Dr Sarah Charles, Head of Discipline - ITE Primary at the University of Derby

The Department for Education has launched a strategy for recruiting and retaining school teachers in state-funded schools, which is based around four key priorities:

  1. School cultures,
  2. Early careers,
  3. Flexible careers and
  4. Attracting new teachers.

Dr Sarah Charles, Head of Discipline - ITE Primary at the University of Derby, discusses the new strategy and whether it will help tackle the nationwide teacher shortage.

Recent recruitment and retention statistics present the teaching profession as a profession in crisis. It is estimated that, in 2017, nearly 35,000 teachers left the profession for reasons other than retirement, with four in 10 teachers leaving within their first year of qualification. 

The Education Support Partnership (2017), highlighted that pressures of workload and a lack of work-life balance were the two top cited reasons for teacher attrition.

Most worryingly, the Office for National Statistics reported that the risk of suicide for primary and nursery schoolteachers in England between 2011 and 2015 was 42% higher than the national average.

These statistics, and the resultant recruitment and retention crisis, are hardly surprising in an era which has seen unrepentant government involvement in education:

  • A standards-driven approach,
  • An increasingly narrow curriculum and teaching to the test,
  • Allied with the pressure of Ofsted ratings,
  • Results and performance in league tables,

It makes the demands of teaching a weight that many simply cannot and do not want to bear. A proposed panacea for this deepening crisis has been launched in the guise of the Department for Education’s Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy, which seeks to address four key barriers.

Barrier 1: The wider context in which headteachers operate can create pressure that leads to excessive workload that distracts teachers from teaching.

This first barrier and its associated aims appears to be a clear acknowledgement of the pressures and unreasonable workload that teachers have had to face. The realignment of the demands of the profession to their intrinsic sense of purpose must be praised. Knowing that there is now to be a single trigger for support/intervention should afford staff a sense of stability and reduce levels of fear.

However, there are a number of threats to this stability and proposed new culture, in which data is supposed to take a back seat.

First, the new Ofsted framework has yet to be endorsed and the three year average league tables, that many school leaders had been arguing for, have not materialised.

The long-standing impact of previous Ofsted inspection frameworks, the associated Ofsted myths, and a standards-driven approach to education, has created mindsets and practices that will take time, and a great deal of trust, to change.  

There is no doubt that leadership will be key in overcoming this barrier to recruitment and retention. Leaders have a responsibility to implement reforms that readdress the work-life balance of their staff, not to add to it out of a misguided belief that behaviour such as staying on the school site until 6pm every day, or taking 120+ books home every night to mark will improve their next Ofsted rating. Such behaviours do not define teacher effectiveness nor do they guarantee pupil progress, but are a sure fire way to perpetuate stress in an already beleaguered profession.

Barrier 2: Not enough early career teachers receive the high quality support they need to build the foundation for a successful career.

Learning to teach is a life-long process. While key content can be covered in year-long training programmes, it is when you have gained your own class that you really start to develop as a teaching profession. For many NQTs, the quality of the support they have received throughout their first year has been variable and, for some, poor. The move to a two-year framework throughout which quality mentoring, CPD, and funded non-contact time, is key to the success of this strategy.

However, the promise of non-contact time necessitates the need for alternative staff to provide this cover and there needs to be staff, with both capacity and the relevant coaching/mentoring competencies, to take on these more robust mentoring roles – will this prove too burdensome for schools and will the £130 million cover these costs?

Embedded within the aims to address this barrier is the implementation of staggered bursaries. These may be viewed as a positive response to reduce the number of ‘bursary tourists’ – those individuals having what is tantamount to a financial fling, using pupils as stepping stones out of debt accrued as a student.

These historical quick fix financial incentives in the form of golden handshakes for shortage subjects have thus far proven largely unsuccessful as the panacea for the recruitment and retention crisis. The introduction of staggered bursaries does shift the focus from recruitment to retention, which should be applauded, however these bursaries remain to be secondary and subject focused. Is this just the case of again throwing money at the problem without addressing the underlying issues?

Responses to this second barrier also point to the provision and use of readymade curriculum resources to support early career teachers. This may be seen as a step in the right direction towards the reduction of workload, but for many teachers this is where they have ownership and can express their creativity.

Who will determine what is considered as a high quality resource and will these resources meet the needs of diverse learners?

Who will really gain from a market explosion of readymade schemes?

Furthermore, will this approach see the return of the ill-fated QCA Schemes of Work?

If not managed appropriately, we may be in danger of promoting short cuts that, long term, may de-professionalise teaching further and create a culture of ‘off-the-shelf pedagogy’.

Barrier 3: A career in teaching does not always adapt to the expertise and lives of teachers.

The third barrier and the associated proposals, including the development of non-leadership classroom qualifications, should prove very attractive to many professionals who want to remain within the classroom and not follow traditional routes into school leadership.

However, we will need to ensure that all groups within the teaching profession have equal access to these opportunities. Will it be the school leaders who act as the gatekeepers to this professional development and the associated career pathways or will teachers apply via independent channels?

Barrier 4: The process to become a teacher is too complicated and burdensome.

Most would agree that the number of routes into teaching has created a complex and confused landscape. Any attempt to simplify the routes and the application process should be welcomed. As UCET (2019) advocate, it is simple – there are three routes… UG, PG and PG salaried, and all communications should reflect these three routes. A one-stop shop should serve to benefit all.

The new strategy does present itself as a promising plan for those entering the profession from 2020 onwards. In the meantime, what is the plan to prevent another two years of falling numbers, particularly in the secondary sector? And what about those already in the profession – how do we ensure that existing teachers do not feel abandoned?

We need to hold onto hope that this £130 million plan is more successful than previous government initiatives, which are estimated to have totalled £555million, and that have clearly done little to prevent a mass exodus from the profession.

Dr Sarah Charles, Head of Discipline - ITE Primary at the University of Derby

DfE Response

The Education Secretary Damian Hinds has made it a priority to attract and keep great teachers through our new recruitment and retention strategy. The strategy includes the Early Career Framework which will be backed by £130m a year in extra funding when fully rolled out. It will also support teachers in their career progression and reducing workload.

In addition to this we are also working hard to ensure that school funding remains at its highest ever level, to support schools in delivering the education that pupils deserve.

The Education Secretary regularly meets head teacher unions, as do other Ministers from the department, in a continued effort to understand the challenges facing teachers and how we can support them as effectively as possible.

A Department for Education spokesperson said:

We are committed to make sure that teaching remains an attractive profession so we can attract and retain more great teachers. That is why we have launched first-ever integrated recruitment and retention strategy that also set out our plans to improve professional development, career progression and flexible working opportunities for teachers.

Since 2017, the UK government has given every local authority in England more money for every pupil in every school, and last summer saw the biggest teacher pay rise in almost 10 years, worth between £800 and £1,366 for classroom teachers and supported by a £508 million government grant.

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