Sabbaticals – not just for teachers

A couple of days ago, I read this blog about sabbaticals from Usman Mohammed :

Usman Mohammed’s Blog on Sabbaticals

I paid attention, largely because of this phrase :

Many difficult schools tend to lose vibrant, middle management teachers who typically fall within the 8 – 15 year experience bracket.

If you take out the “vibrant” bit, then that’s me. Someone actually wants to keep me in a school, despite my UPS pay, my irritatingly independent view of how I should teach, and lack of proper deference to “leaders”! This was surely worth a read. And so it proved. If this is a ball which might start to roll, I certainly want to add any momentum I can.

Experienced teachers, whether in middle management or not, are the NCOs of the school system (please, please never call me a “middle leader” – I’m the Head of Department, thanks). In many ways these people – along with the school secretary, of course – make sure a school functions. Quite apart from their current experience of every different type of class or student under the sun, they also usually have recent experience of helping new teachers as they develop, tend to have fewer discipline problems than less experienced teachers, and often play a role beyond their own departments in support/mentoring of colleagues. They’re also the people who make sure the cover gets set and done, the correct courses are taught, the right textbooks are on the desks each year, the stationary cupboard doesn’t run dry, and so on; all the essential details of everyday school life. Whereas the AHTs, DHTs and heads are increasingly focused on spreadsheets, RAISE online reports and “WOW” (What Ofsted Wants), the world of experienced teachers and HoDs remain resolutely focused on lessons and students. Appoint an incompetent AHT and the chances are most students wouldn’t notice. Appoint an incompetent Head of English and life becomes a lot more difficult for everyone.

Before lots of lovely AHTs and DHTs write to complain, or I’m flooded with examples of useless HoDs, let me be clear, I’m not suggesting all HoDs are paragons of efficiency while all AHTs are useless seat-warmers. Far from it. I’m merely taking Usman’s premise, which is : how do we (a) keep hold of this pool of experience; and (b) try to get more of it where it’s needed.

The problem is, however, these experienced teachers are becoming rather thin on the ground. Take a look at this graph from the OECD’s recent study of the teaching workforce (from March 2014).


What’s interesting here is not just that the UK has the lowest average age for secondary teachers, but that while the OECD average teacher age is increasing, in the UK, average age is falling faster than anywhere else, by quite some margin. Add this to what we know of drop-out rates from the profession, with a reported 50% of teachers leaving teaching within 5 years, and what you have is a picture of a profession with the recruitment and retention policy of the British Army during the summer of 1916.

I have myself seen schools where more than half the staff are in their early twenties – usually trainees. I’m also aware of academy chains where it is unwritten policy to push out any staff over the age of 35 – not because of their age or experience, but because of their salary. Up to a point, a school can make this work – as did General Haig – as long as there is an inexhaustible supply of fresh cannon fodder to be thrown into the trenches (until they, too, become casualties).

It isn’t, though, a sustainable model. When you lose experience, you start to lose independence, the ability to sift out the essential from the peripheral, and that slightly indefinable institutional memory which prevents mistakes from being repeated. I don’t think it’s pure coincidence that those schools and academy chains which practise this attritional model of recruitment and non-retention are also those with a reputation for having the most proscriptive least flexible models of management. Essentially, their high commands, sitting in their equivalent of Haig’s chateau behind the lines, don’t trust the soldiers at the front to do what they are supposed to, just as the British Army HQ didn’t trust its volunteer army on 1 July 1916, and for the same reasons : inexperience.

That’s a different blog, however. There are many ways in which we could, as a profession, address this unacceptable rate of attrition, and in particular the even higher casualty rates amongst the experienced NCOs, without whom our schools are so much the poorer. This blog, however, is about sabbaticals specifically.

Usman argues that :

“Teaching sabbaticals could, in theory, support both the retention and re-allocation of high quality experienced teachers.”

