This is my last fortnight as a teacher. I’ve been doing this job for just over ten years but at Christmas, I will leave the profession to take up a job with an exam board. But what’s this to you? What difference does it make to your life if one more teacher jumps ship? Why should you care?
If you’ve read articles like this before, the reason behind my decision will not be new to you: the unsustainable workload that the job now demands of you. I am the Head of English at a mixed comprehensive school and an Associate Member of the school’s Senior Leadership Team. I line manage a team of 15 and am responsible for the progress and achievement of more than 1200 students.
Not only are more and more of these students expected to ‘achieve’ and ‘progress’, there are now many more yardsticks against which they (and therefore, you) are measured: A*-C (soon to become 1-9), 3 Levels of Progress, 4 Levels of Progress, Achievement 8, Progress 8, EBacc, ALPS for Key Stage 5. There is hardly a child left in British education that isn’t significant in one or more of these measurements, meaning that everyone’s results are now critical and appropriate interventions need to be planned, implemented and tracked. And that’s before we even think about closing the Pupil Premium gap, the Special Educational Needs gap, the English as an Additional Language gap, the gender gap – all of which has to be done with less support as there is no money to recruit TAs. I once looked at the Pupil Achievement targets in my workplace’s School Improvement Plan and realised that of the eight ‘top priorities’, three had a bearing on my department, but all three referenced different measurement targets and therefore related to three different cohorts of students. When I asked which of these three targets was my main priority, I was simply told, ‘All of them’.
The squeeze on budgets has seen my teaching hours increased by 20% from last year, which means 20% more planning, marking, tracking and reporting, and 20% less time to do it in. The high turnover of staff has also meant that there are seven new starters in my team this year, all of whom need support and guidance while they find their feet. There is no longer any admin support within my department, meaning that, on top of my existing workload, I am responsible for all departmental logistics and tracking systems, communication with parents, stocktaking, ordering and resource allocation. At the end of the last academic year, I was also told that I was to be given the school’s ICT support network to line manage.
I work past midnight three or four times a week, in a way that has become completely normalised to me. Except that it isn’t normal. It can’t be considered standard working practice to leave the house at 6:30am and still be working in the early hours of the following morning.
I have three young children and I am no longer prepared to miss them growing up.
Right, so far, so predictable. You’ve heard this all before. Oh, poor lamb…are the 13 weeks of paid holiday a year not enough for you? Fine. Move over. We’ll get someone else. Someone with more stamina, more dedication, someone who really cares about this job.
Will you? Really? Are you sure?
There has been plenty written about the recruitment and retention crisis (and that’s not a word I use lightly) in the teaching profession at the moment. You’ve heard how the government has missed its recruitment targets by a country mile, how people are leaving the profession in unprecedented numbers. So, if all these people are leaving, who is teaching students these days?
The answer to that question will be depressingly familiar to teachers, school leaders, parents and students alike.
First up are supply teachers, now found en masse in nearly every school in the country, either plugging gaps left by long-term staff absence (stress, mainly) or where schools have failed to recruit a suitable candidate for a job. These teachers have no long-term contract, nothing invested in the school they work for or the students they teach. More often than not, they are not contractually obliged to prepare resources, plan lessons, mark books or assessments, report on student progress, liaise with parents, manage behavioural issues or be in any way accountable for the performance or progress of students in their care. If too much is asked of them, they can leave without giving notice, safe in the knowledge that some other school will happily take them fill a hole of their own. (This happened recently at my daughter’s primary school: a teacher jacked it in on Friday, leaving the school to find someone by Monday. Any takers?)
