“Why are you a teacher, Mr Chan?” is a question I am often asked by my students. You may expect me to respond by affirming my commitment to guiding the next generation, a yearning desire to share my knowledge and experience, or perhaps just simply a deep love of my subject. However, rather than expecting such lofty answers, underlying the question is often a sense of exclamation or even of morbid curiosity: Why would you even consider being a teacher in a state school?
Such low perception of teaching is not intended to be an insult. Rather, it is an accurate observation of the reality of overwork and underappreciation. Compounded by the colossal funding cuts which many schools will face because by the government’s new funding formula, these problems are at the heart of the current teaching crisis, on which the Education select committee published a report at the end of last month.
In conjunction with fast-paced top-down structural and curricular changes, the decade-long cuts to pay and conditions, ever-escalating paperwork and workload have pushed many teachers out of the profession, and left many more still demoralised. It is not difficult to understand why nearly half of all newly qualified teachers plan to quit within the next five years.
As the Education select committee’s report makes clear, this situation – especially in the context of massive financial pressure on schools, in tandem with a bulge in the number of young people – is not tenable. The teaching crisis is leading to an ever-higher churn rate, with more and more less-experienced teachers in the classroom. Ultimately, this will only result in an inferior state education system for all.
However, the teaching crisis is not inevitable. The Education select committee has recommended capping the number of working hours, whilst separately, teaching unions have advocated better monetary benefits. These have included the restoration of the national pay scale and automatic pay progression, as well as pay increases. Naturally, these reforms demand a need for the government to abandon its plans to cut funding for schools.
Yet, regardless of their good intentions, these measures fall short of addressing the root cause of the teaching crisis – that is, the government’s disgraceful lack of respect for the profession.
The government has a micromanaging tendency. Masses of paperwork, administrative tasks and tick-box exercises are carried out merely to satiate bureaucratic whims. Together with the pace of centrally-imposed curricular and structural changes, many teachers find a job that should be inspiring, grinding.
One way to reverse this top-down tendency would be to equip the Chartered College of Teaching or a similar body with the powers to scrutinise and ultimately veto any executive decisions put forward by the Department of Education. This new “education House of Lords” would establish a level of consensus which will ultimately lead to balanced, meaningful and useful reforms.
This radical reconception of teachers as autonomous professionals must be guaranteed through a suitably high barrier to entry. This can be easily achieved starting with the reinstatement of compulsory Qualified Teacher Status to teach, and then later, making entry into teaching more competitive.
Increasing the prestige of teachers in the long-term – like the high statuses enjoyed by their Finnish and East Asian peers – is key to attracting and retaining great educators. This could mean directing rewards to teachers who have shown a long-term commitment to state education.
Such rewards could include optional sabbaticals open to all state school teachers for every seven years of service (meaning that a teacher can have up to five sabbaticals in a teaching career). These sabbaticals, which could be devoted to university modules or even one-year degrees, would be opportunities for teachers to keep up-to-date in their subject areas. As well as renewing subject knowledge, it would demonstrate to students the merit of lifelong education.
It may be possible that the reforms suggested are not feasible, nor even applicable because of the sheer pace of change. Nevertheless, any policy predicated upon the underlying principles argued for in this piece – heightened prestige rooted in professional autonomy and recognition – would inevitably do much to alleviate the teaching crisis.
Cllr Jumbo Chan is a Labour councillor in the London Borough of Brent. He teaches at an inner London comprehensive school. He is also the Vice Chair of the Brent Council Teachers’ Joint Consultative Committee.