“Four more years, four more years, four more years of that?”
Gil Scott Heron’s classic H20Gate Blues was written for a far more volatile time, but, if teachers’ previous election voting patterns are anything to go by, most teachers across the UK are probably starting Monday morning with a similar sentiment. As post-election reality kicks in, they may even be reading the education part of the Tory manifesto, and wondering when each promise might start affecting their daily classroom lives (I’ve finally read it, and the RSA’s call for a ‘gap year’ from policy now looks like wishful thinking).
For the sake of all pupils, let’s hope that the election result doesn’t lead to an even faster exodus from teaching and teacher training.
Despite our data-drenched school system, it’s surprising how little we know about trends in teacher recruitment and retention. Doom-laden union predictions sometimes need tempering, and we might choose not to worry about surveys claiming that one in three teachers want to leave the profession - my guess is that one in three of almost any profession wants to leave that profession. However, although evidence is neither the sum of anecdotes or gossip, the swell of rumours, especially from heads and governors, about the increasing difficulties in attracting sufficient quality and quantity of applications for most vacancies, warrants a serious response. As John Howson, the best teacher number cruncher in the UK, claimed in a recent blog, ‘in 2011 the problem for many teachers was finding a job in the first place. This year the problem for some schools has been finding a teacher at all.’ His vacancy tracker estimates that there have already been enough vacancies in business studies and social studies to have exhausted the 2014/15 cohort of trainees. Design & Technology is not far behind, and could become a key shortage subject for schools, as yet another D and T teacher training course closes, this time in Manchester.
Teacher training numbers are also struggling in comparison to UCAS applications at a similar point last year, and Teach First is reporting difficulties filling all allocated places in some subjects. Again, with the diversification and fragmentation of supply caused by Schools Direct, it is increasingly difficult to tell whether teaching is becoming a more or less attractive profession for graduates, and which kinds of graduates it is appealing to. As Estelle Morris wrote last year:
'The government has, in effect, handed the strategic planning of the nation's teacher training to the market. No one has responsibility to deliver and oversee an effective national strategy for the recruitment and retention of teachers; there is no attempt to plan places and no one is looking at the cumulative effect of policy changes on supply.'
As Martin Johnson and I showed twelve years ago in our paper ‘making teacher supply boom-proof’, an improving economy and graduate labour market always renders a difficult situation even more precarious, especially for those schools already facing teacher shortages. Recruitment numbers are worrying but not alarming. Of greater concern is what Michael Wilshaw described as the ‘national scandal’ of 40% of teachers leaving the profession within the first five years. These will include many potential heads of department or headteachers, and many who, with the right incentives, might even be tempted to work in more challenging schools. If the government wanted to focus on one segment of the teacher labour market, it should encourage more young teachers to stay and more recently-departed teachers to return through what Holyhead teacher Lorna Owen described as ‘creative professional development’ in our Licensed to Create report last year. It’s at this point in their careers where teachers can use strong foundations to engage in disciplined innovation, enquiry and design thinking. The RSA Academies Teaching School Alliance will be attempting to apply some of these principles to its own CPD and ITT offer during the next few years.
Like having a tiny majority in parliament, even the fear of teacher recruitment and retention difficulties severely reduces any government’s space for policy manoeuvre or, for that matter, rhetorical damage. More than any policy, and maybe even more than any pay rise, teachers long for a secretary of state who will make them feel policymakers and practitioners are on a collective mission to improve lives. As headteacher Tom Sherrington wrote in his letter to Nicky Morgan yesterday, “You could go a long way [to improving retention] simply resolving never to return to the dark days of the ‘enemies of promise’ rhetoric.” So the creation of such a collective mission might be as much about what is left unsaid as any kind of overt teacher-loving. Leave daft comments about text books, poorly evidenced statements about more rapid improvement in academies, or confusing speeches about students choosing science over arts subjects to those whom teachers find easier to ignore – think tanks and commentators.
So my advice for the new coalition-free government on schools is simple. With teacher supply the way it is, go placidly, tread carefully and try and make us feel like we’re all in this together – if you wish, you could even call it a vision for a ‘one nation school system’.