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Where are all the teachers going?

British education is in a sorry state

Artillery Row

Teaching is a peculiarly solitary profession. A teacher stands up in front of a class, alone and, for an hour or so, it is up to him. There might be a solid transfer of important skills, with young people quietly applying themselves to learning. Or there might be havoc — insults and chairs thrown, fights, abuse. You and I have limited control over this. We should nonetheless care very much about the outcomes — for the good of the young people and the good of the nation.

Roughly speaking, we need to do three things to ensure more learning and less fisticuffs. First, we need to hire the right people, and keep them in the profession. Second, we need ways to monitor what is happening, provide support when needed and help teachers without the right skills find other employment. Finally, we need to ensure that what the lessons are working towards are in line with what we need as a country.

In each area we have screwed up. According to the government:

the overall number of qualified teachers in state-funded schools has not kept pace with increasing pupil numbers. This means the pupil to teacher ratio (number of pupils divided by number of qualified teachers) has increased from 17.6 in November 2010 to 18.5 in 2021. In addition, the teacher vacancy rate has risen over this period.

It is not as if things were outstanding in 2010. It was already a mess; now it is a disaster. For example, recruitment of Physics teachers in 2022/23 was an outrageous 83 per cent below target. If you want to know what that means in practice, I know of a school where the entire maths department left last year. No doubt it would help to pay teachers more, but the same website highlights the core of the issue: full time secondary teachers report working over 49 hours per week. For primary teachers the number is over 52 hours; higher than for any country other than Japan.

Ofsted simply forces schools to become good at passing inspections

In terms of oversight, we have the unholy triumvirate of league tables, Ofsted and Multi Academy Trusts (MATs). League tables give the nod to a very modern fixation with measurement: if we assess every pupil, every year, surely we can see who is doing well and who is failing. In practice, this drives schools to focus on the measures, often to the detriment of the pupils. Poor school managers use the measures of a stick to beat staff with. Ofsted — which at face value seems like a good idea — simply forces schools to spend huge amounts of time and energy becoming good at passing inspections. Many of the 49 (or 52) hours above are spent ticking boxes, dealing with “deep dives”, or practice inspections, or inspections themselves. Do not be fooled that this actually improves the value of education. 

It also adds a monstrous level of stress, as we saw in the tragic recent case of a headteacher who killed herself after a bad Ofsted result. Indeed, the stress of Ofsted inspections has been cited as a factor in at least ten deaths. Granted, there will always be some amount of stress attached to accountability — but if that accountability does not add value, then stress is all that it achieves.

Finally, it is entirely unclear to me what value is added by the MATs, a curious creation of Labour and Conservative/LibDem governments. When schools were under the responsibility of a Local Education Authority, at least there was some hope of local, democratic accountability. The MATs seem shadowy and unaccountable. They suck resources and funding out of the system, pay their CEOs mind-bogglingly well, without seeming to contribute anything.

Michael Gove, in particular, has a lot to answer for

To ensure schools are pointing in the right direction, we have the National Curriculum. The history of this goes back around 60 years, and — to be fair — it is not a total disaster. It has taken a very long time to get right, with many false turns along the way. It does seem to have reduced space for creativity, particularly in infant school. In exams and qualifications, we have the Exam Boards. I am at a loss as to what has happened here. Where once we had many well respected organisations, we now have a reduced set of five exam boards, competing amongst themselves for “business” from schools, which, in practice, often comes down to “who can create the easiest exams”

We can blame much of the above on our politicians — indeed, we can blame much on Conservative politicians. Michael Gove, in particular, has a lot to answer for. Conservatives might have applauded his lefty-bashing antics as the Secretary of State for Education but the most significant enduring feature of his legacy is MATs. Ensuring that taxes go towards the lavish salaries of their executives rather than textbooks and computers doesn’t sound quite as “based”.

Still, in a democracy, political acts reflect the desires of the society, and so we all share some blame. For too long we have complained about “those long school holidays” and painted teachers as workshy. We need to care not about how many hours teachers work, but how good a job they do. 

For too long we have whittled away at the authority of educators. A century ago one respected a teacher just because they were a teacher. Now respect has to be “earned”, normally by putting on an “edutainment, and the teacher themselves is blamed if this does not work. In this direction lies anarchy.

In the context of the economic downturn of the mid-1970s, James Callaghan’s 1976 Ruskin College speech reflected growing public concerns that the UK was not being well-served by its schools. 

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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