This article was originally published on 4 July 2022. It has been republished in light of the news that teachers across England and Wales will take strike action on seven dates in February and March 2023.
“Sir, not you as well”, cried Kaihan. “That’s five of my 11 teachers.”
I had just told my Year 10 English class that I, like so many others, will not be returning to the classroom in September. I’ve been teaching for five years, having trained through Teach First (a charity that develops and supports teachers) shortly after graduating from university, and have ostensibly ticked a lot of boxes in my short time in the classroom: my classes’ grades are good, I get on well with my colleagues and students, and I help to lead our successful sixth form. But this year, thousands of teachers like me have chosen to step off the breakneck treadmill of state-sector teaching, and the shortfall for September looks brutal. If the government is serious about solving this crisis, it will need to take responsibility for how it has led us into this mess.
Although the government’s choice of social mobility commissioner – “Britain’s strictest headmistress”, Katharine Birbalsingh – suggests that the Department for Education believes that it prizes experienced, dedicated teachers, the way that the sector has been treated recently tells a different story. Failures over school closures, virtual learning, grades, capital funding and tutoring have brought leaders to their knees, with rank-and-file teachers left to pick up the pieces. Those that do well quickly get swept into poorly defined positions of middle leadership long before they’ve perfected their classroom practice in a desperate bid to retain them. This leaves even more inexperienced teachers to pick up a greater share of classroom teaching. Trainees are now working within a new Early Career Framework that they and their mentors agree doesn’t meet their needs.
All the while, schoolchildren – particularly in deprived communities – are working through the aftershocks of a pandemic that bereaved them by their thousands, interrupted their learning and did untold damage to their personal development. With social services, children’s mental health services and Universal Credit all facing devastating cuts, teachers have been left fighting battles on their students’ behalf that extend way beyond their academic remit – even as exam boards hike grade boundaries and Ofsted slashes “Outstanding” ratings. While workload has soared, the possibility of real-terms pay cuts has communicated to teachers that they are worth a fraction of what they used to be; while junior lawyers and bankers command huge starting salaries, some teachers are reduced to making use of food banks to get by. Amid the threat of strikes in the autumn, any attempt by the government to guilt-trip teachers into staying in their posts should be treated as the insult it is: even the teenagers I teach understand how outrageous it is for the government to force teachers to choose between their own wellbeing and that of their students.
It is impossible for teachers to engage with the strategic, long-term thinking necessary to guide students effectively if mere survival feels like a battle. I’m hoping that my break from the classroom will be temporary, because the solutions to the recruitment and retention crisis are staring the government in the face. It’s just a question of how many children’s life chances they’ll sacrifice before they accept the truth.