The Importance of Teachers : Great Irony by Policy Exchange

This morning, I found the Policy Exchange’s latest offering, a report entitled “The Importance of Teachers“. This was a mistake. Finding it, that is, not the offering itself. Hold on, actually, that was also a mistake. But more on that later. The real mistake was that I read it. This was largely on the recommendation of a tweet by Laura McInerney, a journalist I respect, who said “it’s really good”.  So I read it. It’s really not good. It’s terrible. Woeful. Awful. It is a desert of tangential irrelevance with the occasional oasis of good sense. I’m actually fairly appalled that our education “debate” is now so one-sided that this collection of ideological nonsense, peripheral inconsequentiality, meaningless platitudes, “leaderspeak” and head-in-sand vacuousness is what passes for a “good” contribution. In fact, it made me feel so frustrated that my poor Year 12s in Period One found themselves on the end of one of the more aggressively impassioned tirades they’ll ever receive about the failures of management in British industry during the Wilson-Callaghan government. I’m calmer now. So, dear reader, let me summarise those 98 pages for you.

angry teacherMe, this morning


The Importance of Teachers

Sometimes, people you might not see eye-to-eye with, make it easy. Not only do they paint a target on themselves, but they buy a gun, load it, hand it over to you after delivering a lecture on how to use it, and then take a single step backwards to await the inevitable. So let me say this : this document is called “The Importance of Teachers“. It is about a teacher shortage crisis. It purports to discuss both recruitment and retention of teachers.

There is not a single contributor who is a teacher. Yes, that’s right, not one.

Apart from think-tanker Jonathan Simons, the author, there are : two university academics; three Price Waterhouse consultants; one person from the headteacher (not the teacher) union; two execs from private businesses selling services to the education “market”; two executives from Multi-Academy Trusts; one headteacher with a Teaching Schools Council presence; and, inevitably, an executive from Teach First.

No teachers. Not one. In 98 pages and 11 essays about recruitment and retention of teachers, there isn’t a single practising teacher.

Jonathan, you’re not even making me break sweat here. I’m sure these people are lovely individuals. But talking about retention does rather imply that you might get expertise from someone who might be retained!   Could you not have provided just one actual teaching teacher ? Just one, you know, actual bog-standard, every-day-in-the-classroom, book-marking teacher ? Someone who can speak about the reasons why we have a bit of a problem from the perspective of someone who actually does the job?

No ?

Oh well. Perhaps you invited me to contribute, but my invitation got lost in the post ? Or maybe it’s buried in my in-tray under 18 hours of marking and several more hours of pointless paperwork generated by an education policy framework of PRP, target-setting and stupid assumptions about linear progress ?

Anyway, speaking as (a) a teacher and (b) a teacher who is leaving the profession well before he has to, I thought I might dare to offer my own comments on this issue. Obviously, I don’t know as much about being a teacher who might leave the profession as someone who isn’t a teacher who might leave the profession, such as, well, all your essay writers. But please accept this contribution, gratis, from me, as a token of my professional respect.

 work-to-hard-cartoonWe’re not in denial about workload. Oh no.

It’s workload. Workload. WORKLOAD!

Look, if I lined up a lot of teachers, and asked them what is making them want to leave the profession, the majority would say “workload”. In fact, plenty of people have already done this exercise. I’m quite surprised the authors of this paper haven’t noticed, as I’m sure I’ve seen it mentioned here and there. It’s workload. Workload. Workload. Workload. WORKLOAD. Sure, there are other things, but ultimately, it’s workload. Got that ?

In this document, the word “workload” appears ….wait for it…. SEVEN times. Seven. I counted them. Three of them are in the same paragraph. That one single workload-focused paragraph in this whole weighty document slightly undermines itself by ending thus : “The government does need to address ….teachers’ workloads because it seems to be a major source of discontent among serving teachers.”

“Seems to be” ? “SEEMS TO BE????

No shit, Sherlock.

Of the other references to workload, one is in the PWC section trying to flog software by claiming in passing that it reduces workload, and two are in a section which tries to sell CPD as an alternative to reducing workload.

So there we are. Seven references to workload: one of which notes it as an issue before ignoring it completely; three of which are presented as if it’s a bit of a surprise that teachers identify it; two which are used to suggest that it isn’t really a problem requiring action; and one using it as a sale pitch for dodgy software. Great. Gets right to the heart of the matter, this document.

CPD, on the other hand, gets 30 mentions. Possibly because CPD is something which can be done to teachers without reducing workload or spending much money.

