Excellence takes time. It isn’t an instant thing. This is what frustrates me about one of the debates on the future of teaching. Most discussion seems to centre on the ‘recruitment crisis’ in teaching – particularly in some key subjects. There is nowhere near enough consideration given to the retention of teachers. The government shout about the £1.3bn recruitment programme they have rolled out but little thought seems to be given to retaining the teachers we already have – the ones who have, at considerable expense to the state, trained and then taught, gaining experience and excellence over the years. For me this is the crisis facing the UK teaching profession.
The teaching profession in the UK is relatively young – particularly in the primary sector – and whilst there will always be a certain turnaround in staffing, it has been reported that over 40% of teachers are considering leaving the profession in the next five years. There will be a range of teachers in this group – from those who have only recently qualified and maybe have realised that teaching just isn’t for them to those with years of experience at the chalk face who have just had enough. The experience of these teachers is nigh on impossible to replace. You just cannot replace the subject and pedagogical knowledge of a teacher with say 10 to 20 years service with an NQT, however keen and innovative that NQT may be.
When I started teaching in 1995 the accountability structure wasn’t really there. It did need tightening. However in my 22 years as a teacher I believe this has gone to the other extreme and this is a major influence in teachers leaving the profession. Our high stakes accountability structures within the teaching profession are now almost on a par with the management structure within professional football – the only difference is that when managers are sacked they usually have the safety net of a decent pay off. The spectre of OfSTED lingers over every school. The one thing that could significantly reduce the retention problem is a root and branch change to OfSTED and the high stakes culture it engenders. The fact that my own school breathes a sigh of relief every Wednesday afternoon in the knowledge that they won’t be calling this week is wrong, wrong, WRONG! How can high quality organisations develop positively with this spectre in the background?
The mental health of our pupils is becoming a popular topic and should not be ignored but what is not as prevalent in the media is the mental health and wellbeing of the teaching profession. I suspect that the number of teachers suffering mental health problems is significant and rising and is another major influence in retaining good teachers. Mental health is a difficult one as many will try and mask it or hide it. Very few people are open if they have mental health issues – particularly teachers. I am a mental health sufferer and am on medication to help me. I am sure than 95% of my issues stem from my work as a teacher in an ever more demanding workplace. I’m not convinced this is working effectively and certainly not a long term solution and my fear is that, sooner rather than later, I will be one of those who will leave the profession. I have 22 years experience and (I think) am considered a very good mathematics teacher. I still potentially have another 20 years of service ahead of me but I don’t think my mental health will last another 20 years in the current climate. The day of reckoning for me is near and I suspect the only thing keeping me doing what I am doing is that I’m not really sure what else I could do and how else I can pay my mortgage.
Whilst I am still passionate about education and the good it can do, my love of teaching is diminishing. If (or when) I do leave the profession, my school will probably replace me with an NQT who will be considerably cheaper and will help square the circle that is the budget issues in mine (and many other) schools. However what they cannot replace is the experience I’ve built up over the years, or the classroom management strategies I’ve developed which help my classrooms be calm learning environments, or the understanding of how my students learn and the misconceptions they have or of how to prepare students for their high stakes examinations at GCSE or A level.
My appeal in writing this piece is not self-aggrandising or for my future for I suspect I now have a very short shelf life left in the profession – the damage has been done to my self-worth and self-confidence – but for those who will come after me. We have a highly professional and dedicated teaching profession in the UK and until those in positions of responsibility start thinking more about those currently in the profession than those who are about to start, the problems in education will accelerate.
My plea to the secretary of state, the chief of OfSTED and to all who have decision making in education policy is simple – start listening to the teachers in the profession. The vast majority of us are not reactionary and we understand the need for a level of scrutiny and accountability. We want the best education system in the world as well but, to paraphrase a certain football commentator, “you can’t achieve this with just NQTs”. There is a vast amount of experience in the profession that could disappear quickly and for ever – experience that has taken years to develop and cannot be replaced easily or quickly.