Lowering expectations is not the key to recruitment and retention

Government changes to entry level skills tests for teachers will simply lower the expectations on recruits without thinking carefully about why they leave. The good news is- we can all do more to encourage our colleagues to stay, right from our own desks.

We are all used to the recruitment and retention statistics by now- the system is losing more teachers than it can train and 45% of newly qualified teachers say they plan to leave the profession in the next five years. The government’s latest move to tackle the recruitment crisis has been widely welcomed- they have scrapped fees and bans on retaking the key numeracy and literacy tests for trainees in a hope this will boost teacher supply. This is likely to have the intended effect; in October 2017 that 4,844 candidates failed these in 2015-2016, locking out a huge swathe of recruits. However, it misses the long term links between high entry standards and the ability of a system to get, and keep, the best recruits.

As far as I’m aware, there’s no direct evidence that literacy and numeracy tests make for high quality teachers; however, there was a good deal of evidence that a system which places high standards on entry to the profession and matches that with strong rewards can see a dramatic increase in the general quality of the teachers in schools. This was a central part of Gove’s reform efforts which is now being rolled back in the face of reality. However, this doesn’t mean the strategy was misguided, it was simply incomplete. If a profession wants to consistently attract the best it needs to keep them in the system and this is what the Gove reforms neglected. Far too little attention has been paid to rewarding teachers for staying the profession.

There are reasons to be optimistic though- the government doesn’t have to spend more money to find the answer. 70% of teachers want to stay in the profession because they love the job. We don’t need dramatic spending commitments on teacher salaries to tap into that motivation. We also know that, in some areas, up to 90% of teacher’s report feeling unable to cope with workload. Good professionals inspire younger teachers but once they reach their fifth year of teaching (typically) the pay off between mounting admin tasks and the joy of teaching starts to fade. If the government wants to boost the profession then, instead of lowering its standards for entry, it should tackle this problem- promises to limit exam reform are a start.

Another reason to be optimistic is that this isn’t an area where schools need to wait on government; leadership can have a big impact on workload. Thinking critically about data management in a school can transform the hours teachers do. The first step is to tackle the assumption that data is about numbers: lesson observations, work reviews, Faculty reviews, learning walks- these are all forms of data that create workload for teachers. If you hear someone say, ‘the school only collects data from teachers three times a year’ and the above are being ignored then politely let them know what constitutes data collection.

The second step is to tackle the assumption that the senior leadership team are in charge of how much data is being collected and analysed. Often data ‘mushrooms’ as policies and interventions proliferate, and as teachers we place pressures on our colleagues without thinking it about it. When teachers take on extra responsibilities- within a department or whole school- how do they fulfil these roles; do they have access to the data they need easily? Many teachers feel they need to collect data from colleagues that has already been placed somewhere else; many are simply passing workload onto a team full in the knowledge that it is not purposeful themselves. Schools need to look at the total impact of all the data collection in a school, have a strong understanding of what pressures are being created and who they fall on to.

So, here are two good questions that could help protect teacher time:

  • What is the purpose of collecting this data?
  • What impact will it create?

If you can’t think of a demonstrable impact on teaching and learning, or on children’s welfare more generally, then don’t collect the data. That way, we can all help ensure that more teachers stay in the profession.

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