My heart sank when I read about the Government’s ‘secret plan’ to spend £300,000 on recruiting Maths and Physics teachers from Poland and the Czech Republic in an attempt to plug a shortage in schools. Whilst I understand why such a plan is in place, it smacks of a last-ditch effort to solve the teacher recruitment crisis in these subjects. Sadly, it is also evidence that the initiatives over the last twenty years to recruit more mathematicians and physicists into teaching have not worked.
‘Golden hello’ payments of up to £20,000 to tempt maths and physics graduates into teaching have not produced the numbers needed. Neither has Teach First – a programme to attract top graduates into teaching and fast-track them to leadership jobs in schools. Indeed, some might say that the latter has been a spectacularly expensive initiative, when you consider that 57 percent of teachers recruited through the scheme drop out of teaching within three years. What other publicly funded programme would still be receiving taxpayers’ money with such shocking attrition rates?
But the bigger question here, is why is it that neither money nor the promise of promotion is bringing more graduates into the profession, let alone hanging on to them once they are in?
The answer is pretty simple: teaching is tough! No longer is it the envy of other professions; the supposed 3pm finishes are now known to be myth, and the longer holidays far from compensate from the thought of managing the challenging behaviour in some schools. Most people now admit that they “couldn’t be a teacher these days”. The government’s recent plan, to target teachers from non-English speaking countries, will also fail, because most teachers from Poland or the Czech Republic will not cut it in our classrooms.
The harsh reality is that teachers from non-English speaking countries often struggle to teach in mainstream British schools. Many Eastern European teachers, for example, rely on an instructive teaching style and demand utter compliance from their pupils. This rigidity of approach comes a cropper when boredom in the classroom sets in and children start to ‘test’ the teacher’s skill at managing behaviour. This is when the language barrier becomes a particular difficulty for a foreign teacher to overcome, as more challenging pupils seize on any perceived weaknesses in their teachers. Mispronunciation of words, grammatical errors, slower expression or reaction can often be a catalyst for children to scratch at a teacher further, often resulting in a lesson which spirals out of control.
That’s not to say that many teachers from non-English speaking countries cannot improve their craft and succeed in British schools. Some will, but most will not. Above all else, including money and promotion, teachers just want to be able to teach. If they cannot do this effectively, for whatever reason, they are more likely to leave. The government know this, but such is the level of the recruitment crisis in Maths and Physics, that any ‘short-term’ fix will obviously do for now.
But, this sticking-plaster ‘solution’ should be a wake-up call for the entire education sector. It’s not just for the government to mend leaking taps in Maths and Physics, only for others to spring open in Languages and ICT. It’s for the entire education sector to come together to fix the boiler in our teacher recruitment crisis, and schools and Multi Academy Trusts should take some ownership of this issue.
Multi Academy Trusts should work far closer with universities and offer teaching experience as part of undergraduate courses, especially in shortage subjects. This will sow the teaching seed far earlier in undergraduates’ minds, as well as help schools to get their foot in the door to tempt more students into teaching.
More schools should also work closer with educational organisations with expertise in recruitment. Premier Pathways, an education organisation with roots in teacher recruitment, is leading the way in this area, and is achieving success in recruiting graduate teaching assistants into schools for a year before they become qualified teachers. Much can also be learnt from the independent school sector in how they attract and retain graduates and career changers into their schools. Many independent schools have a successful tradition of ‘growing their own’ teachers, and are savvy and highly pro-active in recruiting high calibre graduates directly into their schools.
Heads should think far in advance of their staffing needs, so that they are not reactively hiring when a hole suddenly appears in their staffing structure. Good head teachers do this – they seek talent often before a teaching position is available, and many will create assistant teacher positions and train them up to teach, well before the inevitable gap appears in their Maths or Physics departments. Expensive? Yes! But not as expensive as a class with no teacher.
Stemming the tide of teachers leaving the profession must also play a part in helping slow the recruitment crisis. Fewer teachers will leave the profession if they are more skilled in managing classroom behaviour, which should be far more of a focus during teacher training.
But we are not at the end of the road just yet, as I believe there is still work that can be done to increase the number of home-grown maths and physics teachers. The solution though will require head teachers to be more innovative and pro-active in their recruitment, and stop expecting the government to solve the crisis.