This week, The Economist carried an article on how education systems globally are improving the quality of teaching by looking inside “the ‘black box of the production process’ – or what others might call the classroom’.” It concludes with the line: “The answer, after all, was in the classroom”.
The classroom, it seems, is where many other solutions to other dilemmas lie – including how education in England will transform itself into a self-improving, school-led system. The recent white paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, pulls no punches in setting out an agenda for systemic change. As Chris Husbands writes, it’s a plan that will usher in “a radical new education structure”, much of which was put in place by Ms Morgan’s Conservative forebears.
Small state conservatism demands that schools alone become the drivers of educational achievement and school improvement, so it’s no surprise that the proposal to institute an architecture to support this new system features strongly in the white paper. Capacity building is another key feature of the proposed reforms, with the managerial framework (see below) populated by members of the existing workforce. Talent is to be identified and fast-tracked to new and emerging leadership roles.
I’ve written elsewhere that the new creation of hundreds, if not thousands, of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) could be welcome news given the oncoming leadership supply crisis. However, schools are amid a deepening crisis over the supply, recruitment and retention of classroom teachers. So with talent being drawn away from the classroom and into the boardroom, we need to think seriously about how we extend the talent supply pipeline not only forward into leadership, but backwards too.
For me, a potential answer lies between the lines of the white paper. The first thing that struck me when I went through it was not what was it what saying, but what it was missing out. Over its 128 pages, there is not one reference to teaching assistants (or similar role titles). As I never tire of repeating, TAs comprise 25% of the school workforce. On the basis of headcount, they actually outnumber teachers in primary and infant settings. Schools in England employ over 330,000 individuals in TA roles. Imagine if we can find a way to entice just 5% of them into teaching each year. This alone would be enough to replace the number of teachers that leave each year to teach overseas. Many TAs have and do go on to become teachers, but the vast majority do not. Even if we can improve on this, it’s likely that we will still need more teachers.
The DfE has missed its teacher recruitment targets four years in a row, and continues to deny that teacher supply and retention is in meltdown. So, much as the government hopes, necessity has driven the system to find its own solutions. This week we learned of a surge in schools advertising for TAs with degrees from Russell Group universities. Reaction on social media led to criticisms about the low salary on offer. Others raised the point that to single out Russell Group graduates was discriminatory, which led to the adverts disappeared from some websites.
These issues aside, given the scale of the we challenge face, surely the basic idea of mirroring Teach First’s way of getting high quality graduates into classrooms is worth considering – especially if it will lead to increasing the supply of new teachers.
For understandable reasons, some school leaders will feel uneasy about employing and investing in ambitious people whom they lose to initial teacher education (ITE) after a year. However, with more ITE being delivered by and within schools, together with the drive to encourage them to work in community clusters, the net effect could be that they see this as a good way of growing and enriching their local teaching talent pool. Not only can they have a hand in their professional learning and development, but they are likely to welcome back excellent former TAs as training or qualified teachers within a few years. In time, they may potentially nurture them for leadership roles.
Finally, the white paper proposal to replace Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) opens up the possibility of new assessment models, processes and qualifications. A route into teaching that builds on TAs’ skills, knowledge and classroom experience – whatever their starting point – is not just conceivable, but necessary and within reach.