Something hideous this way comes. It’s a teacher shortage. Nothing new there, I hear you say. But this one is going to be a cracker, and it’s one which has been manufactured by Gove and his fellow travellers.
All commentators appear to be in agreement that we’re already undergoing a teacher shortage. The reasons for this are manifold, but let me lay out what I see as the causes of the approaching storm. There are two aspects to this, recruitment and retention, both of which are heading in the wrong direction.
The recession may finally be ending
Teacher recruitment goes down in economic good times, when graduates can obtain better pay for less work elsewhere. So recessions are generally good times for teacher recruitment, and so this one has proved. However, it is now theoretically ending, and lo and behold we have a large number of unfilled training places, with STEM subjects in greatest trouble, as always. I’m not entirely convinced that this rebound will be the same as previous ones, as any “recovery” seems largely based around another house price bubble, and the overwhelming majority of jobs created in the last five years have not been traditional “graduate jobs”. So the recovery might not hit recruitment to the same extent as previous economic upswings, but we can be sure it’ll have an impact – it always does.
The evisceration of university-based teaching courses
Gove, and his mentalist associates like Nick Gibb, hate university-led teacher training. They hate it because in their bizarre alternate reality, teacher training institutions are hotbeds of dastardly Marxist intellectuals, brainwashing teachers in “trendy” left-wing theories. I wish I were making this up, but I have this direct from someone to whom Nick Gibb expounded precisely this theory. So Gove set about trying to destroy HE-based teacher training in favour of on-the-job training in classrooms, preferably through organisations run by ideologically sympathetic chaps. The problem is that many people actually wanted to train on a PGCE course, and not direct in a classroom. Under the old system, people could choose the entry method they felt best suited them. Gove, however, was never very big on choice, because he knew he was right, and so has largely removed that choice from would-be teachers. The result is that large numbers of schools-based places remain unfilled, while remaining PGCE courses are oversubscribed but can’t take on the trainees because Gove slashed their funding in order to transfer it to the – now undersubscribed – schools-based training schemes. There’s an irony here about Gove’s imposition of a central-planning approach, rather than letting the market decide, but I think it’d be lost on him.
Gove’s my-way-or-the-highway gamble was that, faced with no alternative route, recruits would sign up for schools-based training. However, what has actually happened is that many of those who would not be comfortable with the schools-based training have just not bothered to become teachers. I do understand this. I was a career changer, and although in my early twenties I may have been confident enough to believe that all you had to do was stick me in a classroom and I’d be Robin Williams, by the time I reached my thirties I saw teaching as a real profession, and one which required real professional training, preferably by experts in a university. I wouldn’t have switched if the only option was to start on the job. Now I don’t claim everyone is like me. Some people prefer the schools-based approach. That’s fine. But there are plenty who are like me, and schools-based training isn’t for them. The changes to training have undoubtedly deterred many applicants.
The previous point also contributes to the next problem : the awful public image of teaching as a profession. In destroying the Higher-Education route, Gove was essentially saying that teaching is not a profession which requires such a high-status professional training route. Medicine still requires arduous professional training before you’re allowed to approach a stranger with a hypodermic. Few law firms would push a trainee into court on his first day to argue for a man’s liberty. Trainee accountants need to pass a bucketload of exams and do much low-level book-keeping, before being allowed to sign off a set of accounts (except when auditing large banks, when the team is usually led by an actual monkey, apparently). Yet in teaching, according to Gove’s reforms, on your first day you can already do pretty much what you’ll spend the next forty years doing. Stand there, say that, and bob’s your uncle. It doesn’t matter if Schools Direct or Teach First immediately protest that there’s more to it than that – INSET sessions, mentoring, reports, monitoring etc. It doesn’t matter at all. The message sent to would-be teachers is that teaching is not a high-status profession, perhaps not even a profession at all. It’s a message reinforced when Gove and his fellow travellers argue that no qualification is actually needed. Any bugger can walk in off the street and teach without QTS. It’s easy, right ? It’s a sign of just how cretinously small-minded Gove is that he couldn’t see how his destruction of a professional training route into teaching might actually result in people stopping seeing teaching as a profession.
In fact, this assumption that teaching isn’t a worthwhile or serious career is even baked into the title of one of the main schools-based training providers : Teach First. There are still some people who claim they don’t understand the hostility which the Teach First scheme attracts from many in the profession, which is not directed to the same extent at other schools-based schemes like Schools Direct, or the GTP. I shouldn’t need to explain this, but while I’m venting, here it is : it’s the name, you dimwits ! Teach First. The very name conjures up the idea that this is something temporary before you go on to a proper career. That it’s a sort of UK equivalent of a Gap Yah in the third world helping out the poor benighted locals. It’s the noble sacrifice which you undertake so you feel better about the cash you’ll then make when you get your real job, having passed on the benefits of your superior intellect to the incompetents who are there all the time and for whom this is their permanent career. Teach First’s motto should be “We recruit people to a profession which we don’t think is worth staying in”. They reinforce the very problem which they claim to be helping to solve : the lack of applicants to teaching due to a poor perception of teaching as a career. Change the bloody name, dumbasses.
Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who say this to me, get punched.
That is, of course, before we even go on to list the rest of the brickbats which this Government and the media have thrown at the profession in the last five years. Ministers pop up with alarming regularity to tell us our education system is falling behind (it isn’t), that our schools are failing (they’re not), that massive, wholesale reform is needed to “improve” our schools (it wasn’t), and that the key determinant of success will be great “leaders” (God help us). In addition, few members of the public could have failed to notice that teachers’ pay and pensions have been hammered (teachers’ pay has declined in real terms considerably further than the average professional salary since the crash), and Michael Wilshaw of course never misses an opportunity to point out that teachers are lazy, feckless incompetents who should smarten up, stop asking questions and do what they’re told (does Wilshaw actually acknowledge a difference between adults and Year 9s, I wonder?).
So any would-be applicant is faced with the prospect of pursuing a career in a job where he’ll be thrown in at the deep end in a crappy school which is almost certainly failing, alongside colleagues who are useless, led by egomaniacal gauleiters, and will be paid peanuts for the privilege because it’s not a proper profession. Smashing. Where do I sign ?
Perhaps we shouldn’t be asking why we have a recruitment crisis, and instead be giving thanks that anyone is still daft enough to do it at all !
Career-changers no more
Career changers have always been a minority of recruits, but not an insignificant one. They bring useful skills and experience, and tend to be older, steadier, and thus theoretically more likely to stick it out than your average 21-year-old graduate. They are, in many ways, the opposite of “Teach First”. These aren’t people who are lowering themselves to do a charity job before having a proper career, they are people who have chosen to teach as a career after doing a different job. Personally, if I was trying to recruit, I’d be looking to target a campaign on these people. However, there is, I’m sad to say, something of a cult of youth in education which extends to the people at the whiteboard just as much as the people sitting behind the desks with the textbooks. Many people don’t realise that Gove often spoke warmly about teachers. It’s true, he did, I’ve seen the speeches. However, he rarely praised “teachers” without the prefix “young” or “new”, thus reinforcing the view amongst more experienced staff that he considered them all to be rubbish (possibly because they were all brainwashed by the aforementioned Marxist intellectuals). Teach First and Schools Direct are naturally targeted at the young. The recruitment campaigns produced by the DFE are targeted at new graduates too. This makes some sense, as most recruits will be fresh graduates. However, I can’t recall the last time I saw an advert specifically targeting career-changers. Maybe I’m just not looking in the right places.
Even if those adverts are out there, there’s another problem, which is that the hammering of pay and conditions has put teaching out of financial reach for many would-be mid-life changers. When I changed career 10 years ago, I took a 40% pay cut in my first year. I could do that because at the time I had no kids, and a significant second household income, so the sums could add up. Today, moving from the same job I previously held to become a teacher on the same pay point, I’d take a salary cut of more than 70%. I wouldn’t be able to consider it, even if I really wanted to. The reduction in real teacher pay, and the cuts to pensions, may not have much impact on fresh graduates, but they are a huge deterrent to career-changers. The great middle-tier job clearout during the last 5 years may have resulted in more “involuntary” career-changers forced to take that financial hit. But if the economy picks up, then I would expect this source of teachers to dry up.
So if recruitment is shrinking fast, we must surely be looking at retention, right ? Oh dear. Here comes Gove’s double-whammy : many of his policies have actually HURT retention, increasing drop-out rates and forcing people out of the profession.
I blogged on this here . There’s no need to repeat all the issues again, but the key point is this : if you make people do much more work, more of them will leave. It’s a very direct relationship. If you want more people to stay, you should reduce the amount of work they do. Anyone who doesn’t understand this shouldn’t be allowed to use scissors without assistance. Yet the last five years has seen an explosion in workload which has all originated with DFE or OFSTED. At the moment, the pretence at concern over workload is simply window-dressing to try and detoxify the Tories in the aftermath of Gove. However, as the recruitment crisis bites, we may find that the Government might actually have to address the issue in order to try and stem the haemorrhage.
I’ve blogged on this several times, here and here so no need to repeat the details. Again there’s a very simple key message here: when people feel valued, autonomous and fulfilled, they are more likely to stay in a job; when they feel undervalued (Cult of the Leader), mistrusted (monitoring) and battered (PRP), they will seek an exit. This especially applies to older, more experienced teachers, who are much less likely to tolerate being told exactly how to mark, exactly how to structure their lessons and exactly what colour pen to use. I personally know several teachers who have left the profession before pensionable age because of one or more of the above factors. They would rather take a big financial hit than continue to be subject to what has become a toxic culture of monitoring, diktat and “leadership” in the education system. Older teachers like to think their experience is valued, that they have earned the right to some autonomy, and they should be treated as highly experienced and trained professionals. There are far too many schools where fearful or deluded managers, under pressure from Ofsted, are treating all staff as incompetent lead-swingers who need to conform and shut up. Many of those poor souls will leave as soon as they can find an alternative berth, even if that means leaving teaching.
