First published last month on Ros’ personal blog.
If you believe, as I do, that there is no better job than that of being a teacher then we should have all been surprised, horrified and baffled when listening to the news this morning that there is a crisis in teacher recruitment. But we weren’t, were we? I think the only surprise was that it was finally making headlines – this has been a long time coming.
Just how did teaching become so unattractive when for so many of us there is absolutely nothing more satisfying than ‘touching and shaping tomorrow’, than seeing young faces light up with the discovery of learning something new, than passing on our passions to the next generation and watching children arrive to us, and adults leave our care and go on to be successful?
There are plenty of people lining up to talk about the various factors that have contributed to the current crisis and all the usual suspects about marking, behaviour, work-life balance, lack of CPD are being trotted out. I think it is infinitely more complex than that; there has been an extremely damaging interplay between the various political agenda which has led to a long-term erosion of vocation and joy.
I read a tweet sometime ago about a teacher in training who arrived home one evening to declare “so the whole system is about keeping OFSTED happy?” How deeply depressing that was to read. I think I replied at the time that it shouldn’t be in a well-led school; but the truth is that for most, if not all, that is what it has been reduced to. I have friends in schools with ‘outstanding’ labels who live in total fear of losing this; I have friends who have devoted their whole lives to working in the most challenging of circumstances transforming the lives of young people and injecting hope into communities who live in fear of losing their jobs; I have friends who are outstanding leaders and visionaries who are respected by the profession and who have lost their jobs, and I listen everyday to managers and leaders saying “we have to do this because of DfE / OFSTED / RSC”.
No-one wants an unaccountable education system, schools who are unable to benchmark themselves, teachers who have no idea how effective they are or underperformance that goes unchallenged – but we have managed to get ourselves so tied up into knots with how we do this that confidence in accountability mechanisms is at an all time low.
The truth is that we really wouldn’t start from here if devising a way of judging school performance; what we have is a system that has emerged through incrementally solving one problem caused by holding schools to account only to cause several more. And that has gone on for years. We are now in the crazy position of being able to clearly see from data that school OFSTED judgments are strongly correlated to the socio-economic backgrounds of the parent body and the prior attainment of the pupils on entry. This hasn’t moved us on from when I first studied educational sociology in the 1970s. Surely any mechanism of judging the quality of educational provision should be able to see deeper than that? But as Dr Becky Allen so ably lays out – if data is flawed and human judgement is flawed that is what we get. Meanwhile the high stakes, the ‘football manager syndrome’ and the fear caused has changed the culture of our schools.
Having always worked in and led schools in what are called ‘challenging circumstances’ I have experienced being praised to the stars and being condemned; I have rejoiced over great student outcomes and despaired over poor ones. We like to think that when we are being praised to the stars and rejoicing over outcomes it is due to our leadership, and that when we are being condemned and despairing over a poor set of results it is due to circumstances beyond our control. The truth for me is simpler: I always did and do my best, my performance as a school leader is not terribly variable and I am reasonably good at it, but working in the contexts I work in I am more exposed and susceptible to the vagaries of changes to examinations and accountability than those in more stable contexts. I have tried so hard to ensure that any schools I lead do not have a fear culture about data and inspection, that instead they concentrate on doing the very best for every child and that the professionals enjoy their professionalism, but it has got increasingly harder to do so as the stakes keep getting raised.
I once naively thought that for colleagues who led schools in more stable contexts this was less of a challenge. I was wrong. I have mentored some amazing young teachers who work in schools with ‘outstanding’ labels who despair over the things they see happening – not for the benefit of children, but in order to ‘keep our outstanding’, and in many cases they are desperate to leave their schools. I have colleagues who lead ‘outstanding’ schools and who haven’t been inspected for many years, who pour over the latest inspection framework and lose sleep before results are published – they live their professional lives in terror of losing the label – and I am sure that transmits to their staff and infects the culture of their schools.
There is no doubt in my mind that schools have improved immeasurably during my 33 years in teaching and I think it is really sad that this is never allowed to be celebrated. No incoming government begins with ‘our schools are the best they have ever been, we need to celebrate that and keep on making them better in an ever-improving cycle. Now tell us how we can best support the profession to do that?’ No, what we get is ‘things aren’t good enough’, ‘we need to name and shame’ etc. This not only damages the culture in schools but it also mitigates against government being able to get kudos for things they have genuinely achieved with educational policy. They set a culture of condemnation and then despair when it comes right back at them.
This culture in schools creates a retention crisis which was once a problem only for ‘challenging’ schools, but is now across the board. It is also an extremely bad piece of marketing the profession to the young people. I am the mother of teenagers who get nothing but positivity about teaching from me and I suspect from their teachers; but young people are not daft – they tell me they don’t want to be doctors because of the university fees, long hours and poor pay before ‘it gets really interesting’, and they tell me they don’t want to be teachers because ‘it is too hard’. If we want another generation of teachers they need to see the joy in the job and they aren’t seeing it in their schools. How do we sell teaching when the culture within which it is displayed seems toxic?
The third part of this dangerous interplay is the funding crisis and I don’t mean salaries. People never entered teaching in their droves for the salary but there was an understanding that public service had other perks – pensions and job security – which have now all but disappeared. But it is not even that which causes the real toxic mix: the funding crisis and having to make deep cuts feeds into the already damaged culture of a school. Most of the ‘nice to haves’ have already disappeared from school budget plans and, as John Tomsett so eloquently described in his TES article, school leaders are now facing extreme challenges.
For a committed young teacher the interplay of the fear culture, the funding crisis and the recruitment crisis create a difficult environment in which to flourish. They are unlikely to be protected from anxiety over the school’s performance against targets, whether that is coming from immediate line managers or senior staff; they will be acutely aware of the ‘closing the gap’ agenda whilst seeing fewer staff and other resources made available to help, and failure to recruit to posts puts all staff under greater pressure to deliver and fill the gaps. In this context is it any wonder we are seeing a retention crisis?
This is how I see the dangerous interplay of accountability, funding and recruitment.
I still believe teaching is the best job in the world and I don’t want to do anything other than lead schools and help school leaders be the very best they can be. I want to inspire headteachers and encourage colleagues to aspire to headship, but I cannot pretend that the challenges are not getting more extreme.
I am glad teacher recruitment has hit the headlines, as it should have done many years ago when we first knew this was a time bomb. I do hope that instead of sticking plasters we see a willingness from government to look deeper at the culture we should be creating in our schools and throughout the system.
Ros McMullen is an Executive Principal of a MAT in the Midlands and is a founding member of the Heads’ Roundtable.