And that’s the gaping chasm of irrelevance which is at the heart of this document. If you really want to address retention, it costs money. You can either pay people more to compensate for the ridiculous demands of the job, or you can reduce their workload by recruiting more people to do the same job (heaven forfend you might actually establish sane expectations of what is required, but that’s a different blog). Those are your choices, really. Anything else is, at best, tangential. You can come up with ways of recruiting new teachers, which much of this document tries to do, but if you don’t tackle workload and/or money, then you won’t retain them long-term anyway.

Any teacher can tell you this. Any teacher would tell you this. As would their representatives in the teacher unions. Yet the authors of these essays are, with one or two exceptions, either people who are already benefitting personally or organisationally from the new market-based system (academy chain executives, pro-Government think-tank wonks, non-university ITT providers), or people who want to benefit from the new market-based system (private firms trying to flog CPD or technology). These are not voices which are going to shout truth loudly to the power which has provided them with their status, income and opportunities. Also, if you actually spent more of the money in the system on either paying teachers more, or on reducing workload, then I guess there might be less in the pot for private services, executive salaries (I’m looking at you again, Daniel “Greedy Bastard” Moynihan) or expensive ITT programmes with no better record of meeting demand than the older, cheaper system.

These are the voices, largely, of the winners of the present system; people and organisations which either ideologically signed up for the Govian Revolution, or have found their niche in it. None of those niches are inside the increasingly unsustainable classrooms of our country. The losers are the teachers, which is why we have a recruitment and retention crisis. Given the winners are hardly likely to seriously challenge the foundations upon which their success rests, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that this document is a hundred pages of irrelevance to most classroom teachers. It’s credit to a couple of the contributors that they do actually point out that the Government is not currently paying for what it demands from teachers. That’s as positive as I can get about this, folks.

Anyway, here’s a summary of the paper for those who don’t want to read 98 pages of stuff which more or less completely ignores the central issue which it purports to discuss.


As part of World Book Day, Daniel Moynihan, CEO of Harris Academies, gives us a sneak peek into his favourite book

Content of the paper – a summary

To say that this is heavy on recruitment (115 mentions in the document)  and light on retention (47 mentions) is a bit of an understatement. Jonathan Simons, and James Darley of Teach First, rightly highlight the fact that retention is a key issue now graduate recruitment in the rest of the economy is picking up. But you’ll be looking a long time before you find anything of much serious relevance to retention. There’s a fair bit of tinkering around the edges, and there’s some stuff which sounds nice but, from the perspective of an actual teacher (me!), is about as relevant as suggesting we’re all given free hats, or that we should get another of those godawful teacher awards ceremonies.

Jonathan Simons of Policy Exchange gives us some stats to start with. There’s nothing objectionable in those stats. However, those reading his piece may detect a tone of “nothing to see here, move along”, as he attempts to show how there’s nothing particularly unusual about teaching’s situation.

He argues that the cause of teacher loss is largely maternity (Gals, eh ? They just keep breeding!). He offers some stats to suggest that all professions are in the same boat both here and overseas. Indeed, the general tone is summed up by his quote: “Without wishing to be complacent, those figures do not unduly concern me”.

You might consider it odd that a man who offers “Crisis? What crisis?” would then put together a 100 page document ostensibly offering eleven meaty essays making recommendations to deal with a problem he doesn’t see as particularly bothersome. But then, if I were being narky – and I am – I might point out that if you’re working for the sort of ideological right-wing think-tank which has relentlessly pushed the pro-market ideas which have helped create the chaos which our education system now finds itself in, then you, too, might find yourself a bit conflicted in acknowledging that problem .

Anyway, Jonathan then goes on to recommend a range of measures which he thinks might help, largely centred around making employment practices more flexible. I don’t disagree with that, although traditionally, when people from Jonathan’s political background talk about Labour Market “flexibilities”, it usually ends up with someone, somewhere, getting screwed.

Leora Cruddas from ASCL, the organisation for people who identify as “leaders” rather than teachers, recommends a positive PR campaign and more SCITT. She also recommends something involving the term “high-performing multi-academy trusts”, at which point, I suspect I found my attention wandering, because that’s code for “bollocks” in my view. If any part of your answer for any problem is “multi-academy trusts”, then you’re already wrong. Perhaps unsurprisingly for ASCL, there’s a section on “Action that school leaders can take”. There are four recommendations in there. None of them suggest addressing workload. None. Sorry, Leora, but it’s tangential at best.

John Howson : LibDem councillor and director of a private company specialising in teacher recruitment is the man who accounts for nearly half of all references to workload in the document (that’s, er, three references). He argues that providing better data on current vacancies is “the missing part of the jigsaw”. His firm, coincidentally, sells data on teacher vacancies. Blimey. To be fair to Mr Howson, he does then go on to point out that higher pay might be a good idea. Nice one, John.