Older teachers are more expensive. School budgets are shrinking in real terms. “Leadership” salaries are increasing disproportionately quickly in many schools. Academy chains are performing their function of siphoning off cash from our classrooms into the pockets of distant “executives” who never have to get within smelling distance of an actual child. Something has to give. In many schools, that something is the older staff. The position we’ve ended up in as a result of Gove’s chaotic vandalism, is that it is now absolutely imperative for the education system as a whole to retain older, experienced staff, but it is equally imperative, at a school level, to reduce the numbers of older, experienced staff in order to balance the books. Excellent work, Michael. Truly excellent.
The perfect storm of recruitment and retention failure : academy chains
Like a rat on a sinking ship, the first signs of distress in the system can be found in that epitome of Govian policy : the academy chain. Here we have all the ingredients thrown into the pot, and it’s already emitting a sulphurous smell.
The larger chains have some very greedy executives paying themselves very large amounts of cash (yes, Daniel Moynihan of Harris, I mean you; but not just you). So one of the first things they do on taking over a school is to force out many of the more expensive older staff, and replace them with trainees, NQTs, the unqualified, and anyone cheap. A friend of mine recently visited a newly annexed Harris school in my area, and when I asked him how it was, he said that he’d never before seen a school where all the teachers seem to be sixth formers! Nobody who has any connection with the work of the unions in an area cursed by these chains of monstrous parasites will be unfamiliar with often heartbreaking tales of appalling treatment of older staff, completely unconnected to competence. School-based training schemes have been able to step into the breach, providing cheap cannon-fodder, so the executives pocket their six-figure salaries, and everyone’s happy.
Except they’re not happy, because many of the larger chains are the finest examples of top-down, conformist, Ofsted-friendly diktat you’re ever likely to find. Some chains elevate the Cult of the Leader into a religion, and along with that comes the insane workload, the utter deprofessionalization of staff and, inevitably, a very high turnover. It turns out that it’s not just older, more experienced teachers who find such an institutional culture unbearable. Anecdotally, the turnover of staff at my two nearest Harris schools, for example, has been astounding in just two school years.
Of course much of this is anecdotal, so I’m reproducing here a graph which I’ve used before, but which hasn’t had the attention it deserves.
This is from the OECD. What it shows is that the UK’s teaching workforce already has the lowest average age of any country in the OECD bar Korea. It also shows that that workforce is getting younger considerably faster than any other OECD country. This is largely based on pre-Govian data, so it’s hard to imagine that the situation has done anything other than accelerated in the last four years.
Compulsory overstretched historical analogy
Essentially, Gove’s recruitment and retention model is that of General Haig on the Somme in 1916: treat existing staff as disposable chattel, because there’s always another brigade of fresh recruits to be thrown into the line to fill the gaps the experienced regulars used to occupy.
The problem is, those recruits are no longer signing up. Just as the volunteers dried up when word filtered back to England that the war wasn’t going to be over by Christmas and the conditions in the trenches were actually not that much of a picnic, so fresh graduate meat is becoming in short supply as word spreads that teaching is not a career one would want to stay in. Yet just as Haig’s existing troops were thinned out by the meatgrinders in Flanders because of his refusal to pursue a less attritional strategy, the drop-out rate of existing teachers is approaching crisis levels for much the same reason.
Unfortunately for the Government, there the parallels end. Haig resolved his recruitment and retention crisis by introducing forced conscription. Not an option open to us for the education system (don’t get any ideas, Wilshaw). If we are to resolve our very own recruitment and retention crisis, we are going to have to make changes.
Two experienced teachers noting the arrival of Teach First recruits
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it
In fact, in some ways I welcome the crisis. That may sound perverse, but no amount of sincere argument, conclusive evidence or impassioned opposition from the troops has made any impact at all on Gove’s policies. Nor is Hunt any less in thrall to tired, illogical and destructive conservative orthodoxies : the market is good, Ofsted is vital, schools are failing, “Leaders” are great etc. But while politicians and the media can, and do, happily ignore teachers when we’re there, they can’t ignore us when we’re not. When children are in classrooms with nobody at the front; when subjects are being taught by people who don’t have a GCSE themselves; and, yes, when there are no applicants for the chance to sit behind the headteacher’s desk; then politicians will HAVE to act.
That crisis will be here sooner than any of us suspect, I think.
Happy New Year, everyone.