Whilst Justine Greening has spoken of the need to maintain a “high bar to entry” into the teaching profession in order to attract the “best graduates”, the recent announcement by Anne Milton, the Minister for Skills, appears to show that the government is going to do the polar opposite by “developing an appropriate degree apprenticeship” that will allow teaching assistants and others to “upskill” and become teachers. Is this a long term solution to produce a world class education system or does this have all the hallmarks of yet another quick fix that remains part of the same old teacher recruitment and retention problem?

Staffing Crisis 

It has long been known that there is a staffing crisis in our schools. Amidst all of this, one thing is clear: the staffing crisis might not be new, but its severity is startling. In 2015, it was reported that more than 50,000 of the UK’s teachers walked out on the profession for pastures new, the worst year since records began being kept in 1997. Over one in ten new teachers quit after a year on the job; a staggering one third of all new teachers who started in 2010 had left the sector five years later. Over 100,000 teachers are estimated to have completed their teacher training but never taught since. The deficit threatens to become even worse in the years to come, and many of the attempts governments have made to address the situation, most recently with a review of teacher work-life balance, have been met with limited success.

Furthermore, in 2016, Sir Michael Wilshaw – then the chief inspector of schools – reported on the alarming rate of ‘brain drain’ from the profession, that more than 100,000 teachers who had been trained in the United Kingdom now worked overseas, a figure that had increased by 25% over the course of a single year. In the preceding twelve months, 18,000 teachers left England for schools abroad, while only 17,000 graduated into the profession – a deficit that, though it might seem small, remains unsustainable in the medium or long term. Teacher vacancies were nine times as high in 2016 as they were in 2011, and across 2015 the number of classes being taught by roving supply teachers more than tripled, the cost of which exceeded £800 million for state run primary and secondary schools.

The Best of the Best

In 1994, when Sir Christopher Woodhead was appointed the new director of Ofsted, then only two years old, he made a bold declaration that would echo in the education system long after. Woodhead had a style many found abrasive, and his opening declaration that 15,000 teachers were unfit for purpose bought him many enemies. Even at that early point in Ofsted’s life it was felt that Woodhead was using data out of context to attack the schooling system. Indeed, 15,000 teachers only represented 3% of the teaching profession, implying that the vast majority of teachers were exactly the right people to be driving the nation’s schools forward. All the same, Woodhead had thrown down the gauntlet and, in the midst of all the opprobrium and resent that would follow, had made at least one salient point. The school system’s most prized assets were its teachers, those missionaries on the ground whose task it was, day in and day out, to engage and challenge their students, to get the very best out of them even when they didn’t believe they could get the best out of themselves. Woodhead may have been berating the very people he was meant to defend, but he had one thing right: a school was only as good as the teachers who walked its corridors. That was a truth self-evident; they had to be the best if the system was to become the best.

Problems of Attracting the Best

Perhaps the problem easiest to identify is the pay gap between what school teachers can expect to earn, both at the outset and across their later careers and the expectations of their peers in other industries. In 2016, a freshly graduated teacher in the United Kingdom could expect to earn around £22,000 outside London, while a first year solicitor might expect to earn £34,000 per year, a graduate accountant £30,000, and a graduate moving into the financial services sector can expect to earn anywhere between £30,000 and £40,000 per year. More problematically still, the salaries for teachers have a necessarily lower glass ceiling than they do in most other industries; commensurate as they are with other roles in public service, a school teacher should not expect to earn much beyond £30,000 a year unless they also move into school leadership. Therefore, it follows that the cost of training to be a teacher is a greater burden than for various other careers: at 2016 rates, a student training to be a teacher in England can expect to pay £9,000 in course fees. As a percentage of guaranteed future earnings, this is greater than in almost any other profession.

Recruiting enough teachers to meet the demand of our schools will always be a challenge, especially when potential teachers are also being met with forceful advertising by the slick graduate schemes offered by corporate banks, private business and other fields. More troublesome, still, is recruiting teachers to schools in the country’s most challenging areas, where the lifestyle needs of young teachers and their families are much more difficult to meet. These schools are often the schools beset by problems of academic performance, lack of aspiration and lack of engagement. Yet, without being able to attract the best candidates, the way out of the morass is not clear. It is at this point that school cultures stagnate, and children are failed; lack of aspiration is a learned behaviour, just like ambition itself and without the school leadership and teachers to teach aspiration and engagement, whole generations of children can be lost to simply perpetuating the system.

Whilst compensation is certainly a part of this, it is also true that teaching was never a profession that people entered because of its pay. Like nursing, teaching was traditionally a vocation, a role entered because it is one in which people can make a genuine difference in others’ lives. And, once you start approaching the problem with this in mind, it suddenly becomes clear that, though the staffing crisis is propagated by many things, with poor pay and poor prospects certainly playing their part, one factor overrules all else. While it’s already clear what cost the quick fix culture can have for students, how short-termism leaves them under-prepared for life beyond the school gates, there is another cost to the way the education system is rigged, one that’s less immediately obvious but equally important to the system’s long term health and that’s the effect it is having on its staff.

The Quick Fix Culture

Staff shortages can be crippling to a school. They lead to inflated classroom sizes, lack of attention being paid to individual students and, inevitably, the poor results that follow. Here’s where things get sticky because it is exactly these situations, where underpaid teachers in understaffed schools are struggling to make their organisations work, that lead to a reliance on the quick fix culture, on getting children through their exams in whatever ways possible, in gaming the system so that its systemic failures do not reflect negatively on the teachers striving, in imperfect circumstances, to help their schools survive.