No Policy Exchange document on teaching would be complete without their friends from Teach First, and James Darley fills the gap. He does a bit of cheerleading for the wider economy, suggesting it’s doing better than ever for graduates, but decides that organisations like, er, Teach First, can offer a great service to solve this problem through dynamic jargonspeak rhubarb. Again, to be fair, he points out that teaching salaries are now some distance from other graduate professions, and gently hints that this might be an issue. Well done, James, it is. But not as much as workload. Which you don’t mention.

Chris Husbands: ex-Director of the Institute of Education offers what is a brief moment of good sense. If you read just one of these essays, read his. He points out that some of the problem has been caused by the madness of the Govian push to replace university-led ITT with anything else. You can see why this Government so hated the IoE while he ran it.

Jo Saxton, ex of Gove’s New Schools Network of True Believers, and now earning her wedge through the multi-academy trusts he created, opens her piece on the teacher recruitment and retention crisis by saying that the ITT model her mentor created, (you know, the one we have now, which has helped create this appalling mess) “has been successful”. That’s all you need to know about this piece. Ideological cobblers masquerading as thought. It’s like reading a Daily Mail editorial pretending to be an academic article. It says nothing of any value, and some bits remind me of tweets from certain one-note-trumpet Govians, honking on about the evil “progressives”. Barking, frankly.

Elaine Wilson, science PGCE supremo from Cambridge, writes a lengthy piece about the importance of CPD. I’ve no problem with CPD. On balance, it would be better to have CPD than not have CPD. Especially if it was the sort of CPD a teacher got to choose as useful, rather than many teachers’ current CPD experience, which is being told “You’re doing this CPD, which you’ve had before, which isn’t relevant to you, and which is being delivered for free by one of your colleagues who we told had to do it in order to meet the “expert teacher” criteria on the teaching standards for PRP purposes”. It means well, although she is the one who quotes some research saying that workload isn’t as important as “job crafting”. “Job crafting”, for the record, is “redesigning a job in ways that can foster increased job satisfaction”. Such as reducing workload, perhaps ? Well-meaning, academic, and about as close to the target as the German bomb destined for Buckingham Palace which destroyed two houses at the end of my road in Bromley in 1942.

Philippa Cordingley of CUREE, which sells CPD services to schools, reckons the answer is more CPD, presumably purchased from external CPD providers. A lot of it reads like an advert for her organisation, but to be fair to her, she mentions the absence of career progression opportunities in teaching for anyone who doesn’t take the organisational management route. I could engage with this more fully, but she doesn’t, so I won’t.

Toby Salt is the chief executive of a large chain of academies. HIs piece is titled “Nick Gibb is Nearly Right“. Do I need to say more? Oh, ok. It goes like this : Talented people become leaders of chains. I’m the leader of a chain. Leaders. Chains. Chains. Leaders. More chains please. More leaders. My chain is great. Because of leaders. More of me, please.

Chris Kirk, Alice Cornish and Jude Simpson are three PWC bods trying to sell technology to schools, and their article is a lengthy attempt to say that technology can solve the teacher recruitment crisis by, er, replacing teachers with technology. Great, thanks.

images-2-copyPWC unveil their new model for the Single Teacher Online School (yours at £3m a pop)

John Hardy, a headteacher and member of a SCITT-type scheme, talks a lot about how teachers should be moving to the North-East, because it’s cheap, but then notes that they don’t, because there’s no other work for their partners, and it’s really cold. He doesn’t say the last bit – I made that up. It’s basically more of the same from a guy involved in schools-based ITT, who tells us about the great thing his scheme does, and why we should do more of it. It’s almost as if this whole document was put together by an organisation dedicated to pushing market-based competing methods of schools-based training. Hmm. Anyway, maybe Mr Hardy was told to write only about recruitment, and not retention, but I found it particularly depressing that the person who is nearest to actual teachers, actually teaching, didn’t see fit to mention workload at all.

That’s it. If you don’t believe me, then feel free to read the whole thing. The link is at the top. But that document does not contain any answers, because it doesn’t ask the right questions of the right people.