He’s right. They could. They could also play a very important role in improving the management of our schools as well. However, first we have to sift out the fact that Usman is talking about three rather different sabbatical models :

  • Sabbatical as a “recharge” to retain exhausted teachers
  • Sabbatical as an incentive to attract teachers to tough schools
  • Sabbatical as CPD opportunity

Don’t diss the earthworms – reinforcement is better than replacement

“Let’s be clear, by sabbatical we don’t mean giving Ms Maths or Mr English time off to go to Borneo and nurse a baby earthworm back to health.”

Hang on, Usman! It’s really very important to consider that for many people, the chief benefit of a sabbatical might be to have a rest. Teaching is exhausting. It’s exhausting in a way which no other job I’ve done is. The exhausting nature stems not just from the workload, but from its relentlessness. For example, junior doctors can work some outrageously hard and long hours – but they know it’s a specific period in their career, whereas teachers know it’s going to keep coming until they retire. That’s hard. Most professional jobs have periods of extreme workload, but most also have periods of less workload, often within the same week. Teaching’s workload does not relent during term time. Most professional jobs have deadlines which can’t be missed and work which has to be done, but most jobs also allow a certain degree of autonomy to the practitioner – in-trays can be shuffled, meetings creatively scheduled to fit personal diaries, and deadlines can be extended. Teaching doesn’t. Those classes are coming whether you are ready for them or not, and you don’t get to reschedule 10C’s GCSE history lesson because you’re feeling a bit ropey or underprepared.

The anecdote which best sums up this relentless and exhausting process is one which was recounted to me by a teaching friend several years before I became a teacher. He was describing how, immediately following the events of 9/11, the staff gathered around the TV in the staffroom to watch one the rolling news bulletins from the USA. Amidst all the expressions of horror, sympathy and anxiety, one teacher sighed and said “It’s awful. But it’s still Year 9 bottom set in the morning”, and left. When my friend told me that, I thought it was an appallingly insensitive comment. However, after a decade’s teaching, I have a rather better understanding of what that teacher was expressing. The cumulative effect of that relentless workload and near total lack of autonomy, coupled with the performance nature of teaching, presents a major drain of energy in a profession which demands a lot of energy to perform well.

For the first half-decade of teaching, I used to really enjoy September. I liked going back and meeting new classes, getting to know new children and colleagues, trying out new lessons and resources. It felt like a new start each year. I can’t say I still feel that way after 10 years. I certainly want to, but I don’t think I’m alone amongst experienced teachers in not being enormously enthusiastic about the coming September. Whereas I used to be sustained by energy and enthusiasm in the face of opportunity, I now feel more a sort of dogged professionalism in the face of the challenge. More of a Passchendaele campaign than a first day of the Somme, as it were (sorry). But while I’m sure all experienced teachers would rather this year’s students received the same level of energy an enthusiasm as their first year’s students, I fear most schools would frown on teachers using amphetamines before classes.

So please don’t diss the earthworms, Usman. If a teacher can rediscover their passion and energy by spending a term or a year doing something completely different, or even nothing at all, then that is not a bad thing at all. The school would get to keep the experienced practitioner, but one who marries his early-career energy with his later-career wisdom. That’s a quite a win-win situation.

The issue is how one would do it. A paid sabbatical year every 5 or 10 years would be a 20% or 10% pay increase. I’d enjoy running that one past the Treasury, although one could argue that with our recent real-terms pay cut, we’ve already earned our year off (now that would be a strike to send the Daily Mail into apoplexy).  That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, however. Some teachers would be quite capable of organising an alternative year of paid employment, doing whatever would interest them. Quite possibly, doing a year of something else will return a teacher to your school with a whole new fresh perspective on how green the grass is in education (of course, they may never return, but in that case they may have left anyway – it’s the risk you take). Some teachers may be willing and able to take a year from savings. Personally, I would recommend a planned scheme teachers can buy in to, in which they can set-aside a proportion of their salary each year in return for a guaranteed sabbatical after an agreed time period. Would teachers be willing to reduce their annual salary by 10% in order to have a term off every three years, or a year off every ten ? I think you’d probably have some takers there, especially if you threw in assistance with tax breaks for savings. It wouldn’t cost the school, as the teacher would bear the cost.

