option of taking a reduced or suspended salary for agreed periods away from the classroom. There should also be regional sabbatical funds to which teachers can apply, if they can make the case that their project will enhance teaching and learning beyond their school. Any teacher taking funding for a sabbatical should be required to run training sessions for other local teachers to spread what they have learned. Lessons from the private sector suggest that much of the success of sabbaticals and secondments depends on the relationship between the individual and their manager. Anyone taking a sabbatical should be confident that their learning will be valued by their school, rather than being viewed as a break or holiday, and should keep in regular contact with their team to ensure that they remain part of the school community.

These are not cheap or quick fixes, but investing in teachers in this way will save money overall, and help them to serve their pupils even better.

NB: former Research Assistant Ruby Holmes wrote the initial draft of this blog