20 thoughts on “The Importance of Teachers : Great Irony by Policy Exchange

  1. Thank you for a superb blog post on this. Most people don’t realise that PX Education was founded by Michael Gove himself. The BBC roll them out as an independent think tank when they are not all. You have hit the nail on the head.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, yes (and yes) this is a really important point – the BBC (and other media) rarely point out the vested interest of these think-tanks – they should carry a health warning.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this blog. I too was disappointed to see bods like Laura suggesting this is a useful report. As you point out it is missing the voice of the practitioner – I work now in teacher education in a university and whilst I think I have an important view on the situation it is now as an outsider not an insider and so often in these report the voice of the insider is missing (we can see this in the reports on teacher education, on behaviour etc… often it is the headteacher rarely the classroom teacher).

    The collection of reports is then voices of those who have much to gain from the current systematic changes saying what a good thing it is … christmas pudding manufacturers voting for Christmas when they need to be asking the turkeys!


  3. The National Audit Office report on recruitment of teachers blows a massive hole in the PX report. And NAO only deals with recruitment not retention (except to say a ‘significant’ number of Teach Firsters leave after two years and the DfE doesn’t have info about how different routes into teaching affect ability to recruit and retain NQTs).

    The mammoth in the room is workload. It’s what drove me out of teaching nearly 20 years ago. Since then, workload’s got worse. Teaching is becoming a job for young singles with no family responsibilities – keep going after becoming a parent and teachers are likely to find they’re putting other people’s children before their own. That’s perhaps why so many women don’t return to teaching after becoming teaching. They know something has to give.


  4. Just in case anyone wonder what ‘job crafting’ is, here’s a definition: ‘the changes employees may make regarding their job demands and job resources…job crafting can take the form of three different types of behaviours: increasing (structural or social) job resources; increasing job demands or challenges; and decreasing job demands. They argued that employees who optimise their work environment would report the highest levels of engagement.’

    The onus is on teachers, then, to increase available resources at a time of stretched school budgets, increase the number of ‘challenges’ (not enough already?) or decrease job demands (when high stakes tests can scupper careers, performance-related pay decides how much salary teachers receive, and school leaders/governors scream for more data, data to data in order to hold the school to ‘account’.


    • Thanks Janet. I have no problem with the concept, but what I found interesting is that, to me, it’s obvious that “job crafting” has to be tailored to the problem. If the unhappiness/unproductivity is related to training, then add training. If it’s related to management, then change management. If it’s related to workload, then workload reduction has to be the essential part of “job crafting”. Yet the quote in the essay was :

      “Surprisingly, Demerouti’s team found that boosting job resources through such crafting is far more effective than simply reducing job demands (i.e. reducing workload).”

      I imagine that this is the case in jobs where the problem isn’t massively excessive workload. Where it is, however, then it’s bizarre to suggest that shifting the deckchairs around will prevent the ship from sinking.


      • The quote suggests it’s teachers’ fault for not ‘crafting’ their job. Silly teachers – the cure is in their own hands and they should stop whingeing and take control. Chance would be a fine thing.


        • I didn’t read it quite like that (although I see how you could). I thought the article was by someone whose passion is CPD, and so, understandably, she was banging the drum for CPD as a bit of a universal panacea. I disagree, obviously, but I think the author’s intentions were pure. Just not particularly on-the-ball regarding the actual issue.


  5. just into my third hour of marking on a Saturday morning – as a union rep of 10 years experience I was always told that it was classroom behaviour that was the reason people left – well it isn’t now – as you say it’s workload – the only thing I disagree with you on is your comment about the unions – I’m not sure they are any more aware of how we feel than the government and their cronies who write these reports – see you on the beach in two years time


    • This is a fantastic blog, excoriating what is a dismal ‘report’ from PEx. Such a shame that so much time, money and opportunity was wasted on entirely missing the point.

      I do agree in part with Janet Downs above that the principle of ‘job crafting’ is problematic in that it suggests teachers are to blame for their plight because they haven’t been innovative enough. But, there *is* merit in the concept when one views it from the angle of ‘agency’. Surely, if there was ever a time when teachers needed to understand and exercise their agency, it’s now. Some are indeed exercising their agency by leaving, but others don’t have that choice. But they absolutely must exercise their agency in the job, and one important way to do so is to say ‘no’ more to unreasonable or impossible demands.

      In one of Disidealist’s other posts, he uses the example of double marking to show how, for some reason, changes in practice that require vastly more time (like double marking) are just absorbed in the teaching profession, where in other professions, things would change, with more resources (or employees) being brought to bear. It seems to me (as a former teacher who couldn’t work in such a compliant context, a governor, and someone who now works with schools in other ways) that one reason workload has got so bad is that teachers have just sucked it all up. You’ve just whined a bit, huffed, puffed, then knuckled down and ruined your mental health and relationships by doing it anyway.

