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How we should educate our children is a source of endless debate: strict discipline versus inclusivity, traditional knowledge versus 21st century skills, academic excellence versus a broad curriculum.

Even for those who accept that these are false dichotomies, agreement on the right balance each in case can be hard to come by.

But one thing most of us can agree on, whatever our educational politics, is that we don’t have enough people signing up to deliver education at the sharp end.

Teacher numbers fell between 2017 and 2018, even while pupil numbers rose. People are leaving the profession at an increasing rate, and recruitment cannot keep pace.

A shortage of teachers makes it impossible to deliver a good education for all children. It can be particularly damaging for children in the most challenging schools.

These trends have been recognised as a concern for a few years now, but two recent teacher studies have made me think again about some of the wider implications.

The first is an analysis of teacher workload which found that although teachers in England have long days by international standards, working hours have remained broadly similar for around 20 years.

Much has been said about the contribution of higher workloads to the number of people leaving teaching, and the Department for Education have responded with a string of initiatives. But researchers from the UCL Institute of Education found that overall hours have not risen meaningfully. They conclude that “workload may have been given undue emphasis in the debate on teacher retention”.

But if longer hours aren’t the problem, then what else could be driving increasing teacher shortages?

An initial insight can perhaps be found in our survey of teachers published this week.

It found that despite a rise of more than 50% in pupil exclusions in the past 5 years, only 8% of teachers feel that “overall, schools are too quick to use exclusions”. Does this mean that 5 years ago schools were not excluding enough pupils, or has something changed which means more exclusions are necessary now?

On ‘internal exclusions’, when pupils are removed from an individual class, the same survey found that while the vast majority of teachers think repeatedly removing a pupil from the classroom is detrimental, more than three quarters think it’s justifiable if a child is are causing “any disruption” to the learning of other pupils.

Finally, when asked what support would help them to remove fewer pupils from the classroom, teachers generally selected options which involved support from other professionals, rather than additional training or activities for themselves.

We know that teachers care hugely about their pupils, and yet these results suggest that very many of them do not want a more active role in reducing the risk of exclusion.

At the risk of over-interpreting, I wonder if these results give us a glimpse of a wider problem - which is not one of longer hours, but of an ever-increasing number of responsibilities that teachers are expected to hold: from promoting British values, to developing pupils’ cultural capital, and now helping to address the rise in exclusions.

A recent Carnegie UK Trust & RSA report on measuring ‘good work’ identified the control you have over the nature of your work as an important aspect of job quality.

The issue of expanding teacher responsibilities has been interpreted as a problem of additional working hours, but the Institute of Education findings suggest that isn’t the case. Perhaps, instead, a lack of control over changes in the nature of teaching has had an impact on teacher job satisfaction and thus retention.  

The teacher survey mentioned above was commissioned from the NFER as part of the RSA’s Pinball Kids project, to help us understand how we can improve school practices around the formal and informal exclusion of pupils.

The research involves a series of workshops with Local Authority partners which will bring together professionals from across the school system. The workshops are designed to explore how new ways of working could reduce the risk of exclusions.

For me, these recent findings have been a timely reminder that we must think hard about what we ask of teachers in this area, and how we support them to deliver it. 

At a time when we still don’t fully understand why teacher numbers are not keeping pace with demand, we must think carefully about what we ask teachers to do, and not just how long they’ll spend doing it.

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