The State of the Teaching Profession

The recruitment, retention, quality and morale of the teaching profession has become a high profile issue over the last couple of weeks. The Observer made the state of teacher morale its front page lead with two pages of further analysis inside. Recent speeches by Michael Gove and Michael Wilshaw have also made headlines. Less well reported was the report of the Education Select Committee on teacher recruitment and retention.

Everyone pays appropriate lip service to the importance of teacher quality. The Select Committee comes up with some wonderfully dramatic figures to show this, telling us that Harvard academics have calculated that “a teacher who is in the top 5 per cent generates about $250,000 or more of additional earnings for their students over their lives in a single classroom of about 28 students”.  Sounds impressive till you work out that that amounts to about $200 a year for each of the students over their lifetimes. Hardly life changing!

Nevertheless, a focus on teachers is very welcome. The reminder that “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers” is long overdue and should remind us that all Michael Gove’s tinkering with school systems don’t address this issue and may well be counter- productive.

At the core of the discontent found in the profession seems to be the feeling that teachers are not respected and are not trusted. The only language ministers seem to be able to use is that of blame and threats and in this they have been joined dramatically by the Chief Inspector. As the Observer put it “Gove has told teachers they are” in the firing line” unless they make sure pupils behave and succeed.

Against this it is encouraging to see Stephen Twigg making the case for raising the status as well as the quality of the teaching profession. It should really be obvious that teaching won’t become a high status profession if it is constantly being denigrated – after all you don’t get good outcomes from pupils if all they get is criticism!

The report of the Select Committee did recognise some of the significant issues. It understood that the downgrading of the university role in initial teacher education is an issue – “on the job training” as the government calls it is hardly the mark of a serious profession. This attitude reflects the government’s view that it wants teachers who do what they’re told and not ones who question and expect to have policy that is grounded in evidence and research.

The Select Committee also recognised the importance of continuing professional development and quotes some interesting examples of good practice at home and abroad. It also offers some interesting thoughts about alternative career structures.

Where it falls down however is in thinking through how its ideas might actually work. So, for example, in relation to CPD, it ignores the collapse of established structures for the delivery of CPD. Local advisory services are disappearing. University departments are under assault. Teaching schools are a good idea but there is no plan to ensure national coverage. School to school support is being undermined by being left to the random and self-interested decisions of schools and academy chains. What’s left is an incoherent jumble of competing providers with no guarantee that teachers will be able to access what they need. Suggesting the re-creation of something very like the general Teaching Council which the government has just abolished is hardly a credible answer.

Then finally the committee falls for the old chestnut of performance related pay. In doing so it shows up its failure to really understand the nature of teaching and school life. They want a “pay system which rewards those teachers who add the greatest value to pupil performance.”  Presumably then, you would have to measure the performance of every pupil in every subject every year so you can work out every teachers’ added value. Then perhaps make an adjustment to allow for those teaching more challenging pupils and for those where parents (and private tutors) are really making the difference. Then to allow for, for example, the science teachers whose pupils have a poor maths teacher or the history teacher whose pupils have a bad English teacher. And so the bureaucratic nightmare goes on.

To be fair, the issues that the Select Committee identifies are often real even if their answers lack imagination and rigour. But it doesn’t go to the heart of the matter which is our lack of respect for professionalism in education. If we want to match the performance of the most successful countries, we need people to go into a profession that they can feel proud of – not one constantly being blamed for every problem in our society.


One Comment on “The State of the Teaching Profession”

  1. Paul says:

    Whenever I read about a “new” idea like performance pay, I ask myself if they could possibly have been thinking of how this would work in the case of a Reception class teacher and where they think the teaching assistants might fit in. Or a teacher working with autistic kids. Or the teacher appointed after a string of supply staff. The trouble with all “bonus” systems is that unless you are a selling soap, it never works. If the bonus is high (like bankers) it distorts decision-making and if it’s low it is treated as a joke. I’m not the first to wonder how performance pay would work for MPs…