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The teaching temps

Even if the UK government can get people into teaching, they are unlikely to stay.

Toby Marshall

Topics Politics

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Those who can, teach…while working out the exit strategy.

On the basis of recent headlines, you could be forgiven for thinking that the basics of UK schooling are spinning out of the New Labour government’s control. The academic year began in autumn 2001 with warnings of an exodus of teachers from the classroom. Now, with the annual teachers’ union conferences finishing on a shrill note, there is talk of an uprising within the profession.

So is there a danger that schools could be returning to what Estelle Morris, secretary of state for education and skills, describes as the ‘dark ages of dispute and conflict’? And are the problems of teacher recruitment, retention and morale likely to derail New Labour’s attempts to ‘transform’ compulsory education?

There is an issue about teacher numbers. Provisional statistics released by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) indicate that, between 1995 and 2001, demand for teachers outstripped supply, leading to a reported vacancy rate of 1.3 percent in English schools (1). Comparatively, this is higher than many other public services – but it hardly suggests that the system is about to collapse.

The DfES figures also demonstrate that vacancies vary dramatically by discipline and region. In Yorkshire and Humberside, for example, as little as 0.5 percent of teaching posts are unfilled, while in inner London the equivalent figure is as high as 4.3 percent. Secondary school vacancies range from 0.5 percent for teachers of history to 2.1 percent for maths teachers.

These figures indicate that there are shortages in certain areas and subjects, and that pressure has increased on the labour market in general. Three studies commissioned by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Times Educational Supplement (TES) throw some light on this trend.

Martin Johnson’s study for the IPPR argues that the current shortages are primarily a product of state funding methods (2). He shows that while student numbers increased throughout the 1990s, funding levels restricted the number of new positions that schools were able to create, leading to a growth in the pupil/staff ratio. When New Labour was elected in 1997, and increased school budgets, headteachers quite sensibly used these additional funds to create new teaching positions. Unfortunately, however, many of these could not be filled, as the previous Conservative administration had limited the supply of new teachers by curbing the number of teacher training places.

Johnson’s analysis suggests that government will, in the short term, be able to ease some of the pressure on schools by increasing the flow of new recruits into the profession. But in the medium term the government is likely to face a more serious challenge. While pupil numbers are set to decline from 2005, any reduction in the required numbers of staff that will result from this will be offset by a significant increase in the numbers of teachers due for retirement. Currently, between 3000 and 3500 teachers per year retire, but this is set to increase to 12,400 per year between 2005 and 2009 and 17,300 between 2010 and 2014.

So the government will need to both recruit and retain far greater numbers of teachers if it is to maintain – let alone reduce – the current pupil/staff ratio. In this context, the study by Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson for the NUT makes for particularly interesting reading.

The NUT study investigated the dynamics of teacher resignations within the sector of state-funded compulsory education. After surveying 428 English and Welsh schools in the summer term of 2001, the study estimated that annual resignation rates have tripled since New Labour assumed power, reaching the equivalent of up to 70,500 full-time teachers per annum, or 15.8 percent of the total teaching staff (3).

Smithers and Robinson also investigated the destinations of those who had resigned. They found that more than half of those who had resigned had then taken a position in another school; and a relatively small, but increasing, proportion of staff are leaving education to pursue a different career.

While the NUT study indicates that there is not, at this moment in time, a mass exodus of teachers from the classroom, it also demonstrates that New Labour’s leadership has coincided with increased movement of teachers both within and out of the system. Which suggests that for all its grandstanding about the importance of education, New Labour has failed to engage the commitment of teachers either to their own schools or to the teaching profession in general.

The waning of commitment among teachers is further illustrated by a study recently published in the Times Educational Supplement (4). This study found that, contrary to popular perception, the vast majority of teachers are rather satisfied with their jobs and that many, particularly those living outside of London, perceive themselves to be ‘well off’. At the same time, however, the study found that up to 40 percent of the 500 respondents interviewed in both public and private schools expected to have left teaching within five years, indicating that many teachers do not see themselves as staying with the profession for the long haul.

