The report that new incentives are to be offered to teachers to address the crisis in the profession will be met with both cautious welcome and exasperation.
There will be relief that the DfE has published it’s “first ever” teacher recruitment and retention strategy, but dismay that it views tinkering with the application process as fundamental to boosting teacher numbers.
Those involved in recruiting, training and employing teachers – whether they work in schools, colleges or universities – have long been frustrated by the mounting challenges of attracting enough applicants to teaching, or making sure they stay in the profession.
From years of experience as a teacher educator in universities, it’s clear that teaching is still very attractive to many people – the desire ‘to make a difference’ can sound glib but is nevertheless a strong motivating influence for many potential applicants. Most people can also relate personally to the impact that an exceptional teacher can have on the children and young people they work with. Recent government recruitment campaigns certainly know the power of these connections – ‘every day you’ll get the chance to inspire young people’ – the rewards are obvious.
So, people want to teach – what keeps or drives them away? Over recent years, there has been a significant shortfall in the number of teachers recruited, as well as a worrying attrition rate – the BBC reports that of those teachers that started in 2012, a third were not teaching five years later, and last year’s official figures show that in 2017 the number joining the profession matched those leaving.
The question is, is money the answer? Whilst teacher salaries are not in line with other professions – and this can only raise questions about comparative status – it is well recognised that pay is not the most important factor in the recruitment and retention issue. The government’s offer of cash incentives for staying in teaching will not be unwelcome, but it’s only part of the point.
Recruitment campaign images of groups of wide-eyed pupils clustered round an energetic young science teacher sell the moments of joy and reward – of which there are many – but don’t hint at the gruelling levels of paperwork and data-chasing that characterise teachers’ workloads. Most will accept that all jobs come with an administrative load; what makes the difference here is that the nature and extent of these tasks is and has been driven by successive waves of government policy seeking quick solutions to complex problems.
Anxiety about comparative performance in international education league tables – or between schools in different parts of cities or the country – has driven ever more prescriptive measures for driving up pupil outcomes, without acknowledging what causes the inequalities. So it can feel like the job is driven by the data, rather than by our shared, cumulative expertise in what constitutes a rounded, meaningful educational experience.
Reducing crippling workload, offering more options for flexible working and supporting career development will all be welcome changes to a profession that has become rigid with regulatory demands and under-resourcing. But the more genuine transformation will only come from an honest exploration of what we think education is for. Do teachers leave when they find they have neither the time nor the support to make a difference in the present system?