The second option is to shuffle the staff that you have got, asking effective teachers to operate outside of their specialism. Drastic teacher shortages across a number of subjects means it is already totally commonplace to have teachers delivering subjects they didn’t even take themselves at A-level. This is not a dig at teachers that do this, quite the reverse: many are chosen precisely because they are good teachers, are the kind of people that ‘step up’ in a crisis and know how to handle a classroom. But being a really good History teacher doesn’t make you a really good Geography teacher, any more than being a good pianist means that you can paint or sculpt. The Sutton Trust report, an international, research-based investigation into what factors make effective teaching, listed subject knowledge as the key determiner in successful teaching. Asking a teacher to operate outside of their area of expertise not only punishes them for being good at their job, it also punishes the students who are given a classroom teacher who is a very good round peg being forcibly hammered into a square hole.
Whether it's supply staff or non-specialists, the burden of ‘facilitation’ falls on experienced teachers and subject leaders. They are asked to ‘support’ by constructing lesson-by-lesson Schemes of Work that don’t require detailed subject knowledge to deliver, they co-plan teaching, provide resources, help with marking assessments, whilst all the while fielding parental complaints about the education their children are receiving. Most of the time these complaints are fully justified but what can the person bearing the brunt of the blame do about it? If they had a teacher that was better suited, they’d be using them!
All of this massively increases the workload strain and stress level of our most important asset: experienced, effective teachers. These are the people that are now leaving the profession. And every time one of them goes, it means one less specialist in that subject area, and so the vicious circle continues.
And who is replacing them? The shortfall in teacher recruitment is well publicised but it isn’t just a question of quantity, there is also a very serious quality issue.
The standard of teacher training applicants in the last few years has dropped alarmingly. Training providers are under enormous pressure to fill teacher training vacancies, which means the vetting process is now less than cursory. People who wouldn’t have got near a PGCE course five years ago are now being snapped up before they can change their minds. Or pushed through Teach First or Schools Direct programmes, designed to get them into classrooms as quickly as possible, often without the skills and experience they need to survive or do the job effectively.
It is also an open secret that nobody fails teacher training anymore. We have regularly reported serious concerns about the qualifications, subject knowledge, classroom management and basic professionalism of the interns in our department. In every case, they were told that they just needed more time, more support. This was true even as interns approached the end of their final placement.
And don’t for a second think they won’t get jobs. When I first took over as Head of Faculty, we would get 20-30 applications for each vacancy, which we would whittle down to a shortlist of six, and then spend a full day interviewing them, including a full lesson observation. In recent rounds of recruitment, we have had fields of two or three, many of whom were simply not employable. The Maths department at my school recently advertised for a classroom teacher and didn’t get a single applicant – and we’re a ‘Good’ school in a pleasant cathedral city. Schools are so desperate that teachers are being employed based on half-hour Skype interviews. I know one Science teacher who was employed on her CV alone, without teaching a lesson, having her references checked or speaking to a single person at her new school – they were simply so desperate to get her to sign a contract before some other school got her first.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying for a moment that all new teachers are poor: there are many highly intelligent, highly professional, highly skilled people becoming teachers every year, and I am pleased to say that every single member of my department fits this description. But how many of them will be prepared to stay? If you’re bright, hard working, dedicated and creative, why would you stay in a job that obliterates your free time, leaves no space for friends, family, partners or hobbies, and isn’t even that well paid? And if you’re really good, you are punished: forced to bail out the system by either covering for teachers who shouldn’t be there in the first place or teaching a subject for which you have no relevant skill set. And don’t even think about bringing up the holiday myth. How much of that time ‘off’ do we spend running extra revision sessions and coursework catch-up workshops, planning new Schemes of Work, preparing data analysis overviews to present to Senior Leadership and governors, responding to parental emails and any number of other ‘responsibilities’ to which there is simply no end?
People are sick of hearing teachers complaining and I don’t blame them. I’m sick of hearing me complaining. I want non-teachers to start complaining too. This isn’t just our fight; this is an issue that affects our entire society. To compete in the international marketplace, we need young people who are educated, qualified and can think for themselves. Good teachers are essential for this to happen. But only if they are willing to do the job.
Why should you care? Because who do you want teaching your kids?