When too many = not enough

I’m writing this blog in Switzerland, where I have been talking to trainee teachers about their motivation for teaching: what makes them want to devote their lives to helping others learn?

It has been reported that schools in Switzerland, as in the UK, don’t have enough teachers, and while this has not reached crisis point, the shortage is expected to grow as pupil numbers increase over the next few years (>10% growth over 10 years). The areas most feeling the pinch are no different from ours: physical sciences, maths, primary. Yet at the same time, Swiss teacher training institutions appear to be training more than enough teachers to fill the gaps. Supply seems to exceed demand.

So how we can understand this apparent paradox? The answer does not lie in teachers leaving the profession: in Switzerland figures show that 80% of trainees are still in teaching 5 years after qualifying – compared with only  67% in England. The trainees I spoke to expect to remain teaching for the rest of their working lives (though some plan to spend a period abroad)—compare this with the bleak UK figures which suggest 20% hope to leave within 2 years. And the Swiss government states that retirement figures have peaked and should remain stable until at least 2022.

Teacher shortage is in fact one of the motivating factors for the trainees I talked to. Their perception is that the country will always need teachers, so their skills will always be in demand and they can be assured of a job for life (somewhat reminiscent of an old BT advert in which news of an exam pass in pottery is greeted with the reassuring words, “pottery … people will always need plates”). Whether or not this will prove to be true, it demonstrates a certain pragmatism in their thinking.

But it is one of the other attractions of teaching that appeals to most—and which actually is the root of the deceptive teacher shortage. The trainees spoke overwhelmingly about flexibility. They hope to settle down and bring up children, and fully anticipate being able to work flexibly in order to achieve this. Their assumption is that they will be able to work part time, while maintaining a reasonable standard of living*, in a way which would not be possible in other professions.

Such optimism may not be misplaced. Official figures show that on average across Switzerland primary teachers work for 2/3 of the week, suggesting that the vast majority work part time. For newly qualified teachers across all age phases the average is 85% (though there is some evidence to suggest that not all are working part time by choice). One of the trainees I spoke to told me that “no-one works full time”, adding that to do so would mean teaching up to 28 lessons (of 40 minutes) a week.

So it would appear as though there are in fact enough qualified teachers, but they are not working enough hours to cover school timetables, either by accident or design. The figures suggest that an increase in class size of just one pupil across the board would halve the demand for new teachers. Alternatively, if the average teacher’s employment were to rise by 10 percentage points, all of the anticipated growth in pupil numbers could be accommodated.

So, one might think the solution to any potential Swiss teacher crisis lies in their own hands. But to increase workload would of course be a contentious policy—and as one of the trainees said to me, how could you make someone work more? And if such ostensibly humane treatment of staff makes the profession attractive and the workload manageable, would you really want to do that?


Chris Rolph

* Salary and standard of living are worthy of a separate discussion: for a future blog post.

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