The key is the guaranteed return to post. We’re talking about teachers with ten or more years’ experience here, which means we’re talking people of mid-thirties or over. These people are very likely to have families, and are thus very unlikely to want to risk putting themselves back on the open labour market. Especially in the current world where experience is seen as an expensive luxury, while youth is seen as a cheap and biddable business model; and heads in interviews ask odd CV-related questions about what productive activities you pursued in that three months gap after university when you weren’t in a job.

If schools are willing to guarantee a right of return, then the rest is negotiation and planning. There’s nothing stopping this happening other than school management inertia and lack of imagination. Schools already do this for maternity leave, so it should be simply a matter of financial planning.

A change is as good as a rest or out of the frying pan into the fire  ?

The second type of sabbatical is one which aims to get experience into more challenging schools, either by persuading teachers take time out from their current school to go to a tough school, taking their experience with them, or retaining existing experienced teachers in those schools. We do need to differentiate this from the first re-charging kind, as the greater the difference any change is from the usual classroom experience, the more likely it is to be seen as a rest which might allow a teacher to return to his or her own classroom with energy. Swapping one classroom for another potentially tougher one might not seem very attractive for the tired 40-year old in need of a rest.

I do agree with Usman that while many teachers might balk at the idea of leaving their leafy grammars to work at a really tough urban comp full-time, it could be an attractive option to spend a time-limited period there – again on the condition of right of return. Many teachers are motivated by an overdeveloped social conscience, and could see that as a relatively risk-free opportunity to make a contribution. However, I think the offer would need to be more than simply a warm internal glow.

Would I do it ? Yes, probably. But there’d be conditions :

  1. If you want me to spend a year in a potentially much tougher environment, where you benefit from my experience, then there needs to be a quid pro quo, either in terms of cash, or in terms of more non-contact time so I can prepare more carefully.
  2. If I come, I do things my way, within reason. If my experience is valuable to you, that means you have to let me use it. If your idea of teacher professionalism is having everyone do exactly what you tell them to, all the time, then you might be better sticking with inexperienced new graduates more willing to swallow that sort of thing. I’d be coming as a seasoned professional, not green cannon fodder.
  3. Usman suggests “an attributed accolade”. It’s possible there are people out there who are motivated by medals. Can’t say I’m one of them.

A mix of youth and experience?

The problem with that model of temporary recruitment from elsewhere is that Usman’s proposition was centred on retaining and using the skills of very experienced teachers – the ones Gove and some academy chains are trying to drive out of the profession with PRP. That’s a laudable aim. However, we need to face the reality that older people are less mobile. Most experienced people will have families, so uprooting even for a term can cause insurmountable logistical difficulties. In addition, a teacher’s salary is not likely to be the only salary in a household, and so whether or not the teacher is the “trailing spouse”, the opportunities for movement will be linked to spousal employment opportunities too.

This is less of a problem where their current school is in the outer London boroughs, and the would-be target school is in Zone 1, but a serious problem if the experienced teachers are in Manchester but the school in need of experience is in Workington. In those situations, the only people likely to be able to do a year’s shift are those with no attachments. This will seriously limit the possible applicant pool. Of course you could go back to yet more young trainees who are more mobile and could do a year in a different town without resulting in their divorce, but that doesn’t seem to really serve the purpose of Usman’s argument : to retain or temporarily attract experienced staff in schools who need them.

No, if we want to really attract or keep the experience we want, in what is fast becoming the UKIP fringe areas of England, then the answer is fairly straightforward, I think : cash.

I watched Sam Freedman’s presentation on YouTube,  which covered this problem, in which he bemoaned the fact that governments couldn’t do anything “to move good teachers to Great Yarmouth”. I was quite surprised, as I think Governments could do quite a lot. The problem is that it would cost money. I never cease to be amazed that a party so wedded to market ideology as the Conservatives can’t seem to grasp the fact that the labour market works in teaching too. If our tough school in Greater Yarmouth (sorry, Greater Yarmouth) is having difficulty attracting experienced staff, then one answer would be to advertise the job at a significantly higher rate of pay. Sooner or later you’ll hit the level which makes financial sense for the married teacher in Birmingham to move family and spouse to the coast.

