A teacher recruitment crisis is looming. Pupil numbers are growing rapidly and schools are struggling to find applicants to fill vacancies. A rising sense of panic appears to be gripping the Department for Education. The more we hear ministerial denials, the more concern seems to grow. Even government spin doctors are having difficulty in ‘spinning away’ reality. For once, teacher union boss, Dr Mary Bousted, is on solid ground when she states: “The fact is that head teachers up and down the country can’t get teachers in the core subjects.”
Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has finally woken up to the need to do something. Her attempt to woo prospective teachers is, though, starkly at odds with the requirements of the job. She has told The Daily Telegraph that teachers “should not be expected to spend hours marking schoolwork or answer emails after 5pm.”
Whatever she may have heard elsewhere, most dedicated teachers would tell Ms Morgan that tea-time ‘clocking off’ simply does not fit with being an effective professional. Teaching is as far from being a 9 to 5 job as it is possibile to get. In many ways, it is more a way of life than a job. This can prove tough for some teachers, especially at the beginning of their careers, even if long holidays do provide some compensation.
Although most of us have attended school, few people outside the teaching profession understand what the job is really like. Secretaries of State and their ministerial team are no exception. They lack front line experience as surely as the defence ministry mandarins who determine the resources and rules of engagement for the remnants of our armed forces.
Rather like the synchronised swimmer, much of the energy expended by teachers goes unseen. Even pupils tend only to see the finished product – the classroom performance. The preparation and follow-up involved goes largely unseen. It was ever thus and ever will be. There are no short cuts to mastering subject content, planning how to teach it effectively to a range of abilities and, then, picking up the pieces for those pupils who fall behind while, at the same time, ensuring that the most able are suitably stretched. Alongside all of this there should be plays, concerts, sporting fixtures and so on to organise and run. And then, especially in maintained schools, there is the paperwork, the bureaucracy, the form filling and box ticking; much of it so unnecessary.
Ms Morgan will claim that she has consulted widely with teachers before giving her early ‘clock-off’ advice. If so, she has misunderstood the responses and the nature of the job. Teaching quality and pupil learning would collapse if her advice were to be followed.
On my university course leading to a Postgraduate Certificate in Education, we were inculcated with the still prevailing dogma that, largely, teachers are ‘made’ not ‘born’. Teacher trainers, of course, have a vested interest in promoting such a belief. It enhances the importance of what they do and gives government hope that the more it invests in such training the better will be the quality of teachers.
After teaching for 35 years in a range of schools from maintained comprehensives of 2000 pupils to small prep schools of 350 pupils, from deprived inner-city primaries where children arrived in Year 1 unable to speak, to privileged independent schools, I have learnt some important truths about effective teaching and great teachers. First of all, teaching is an ‘art’ not a ‘science’ and, secondly, great teachers are born not made. Training can help but it cannot ‘make’ a good teacher.
My experience has also taught me that teaching is the best and most rewarding job in the world – provided you are ‘cut out’ for it. More than a ‘job’, it is a vocation. Stressful and debilitating as it may be for some, it is energising for those who have been born to do it well. These are the people the government should be seeking to recruit, not the ones who wish to ‘clock off’ at 5 pm.