Next up in our ‘What if…’ debates series was the matter of the teaching profession: What if… we wanted to transform teaching as a career choice?. To address this question we had union and think tank representatives in the form of Mary Bousted and Jonathan Simons, and international perspectives from Professor Martin Mills of the University of Queensland (and incoming Director of the IOE’s new Centre for Research on Teachers and Teaching) and Lucy Crehan, author of Cleverlands.
That there is a pressing problem with recruitment to and retention in teaching has become all too evident. Recruitment targets for initial teacher training courses have now been missed for five years in a row, while head teachers have been increasingly vocal about the difficulties they’re having in staffing their classrooms. Graduates and teachers are voting with their feet (many to become teaching assistants as it happens) and the alarm bells are ringing – and not to mark the end of the lesson.
It seems that we have no alternative but to think about alternatives. What might they be? Never mind those lists for Santa Claus, what should we be asking the Secretary of State for Education to put under the Christmas tree for teachers?
Higher pay is an obvious ask, especially amid shocking reports of teachers on the verge of homelessness. Teachers are once again falling behind on pay compared to their peers, something that goes in cycles, and something that can creep up on governments very suddenly. But, of course, a profession’s appeal is about more than financial rewards. An overarching theme in our debate was the need to treat teaching as a profession, something that it seems we’re still not quite there on. Training requirements play a big part in setting a profession’s status, and several of our panellists repeated the call for teachers to benefit from longer initial training, encompassing intellectual as well as technical elements, plus ongoing and plentiful opportunities for professional development, supported by expert teachers. As Lucy Crehan outlined, this, plus raising the bar on entry to the profession, has delivered results in education systems around the world. (By contrast, England’s current de-regulatory approach simply lowers teaching’s status). Equally, it’s about teachers working smarter: doctors wouldn’t invent their own approach to delivering a baby, so why aren’t teachers making greater use of textbooks? This should not be seen as professional weakness.
Another factor to loom large in the panellists’ and audience members’ comments was how teachers are led and managed – via national policy-making and by school leaders. It starts at the very top, and reform by election cycle, high levels of policy churn, and an accountability system that in the words of Mary Bousted, ‘doesn’t know which way is up’, isn’t helping the cause. It also presents a challenging brief for even the most seasoned school leaders to manage. Good leaders focus on enabling staff to do their job effectively. Instead, too often in the current context, head teachers are overwhelmed and fearful, and they’re passing that down to teachers (through the medium of a tsunami of ‘dodgy data’).
So, a different approach to school accountability and more support for school leaders might go on our list. Alongside, Jonathan Simons introduced some hard policy conundrums into the discussion, including the necessary pay offs to be made between pay levels, workload and class size. And this forced the issue of whether the time has come to rethink existing school structures – the ‘grammar of schooling’ as Martin Mills put it. Current approaches to timetabling and the assumption that class sizes need to be around 30, to take two examples, put real constraints on change. On these questions, technology may offer new solutions. Larger classes, enabled by judicious use of technology to complement human skills (not robot teachers), would mean we could deploy teachers very differently, with knock-ons for training, pay, workload. Policy-makers need to think about how they could create more space for those on the front line to pioneer a better deal for teachers – and pupils.
Teachers’ welfare needs to come first, as only then can they attend effectively to the needs of the pupils in their charge, and only then will they want to continue in the profession. Counterintuitively, this might also mean challenging the now commonly rehearsed notion (cf Mckinsey 2007) that teachers make the difference to pupils’ attainment. Teachers matter, but they cannot be cure-alls for wider inequalities, and no profession/al wants to be set up to fail. It looks like we’ll be needing a list for some other government departments as well…
Watch the debate in full here.
Our next debate takes place on 23 January 2018: What if… we really wanted evidence-informed practice in the classroom?
Find out more about our previous ‘What if…’ debates on the IOE London Blog: We’re preparing our army for the last war’: why the academic-vocational divide must fall, and Education and social mobility – the missing link, or red herring?