Of course an alternative way of using sabbaticals to attract teachers permanently to tough schools would be to offer the guaranteed career break as part of the pay package : essentially, if you work here for four years, you get the fifth off to do what you want, paid. Now THAT would have people queuing up to work there. It’s the same pay increase, just offered differently.

None of this is rocket science, and it doesn’t need to be dressed up as such. The difficulties of the policy would simply be finding a way of identifying schools with recruitment issues, and giving them an additional cash stream to allow them to attract the teachers they want with higher rates of pay. Or, establishing a central fund to which schools apply for top-up salaries on a case by case basis. Schools already have the ability to offer higher pay, in the same way I have the ability to buy a Ferrari : there’s nothing stopping us save the absence of cash. That cash would have to come from the Government. The DFE has plenty of experience of area-targeting initiatives: Chris Wormald, the current Permanent Secretary, ran the Excellence in Cities programme which directed resources to deprived areas, and so he could just call on his memory banks, and the massively increased amount of data now available, to identify schools which could benefit from offering a premium for experience.

Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think ?

At this point, I really have to note the irony of how the new pay system is actually working. Where schools in challenging circumstances have taken advantage of their new flexibility, anecdotal evidence suggests that rather than pushing up pay offers to attract experienced staff, what they are instead doing is pushing out experienced staff, recruiting inexperienced, cheap trainees, and using the extra flexibility to pay the leadership team/executive head/academy chain director a bigger wedge. Hmm. It turns out the 21st Century UK model of the free market isn’t quite what Adam Smith predicted…

Sabbatical as CPD

A CPD-related sabbatical can also incorporate elements of a re-charge. As mentioned above, the greater the difference from the everyday classroom experience, the more likely the teacher is to return fresh to their whiteboard. So moving from a child-centred classroom to an adult-centred teacher-training institution would be a change. Likewise undertaking some university research, working on secondment at an exam board or LEA (are there any left?), or undertaking child-related work at a third sector organisation. All good stuff, liable to give you back a re-charged teacher, possibly with a broader understanding of education policy and practice which might be of use to your school.

More to the point, this experience can be invaluable particularly in management and leadership roles. I have no doubt that I have gained advantages as a head of department from my earlier experience in the adult world in both private and public sectors. For example, paperwork which intimidates some colleagues is laughable for anyone who’s ever worked in the civil service!

Key, however, is what used to be known as “people skills”.  Working in a solely adult environment does wonders for the skills of getting the best out of adult colleagues in the interests of your organisation or team. Looking around schools (not my own), and talking to colleagues from elsewhere, there does appear to be a very interesting correlation within SLTs between quality of management skills and professional experience of non-school workplaces. If the only experience of management a newly-appointed member of SLT has, is of a confrontational command-and-control relationship with a class of recalcitrant teenagers, then it’s hardly surprising that they might take a slightly unhealthy and unproductive hierarchical approach into dealing with teacher colleagues. Certainly people from outside teaching are often astounded to hear of how some “leaders” treat adults as children in a school context, and the “them and us” complaint often levelled at SLTs is, in my humble opinion, often a by-product of the lack of experience of SLT members in working in an adult work environment. All future school managers could benefit from such external experience.

What one would have to be a little careful about is that sabbaticals wouldn’t become just another perk for careerist pole-climbers. I’m all in favour of sabbaticals being used to keep classroom practitioners fresh or help them develop as teachers. I’d be rather less in favour of them being used by the sort of people who are very keen to become executive heads after spending as little time as possible in classrooms, for whom sabbaticals would be an opportunity to go drink deep of the NCTL Kool-Aid for a year before returning to tell those poor saps remaining in the trenches exactly how slowly they should walk towards the machine-guns. In other words, keep this away from the Policy Exchange, please.