The response to the staffing crisis is, quite naturally, to inflate the number of supply teachers available to plug the gap and yet this, too, is a symptom of our quick fix culture, papering over the cracks instead of interrogating the problem’s root cause. What becomes clear, by interrogating all of the data, is that the staffing crisis is not actually a result of a fundamental shortage in the number of people training to be teachers and then not entering the profession at all. This might provide momentary blips, as the system finds itself in want or in surplus according to the diktats of any particular year – but more than enough teachers enter the profession to carry our schools forward but the increasing number of teachers leaving the profession for reasons other than retirement leave us with a deficit difficult to manage.

The policy changes of the 1980s and 1990s changed the role of school leader, transforming them from being student focused to being focused on cost and efficiency. This was the age of school leader as business CEO, with all of the sacrifices that transformation entailed. Yet, just as autonomy was being taken away from headteachers, making them answerable to central government in a way they had not been before, autonomy was being taken away from individual teachers as well. Imagine a food chain in which central government policy makers are at the top, school leaders in the middle, and teachers – education’s ground troops – are sitting at the bottom of the ladder. Now imagine the way autonomy was being drawn upwards, away from the school leaders to the policy makers and institutions like Ofsted, with the impact it had on the way schools could be run. Well, the food chain works only one way and, as headteachers toiled under the pressures of the system, constantly battling to keep their schools afloat and ranked at a good level by Ofsted inspectors, they did it through techniques like the ones I have spoken about in previous posts.

The primary goal of any good school should be to retain 100% of its teaching staff, assuming they are right for the job. Under these coercive conditions, however, it is not unusual for schools to have retention rates as low as 50% and find they have to replace 30-40 teachers annually – not because all the teachers didn’t make the grade but because many chose to leave. One school recently even saw every single member of its teaching staff leave. For staff in schools like these, there has been a fundamental shift in the nature of their job. For them, teaching has crossed the line from being a vocation to just being a job. Under the strict controls of a coercive school leader, pushed into being that way by the demands of central policy, teachers find themselves stripped of their autonomy. Unable to make decisions for themselves, hemmed in by the diktats of the school structure, they find themselves not teachers in the oldest sense of the word, but rather reduced to being cogs in a machine of somebody else’s design.

Great Vision Without Great People is Irrelevant

A few weeks ago someone made me think differently about the word ‘career’. If you break it down, the word ‘care’ pops out. What do you care about? What do you really care about? If you really care about something, you will not only work incredibly hard for it, but stick at it for the long term. In Finland, teaching is seen as a highly prized ‘care-er’, in the same way as being a doctor or a lawyer. Gaining entry into teacher training school in Finland is as prestigious as gaining entry into medical or law school. This means that only the top graduates with a real sense of purpose and mission gain entry into the profession, even having to pass an interview focused on moral commitment while the weakest are weeded out from the very start rather than years down the line.

Now compare this to the UK: how many of our own teachers join the profession because it is truly their vocation or ‘care-er’ in life and how many do so because they see it as their only viable option? Is it right that we have a saying that alludes to exactly this thing: ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’?

However education changes, it cannot change without the commitment and investment of its soldiers on the ground. “Great vision without great people is irrelevant”, as Jim Collins would write in his classic book, Good to Great. Nothing matters more than the decisions that leaders make about how to hire, whom to hire, how to train, and who to fire.

Strike Fighter

For people in their mid 30s to 40s, the film Top Gun may score in your top ten films of all time (or is that just me!). Whilst not everyone knows that Top Gun actually exists (as the U.S. Navy’s Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor programme) fewer still may make the link between the principles of recruitment and training to become part of the best fighter pilot system in the world and that of a world class education system.

Top Gun was formed during the latter stages of the Vietnam War when ariel combat during the mid-1960s saw more American fighter jets being out manoeuvred and shot down than their MiG flying opponents. Top Gun’s mission was to train an elite group of fast jet pilots, the best of the best both, by pushing them to their aerial and physical capabilities by an even more elitist cadre of ‘friendly’ trainers, playing the role of enemy MiG pilots and flying their aircraft. Every day, having been pushed to their limit to see what was capable, using different tactics for different scenarios and all the time gaining high quality feedback to improve, it pushed them into a constant state of development. The results of Top Gun were dramatic. Between 1970-1973 over 12 times as many North Vietnamese fighter jets were being shot down compared to American planes, even though the number of planes in the skies stayed similar to pre-1969 levels.

So What?

So what has this all got to do with education? Well based on the announcement by Anne Milton, I think quite a lot. You see to qualify for Top Gun, you have to be the best of the best, not just academically and technically, but also based on your strength of character, having already been in the top percentile at every phase beforehand – recruitment, selection, officer training, flying training, fast jet training and so on. Attending Top Gun as a student is exceptionally competitive and the most sought after qualification as a pilot. High entry standards do not deter applicants, they are the very reason to apply, gaining entry is synonymous with meeting an ethic of excellence, the opportunity to master the rigorous training syllabus, be taught by the most experienced instructors and be put into the most demanding training scenarios in fighter aviation.

So what is it about the recruitment strategy within the Finnish education system that is attracting exceptionally high calibre teachers with a strong moral purpose and unwavering desire to continuously improve? In 2010, an extraordinary 6,600 potential teachers applied to take only 660 places for trainee primary teachers in Finland – an oversubscription of 900%. They are showing that the bar for entry into teaching can be as high as for those applying for medical and law schools. Chris Woodhead definitely got one thing right: above school buildings, above school equipment, above computers and other progressive technologies, teachers are a school’s most prized assets.  If we want the best, we need to raise the bar, not lower it and to be the best, we need to attract and train teachers Top Gun style. As Collins says, it is about getting “the right people on the bus and sat in the right seat.”

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