Non-Teachers Week is a chance for Labour members and supporters who work in education, but not as a teacher, to express their views. If you wish to join in, details are here.
Becky Allen is Director of Education Datalab, a research organisation that provides quantitative analysis to support those leading education policy and practice. An economist by training, she was an academic at UCL Institute of Education and before that a secondary school teacher in north London.
I am one of a battalion of former teachers perching on the edge of the education system, peering in, commenting on what we see and hoping the work we do lightly touches the experiences of school children. We are the teacher trainers, researchers, policy makers, data managers, product development and sales people, inspectors and journalists.
Every so often I look around at us former-teacher-edu-specialists and wonder: ‘Is there a parallel world where people like us stayed in teaching?’
Classroom teaching should be the pinnacle of a career, the thing we all aspire to do for as long as we can manage, and the thing we look back nostalgically on as the best times of our lives after we leave. Great sports people don’t aspire to be the coaches, the commentators or the uniform marketing guys. Why are so many of us more satisfied with our careers outside the classroom than we were with those within?
I ponder my own experience of the classroom and decision to leave as I research early career attrition using the School Workforce Census and other large datasets. In this research I hope we can better understand the extent to which school, departmental and staff peer context shapes an individual’s propensity to leave the profession. For now, I think this is the most important question in education research. It is only by increasing retention that we can, on the margin, improve the quality of new recruits to teacher training. Increased selectivity of the profession might help raise its status and slowly improve the quality of the teacher workforce. And with a better quality workforce, many things become possible. I wish politicians would spend more time thinking about teacher retention and less time talking about structures which have marginal impacts on the daily experiences of children.
All teachers need similar things to make the profession an attractive place to stay – good initial training and CPD, a school ethos with good behaviour management in place to make teaching possible, politicians and headteachers introducing policies that reduce, rather than increase, workload. But for those of us who have drifted into associated professions, I like to think that some of us might have remained teachers had there been a way for us to combine our new careers with our old careers. And, just as medical consultants combine research with practice, I think the teaching profession would be healthier if the ‘expert thinkers’ remained on the inside.
The first prerequisite for this to happen needs to be the creation of a teacher working environment that is surrounded by enquiring minds and a systematic approach to improving practice. This was missing for me during my PGCE course, in my PGCE placement schools and in the school I taught at. One of the joys of my job now is that I get to spend time with so many of the organisations that the left of the Labour Party would rather didn’t exist – Teach First, ARK Schools, and so on. The people who work in these organisations are deeply engaged with developing and testing new ways to improve what they do. I have just returned from Teach First’s annual Impact Conference that gives their brand new recruits to the profession and others a tiny exposure to an array of interesting thinkers, researchers and practitioners. Brand new teachers can’t develop new ideas and engage in research projects around assessment, pedagogy or curriculum in their first year, but the conference gives them a window into an inspiring world with which they can re-engage when they are ready. By the end of my PGCE I remained utterly unaware that this world existed. I assumed that the only way I could learn how to do a better job as a teacher was through years of hard graft and personal trial and error. Of course, the world of social media and web forums allows individual teachers to reach out beyond their direct teaching colleagues in a way that wasn’t possible when I was a teacher. If twitter, blogging, researchED, Teach Meets, and all the other grassroots activities were available to me, perhaps my career would have taken a slightly different path.
The second prerequisite is that we find a way for teachers to work part-time, leaving a couple of days a week to do other things. Primary schools now seem to manage this well through job shares. The person responsible for timetabling in secondary schools often still finds this very difficult to accommodate and we lose great teachers with other life pressures or ambitions as a result. It isn’t an impossible barrier to overcome. Perhaps I’ll ask the Secretary of State to establish a Commission or appoint a Tsar to establish how to balance the needs of students against a desire to have teachers who only deliver 14 or 15 hours of lessons a week.