A little too ironic, I really do think

Of course, this system of attracting and retaining experienced teachers through the use of sabbaticals as incentives would be so very much easier to put in place through well-organised local bodies of oversight and co-ordination – LEAs, for example. The fragmentation and chaos of the current education marketplace is about as hostile an environment to this sort of planning as it’s possible to create, so it is a bit rich when one of the architects of this system, Sam Freedman, then complains about the difficulty in making it happen !


So a large thumbs up for sabbaticals, whether as R&R (rest and recuperation), R&R (recruitment and retention) , or R&R (retraining and redevelopment). Sabbaticals would work in all three models, as long as they were backed by the requisite amount of cash and/or planning. There really is nothing stopping this happening save for the absence of any remaining body which could organise a decent national or regional scheme. Except, of course, the DFE.

However, slightly mischievously, I think some CPD sabbaticals are too important to be left to ad hoc organisation, and should rather be compulsory :

  • All AHTs and DHTs should have a term’s sabbatical as a classroom teacher every three years, and heads every five years. This could be in their own school or another school. The crucial principle is that nobody in charge of forcing through policies should be oblivious to the impact of those policies on the footsoldiers.
  • All Ofsted inspectors should have a sabbatical teaching at least a full term in a school every year. One term teaching, two terms inspecting. Nobody should be allowed to participate in an inspection team unless they have walked the walk in a classroom within recent experience. If I have to explain this one, we’re probably not on the same page.
  • All DFE civil servants should do at least a term’s sabbatical in a school, either teaching or managing, every three years or so. This would ensure that all policy decisions are influenced by reality. I actually think Chris Wormald would make a rather good teacher, as it happens.

This way, sabbaticals can be an excellent way not just of retaining and developing experienced teachers, but also ensuring that the legions of non-teachers earning their coin by telling teachers how to teach, might be more likely to focus on real issues and genuine solutions in policy-making.


5 thoughts on “Sabbaticals – not just for teachers

  1. I read Usman Mohammed’s blog too. I agree with you about the need for a national scheme – we would definitely support something like that. Teachers are so important to our kids’ futures that we should look at any and every way of recruiting, retaining and above all, valuing them. Like you say, sabbaticals are a great way of doing that. Thanks!


  2. I read this with interest, as I’ve effectively engineered a sabbatical from teaching for myself. I’d taught fulltime for ten years, and I was exhausted. Having started teaching in my thirties, I am not as young and resilient as I was, and I found myself worn out by the 60 hour weeks and relentless grind of death-by-a-thousand-policy-initiatives. Also my children were getting really interesting and I didn’t want to miss out on their childhoods by working half of the weekend and never being home to see them and a change in family circumstances meant I could take the break.

    So I told my previous head teacher I needed a sabbatical, and was told that this wasn’t possible. 60 hours a week or leave. So I left. I now teach in a different school, in a non-classroom role and my batteries are recharging nicely. I’ve got time to get things off my chest, to influence people and to question some of the lunacy which seems to be unquestioned by too many people in education.

    And I’m looking forward to re-entering the fray at some point. But my sabbatical is proving to be just what I needed, so I suggest the following to add to your recommendations:

    All classroom teachers should have a year’s sabbatical every five years. The sabbatical could be spent supporting other teachers, undertaking projects or research, either in school or elsewhere. It could also be spent away from education altogether. Working in school would be paid, a complete break would be unpaid but with guaranteed return to work. And the sabbatical would be compulsory, so there would be no possible criticism of teachers taking some time out.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nevermind teachers going from leafy grammars to work in tougher schools ( perhaps they’re not in need of a sabbatical )
    What about teachers in PRUs going to work in schools where they can broaden their teaching experience ( leafy grammars) so that they don’t just become behaviour managers ? As a PRU teacher myself , I can tell you outright that it is shortening my life expectancy , this makes me very angry when I see teachers at ‘leafy grammars’ on the same pay.


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