The news of a proposed re-make of Dad’s Army preceded by only a few days David Cameron’s announcement of a National Teaching Service: a ‘corps’ of ‘elite teachers’ to be deployed into ‘failing schools’ at short notice. Both depend on stereotypes too obvious for comment. If Bill Nighy was an all-too-predictable casting as Sergeant Wilson, it’s easy to imagine the images that a National Teaching Service might conjure.
In so far as it’s a good idea, I’ll claim some credit for it, since the idea of taking a more strategic approach to the deployment of teachers was one I developed at the beginning of 2013 in my contribution to The Tail. In so far as it is a bad idea as now developed, of course, I’ll distance myself from it, and note (for the avoidance of doubt, the next clause is dripping with irony) that it has lost something in the movement from elegant inception to political deployment.
Both my contribution to The Tail and David Cameron’s announcement recognise a crude but important fact: the teacher labour market is not working. Since 1986, and the introduction of Local Financial Management, the teacher labour market has been essentially free; teachers have been hired by 25,000 essentially autonomous businesses. Despite some attempts to intervene in the market – a national salary structure (albeit extensively derogated from in practice), a national up-market recruitment agency (Teach First), market supplements to recruit and retain teachers in some schools and some areas (mostly too small to be effective) – the long-term consequence has been ineffective for schools in challenging social and economic circumstances. The current teacher labour market is very effective at moving successful and effective practitioners away from the schools, areas and regions where they are most needed. The great exception has been London, but as Becky Allen has pointed out, there are reasons why the London teacher labour market is different. If there is going to be a serious attempt to strength schools in labour market cold spots – the areas where teachers (and their partners and families) least want to live – then something needs to be done to shift the dynamics of teacher deployment.
Few other countries devolve the management of the teacher labour market to individual schools. The OECD view, based on their analyses of policy across 34 countries, is that devolving hiring to schools is a poor lever for system improvement, and tends to exacerbate inequalities. It makes sense to take a more strategic view. The question is whether a National Teaching Service – albeit one that, on the press reports, would essentially be deployed regionally by the new OFSTED regional commissioners – is likely to be effective.
There are at least three reasons to suppose not.
1. It’s a tough ask for teachers to be moved, at what would presumably be relatively short notice for relatively long periods to a distant part of the country. Teachers have family and social commitments that would make this difficult. Just after the publication of The Tail I asked my daughter, a successful primary teacher in London, what it would take to deploy her somewhere (I think I named an east coast town that has been electorally newsworthy in the past few days) for a couple of years: neither money, nor status, nor CPD, nor the promise of significant promotion tempted her. And by-and-large this is what the labour market tells us. Beyond the first few years of teaching, only the market for secondary headships is really national. Sub-regional approaches are more likely to work than national or regional approaches.
2. Whilst the model, at least as presented in a couple of reports, appears to be a coaching and support model in which the National Teaching Service would be deployed to strengthen and develop the skills of teachers and school leaders already deployed in schools, we know that improvement is a long haul. Basic effectiveness can be secured in the most challenging schools quickly, but a major challenge for the weakest schools is staff turnover: adding to the problem through relatively short-term consultancies may not, in the long run, solve the problem, the root cause of which is a flawed teacher labour market.
3. Deploying teachers in the most effective way depends on pulling together at least two different information systems: one on what the schools need, and one on the sorts of help available. It’s unlikely that both those information sets could be pulled together nationally, and it may be difficult to do it regionally. Moreover, there is good anecdotal evidence that almost all teachers encounter settings in which they struggle: a plan B would be sensible, and needs local adaptability. It’s the sort of thing that, in another time, local authorities could have done (and, indeed, some did), but that may now be unattainable.
One of the new laws of policy is that before it is fully developed it is subject to extensive ridicule by the twitterati, or if it is lucky to make it beyond the scrutiny of 140 characters, the blogosphere. The idea of the National Teaching Service has many implementation challenges, but it rests on a simple, correct observation: the teacher labour market is not working. To quote Corporal Jones, back where we started, “don’t panic”, but think intelligently about how to reshape it so that it does work.