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Next up in front of the class

14 February 2020

Dennis Richards muses on teacher recruitment and retention


THERE was an intriguing puzzle for us to solve when the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, stated that we would have 50,000 more nurses. In reality, the figure seemed to be 31,000. Apparently, we had made the mistake of conflating “more” and “new”.

So, when we learn from the NEU (National Education Union) that “there is increasing evidence of a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention,” we can expect a blizzard of statistics in response.

It goes something like this. We have 12,000 more teachers than we had in 2010, but 4000 fewer than we had in 2016. Teacher numbers, however, have not kept pace with the rising pupil numbers. Pupil numbers are projected to rise by four per cent between 2018 and 2024.

Then, throw in the fact that the number of primary-school teachers increased by 26,000 between 2010 and 2018; and the number of secondary-school teachers fell by 15,000 over the same period. Clear?

Next, we note not just the difference between the two education sectors, but also the disparity between teacher recruitment in, say, history and physics. We recruited just 43 per cent of the required number of physics teachers this year. And that’s with a thumping big welcome bonus and a relaxation of any kind of rigorous selection procedure. “What letter does the subject begin with?” If you answer “P” rather than “F”, you will be offered the post.

Retention, generally, is poor: 40 per cent of teachers leave the profession within five years of qualifying.


WE CAN, perhaps, rest assured that some things do not change. The autumn term may have been more grisly than usual, with an unprecedented amount of rain. By half-term, half our newly qualified teachers (NQTs) and trainees are out on their feet. The other half are pole-axed by the bugs flying round any school community of 1500 students.

The old lags with their impenetrable immune systems, built up after 30 years in the same school, are cannily pacing themselves up to the Christmas holidays. You can’t win, though: they will go under on the first day of the holidays.

But, somehow, things are different. Applicants for a teaching qualification will most likely apply to join a “teaching school”. In our case, it is a consortium of 20-plus schools, including both primary and secondary.

It is our experience that church schools have had no difficulty fitting into this framework: quite the reverse. Nor has it been a problem for the trainees. Initially, student teachers may feel some trepidation that they face a long placement in a Roman Catholic or C of E school. Once they discover that, far and away the most distinctive characteristic of church schools can be found in their specific ethos, many trainees automatically go on to seek a permanent post in one.

You could argue that an NQT has much the same “stuff” to learn: where to sit in the staff room, for example. Then add in the labyrinthine system which you have to negotiate to get a cup of tea or coffee. If Mr Benson comes up from DT and finds you drinking from his personal mug, you really will have problems.

Most important of all, learn the staff- or department-meeting code. The experienced teachers are trying hard to get the agenda round to their favourite topics: staff workload and the declining standards of pupil behaviour. The senior leadership team is blatantly manoeuvring the agenda to avoid discussing either. As an NQT you are warmly advised to keep schtum. You are not yet experienced enough to play in this game.

One hapless NQT last year intervened in our staff meeting, without realising that both sides had their eyes on the clock and the 5 p.m. finish time. It is a crushing blow when both sides walk out on you.

Anecdotal it may be, but the stress levels are higher than they have ever been. Governors and heads are in an ever more competitive environment, and they feed that pressure into the school environment. Trainees are quickly disabused of any idea that this will be easy.

Ofsted seems to creep into every conversation; there is endless marking and assessment; and “EBI” at the end of a piece of homework (Even Better If — a negotiated settlement with the student as to how the assignment could have been improved). Can’t I just put a tick? No, you can’t. Not any more.

And why are the teachers endlessly talking DIRTy? Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time is the latest must-know acronym. Get that wrong in the interview and you really are in trouble. Unless you teach Physics, of course.

Dennis Richards is a former head teacher of St Aidan’s C of E High School, Harrogate.

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