So, according to the National Audit Office, the shortage of teachers in England is partly a retention problem. More teachers are leaving the profession. Why is this?
1. Michael Gove and the feels
Although long gone from the Department of Education, Michael Gove still casts a shadow. He famously used the term “The Blob” to describe the educational establishment and certainly there are many who feel insulted by this. And yet teachers are not the educational establishment (more’s the pity). Gove’s comments were aimed at schools of education and education quangos. Gove was always meticulously polite about practising teachers. It is therefore hard to judge how many teachers feel personally insulted by Gove or how this has affected morale.
Gove was also a man in a hurry. Former advisors such as Dominic Cummings suggest that, from the outset, the Gove team knew it had limited time to make an impact. This led to a whirlwind of curriculum reforms that added to teacher workload. This could be a factor.
2. Ofsted, accountability and Workload
Ofsted is a recently reformed institution that has taken to criticising the mad things that are sometimes done in its name. This is to be welcomed, but Ofsted cannot absolve itself of responsibility for allowing this situation to grow out of control in the first place.
Some in education are extremely ideological about accountability and will claim that tests do not assess what is important and what is important cannot be tested. Therefore, they suggest, we should abandon testing and testing-based accountability. However, I think that most teachers are pragmatists. They are quite happy to be held to account for their students’ results provided that they think the measure is fair.
What teachers really dislike are arbitrary accountability measures that seem to have little link to improved student learning. Think of all the onerous marking policies, form-filling and invalid lesson observation judgements. This could be a contributor to teachers chucking it all in.
Nobody wants to work in an unsafe or stressful environment. I once taught in a school where behaviour was very poor and I remember the feeling of anxiety I experienced on the bus every morning.
That school turned itself around by adopting a strong, whole-school policy. A challenging school without a proper behaviour policy is a disaster for ordinary teachers, and especially so for new teachers and substitute teachers.
There is a philosophy out there that teachers needs to manage all their own behaviour issues because it is all about individual teacher-student relationships. If teachers are expected to run and manage their own detentions then a quick back-of-an-envelope calculation will show just how impractical this is in a challenging school. This means that teachers often give up, take to tolerating poor behaviour and lower academic standards.
Yes, teacher-student relationships are important and teachers should work hard at promoting positive relationships. They should be given professional development and support to do this. But the school-student relationship is also vital. Abusing a teacher or disrupting a lesson should be seen as disrespectful of the school community and the school needs to take action. Leaders who won’t step-up here are dodging their responsibilities and I have no doubt that this leads to teachers departing the profession.
4. The Economy
As the economy dips, people move into the safe-haven of teaching. It is a stable role that is largely protected from recession. When the economy starts to pick-up again, teachers look to pastures new. The push factors become more significant, particularly if a prolonged squeeze on public finances has led to teaching becoming relatively less well paid. You might be prepared to tolerate a poor working environment if the alternative is insecurity or perhaps no job at all but when there are more attractive jobs around, teachers may consider leaving.
I think the main factor is the economy but this doesn’t mean that schools have no role to play. Schools should review the push factors. They should conduct a bonfire of silly policies and focus on ensuring that they create a safe environment for their teachers to work in. When teaching works well, it is a fantastic, rewarding job. Teachers will forego the prospect of higher pay or a swanky office for a job that they love.