Aware of the problems of teacher recruitment and retention, New Labour has introduced a number of new initiatives. For recruitment, these financial incentives include ‘golden hellos’, where trainees are paid a bonus after an induction period, training bursaries, and ‘golden handcuffs’, where newly qualified teachers receive a bonus after a period of active service.

But while recent statistics indicate that these gilt-edged incentives have had some success in attracting people to teaching, they will do nothing to motivate staff in the long term. For this reason, New Labour has launched a range of ‘modernising’ initiatives that aim to make teaching an engaging long-term occupation.

New Labour’s 10-year modernisation plan was recently outlined in a pamphlet by Estelle Morris, in which she argues that there is about to be a ‘a new era of trust in our professionals on the part of government’. To this end, she sketches out a two-pronged strategy (5).

The government is planning to ‘remodel’ the work of teachers. In particular, it will increase the number of ancillary workers, including classroom assistants, administrators and learning mentors (who counsel apparently disaffected pupils), in order that teachers might spend more time addressing their core tasks. At the same time, the government has pushed for a greater role to be played by ICT (Information and Communications Technology) in assisting teachers in their administrative tasks, and even assuming some of their teaching responsibilities.

In addition to this, the government has developed a number of measures designed to address teacher morale. These include a recently introduced system of performance-related pay, which, it is claimed, provides teachers with an added incentive to remain within the profession, and to excel. And the government has stated that it will continue to dismantle the National Curriculum, on the basis that this will enhance levels of professional autonomy by giving schools more choice in terms of subjects they offer pupils (see Fragmenting education, by Toby Marshall and David Perks).

But even if ICT and ancillary staff could assist teachers with the bureaucracy that New Labour’s other educational initiatives have generated, it would be a mistake to believe that these could have a significant impact upon the number of required teachers. The great bulk of the teacher’s week involves the direct delivery of content through personal interaction – a relationship that cannot be reproduced on the cheap through the use of assistants, who by definition lack the necessary subject knowledge; or through ICT, which lacks the human factor that is so vital to the engagement of pupils at this level (see From ABC to ICT, by Helene Guldberg).

And while any enhancement of teachers’ pay should be welcomed, New Labour’s morale-boosting strategies seem likely to weaken the already provisional commitments of those who work within the sector.

With performance-related pay, for example, personal financial gain is being used as an incentive for teachers. But this assumes that teachers have no spontaneous commitment to fulfilling their professional obligations, and that they need another inducement, in the form of hard cash. This initiative seems bound to encourage teachers to view their work in increasingly narrow terms.

Similarly, the government’s relaxation of the National Curriculum has been justified on the basis that it will allow schools to become more responsive to the wants of pupils. But again, this alters teachers’ relationship to their work, by suggesting that customer choice is the highest value that the educational enterprise has to offer. It’s unlikely to set the heart racing.

New Labour’s pragmatic, market-oriented approach to the management of education risks losing sight of the profound social and cultural commitment that education represents – summed up in that often-used phrase, ‘winning their hearts and minds’. A desperate, cash-in-your-pocket approach is unlikely to inspire those who work within the profession, or retain those who have already been recruited. And it remains unclear as to how New Labour’s attempts to ‘remodel’ the profession through the use of ICT and assistants will be anything more than a distraction from the medium-term problems of staffing.

But it also seems unlikely that there will be a great teachers’ uprising, as while there is no evidence that teachers are subscribing to New Labour’s agenda, there is no indication that they are opposing it. This should come as no surprise, given that many in the profession already seem to be working on how to get out of it.

Toby Marshall teaches film, journalism and media in Essex.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

(1) Figures available from the DfES website

(2) Making Teacher Supply Book-Proof (249k .pdf)

(3) Teachers Leaving (.pdf), National Union of Teachers

(4) Lifestyle survey, TES, 1 February 2002

(5) Professionalism and Trust – The Future of Teacher and Teaching, DfES, November 2001

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Topics Politics

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