      I mean, this is a reply to a post by a union rep – one of the people who is supposed to represent and proect the best interests of teachers – who’s just rolled over and agreed to gift the world his Saturday morning, for nothing in return. That will have been after a 60 hour week, at least, I’ll bet.

      I’m really sorry, but you’re not doing anyone any favours by conceding your lives to these demands and burning yourselves out.

      Just say ‘no’, and refuse to do anything that can’t be expected of you in a reasonable working week. You’re being completely taken for granted because you’ve been so easy to take for granted for so long.

      That may sound pie in the sky to a workforce that has mostly gone from school to university and back to school again, and has not experienced work in the non-hierarchical or more democratic, fairer and more human-focused contexts one finds (ironically) in the private and charity sectors. But it’s not. You don’t need to strike and down tools; that’s counterproductive, alienates many teachers who don’t want to join in, and doesn’t win you any friends amongst parents. You just need to tell your managers to do one when they ask too much.


      • I have a lot of sympathy with your points here. I think one of the reasons I have struggled so much over the last ten years with the way schools work – and particularly with the “Cult of the Leader” stuff – is that I spent more than a decade working in both private and public sector organisations prior to that. In none of those would managers EVER treat, or even talk to, their staff in the way that many SLTs treat and talk to theirs. None of them self-referred endlessly as “leaders” and all accepted that there was a relationship between the resources you had, and the product you wanted. In teaching, none of that exists.

        But a lot of teachers (and “leaders”) – the majority, I guess – have never worked in any workplace which is not based on a hierarchical system of demanding subservience (a school). This really shows sometimes.


        • Thanks for replying. After I left the classroom (quite soon after I entered them, to be honest!), I worked at the DfES and then at an international exam board. In both places, it was the people who’d spent long careers as teachers who who were most taken advantage of, quietly taking on additional responsibilities and working silly hours without kicking up a fuss. The career civil servants (experts in admirable idleness and slacking) and those who’d come in from the private sector (keen to do a great job, out for number one, and not to be walked over) had by far the healthiest approach, and – if I’m being frank – did a better job as they were able to prioritise and balance workloads more callously.

          I’m not having a dig … I have huge respect for teachers and those who keep schools going despite all the shite flung at them on a day to day basis. But I am a parent, and work in a charity that supports teachers’ mental health. I look at the unsustainability of the current set up, and worry. The government are not going to help. Heads and MAT CEOs have other priorities. Most parents don’t understand the complexity (I’m working on that). So it’s up to teachers. Sorry … one more thing to do (or less, when you think about it!)


  6. I thought this was a brilliant blog. Just two points to add: one is that not all school leaders are clipboard-wielding, jargon-mumbling megalomaniacs. Some of us add significantly to our own workload to support our teachers. Secondly, teachers are not the only losers. The most important losers are the children.


    • I agree with both those points. However, I think I would distinguish between individual managers who make a positive contribution, and a collective failure of headteachers as a group.

      Collectively, our “leaders” have failed the profession. Far too many have been too happy to take the status and cash which the new managerialism has thrown at them, and have allowed their teachers to be thrown to the wolves. In too many cases, they’ve joined in merrily doing the throwing.

      Collective action by heads could have stopped PRP in its tracks, preventing all the pointless bureaucracy now burdening us all. Similarly, heads could reduce workload immediately overnight by simply telling their teachers that they don’t need to do stupid triple-marking, or cut those “extra” lessons, or reduce endless data churn. At the moment, most claim they can’t because of Ofsted, while too many see whipping their staff as a sign of their own virility as “leaders”. One might be a nice person motivated by fear, while the other might be a sociopath motivated by ambition and greed, but the result is the same for their teachers.

      Heads moving heaven and earth to keep schools open undermined the strikes which tried to avoid cuts to pay and pensions. Contrast their lack of support with the much more unified medical profession. They even have their own Union which they claim is for “leaders”, having disassociated themselves from even the word “teachers”.

      The fact is that, collectively, our “leaders” have at best sat in passive compliance, and at worst collaborated with a government introducing one mad dangerous policy after another.

      Gove’s greatest success was separating heads from teachers. Everything else flowed from that. And when one looks at why so many heads were willing to go along with his systemic vandalism, the answers don’t always reveal very nice things about quite a few of those individuals.


  7. PRP is not just a major factor in putting workload pressure on teachers. It also destroys morale by the secondary route of eroding trust and collegiality. Then there is the damage to teamwork. Perhaps most importantly of all, the resulting staff tensions will damage all the relationships in the school including those between teachers and students because it must ultimately be perceived by teachers under the PRP cosh that it is their students that stand between them and their PRP bonuses. It would be hard to imagine a more educationally destructive culture. See more detail here


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