Here’s the real reason teachers are quitting (it’s not just the money)

There are alarms over a teacher ‘brain drain’. Geoff Caddick/PA Archive

Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools has complained about a “brain drain” of teachers leaving the country to work abroad – and, as a teacher and now lecturer, I’ve known a number of colleagues who have made that choice. But let’s not forget the other looming type of flight: of teachers from the profession itself.

Wilshaw warned that 18,000 teachers had left the UK to teach in international schools last year, more than the 17,000 who trained via the postgraduate route. He suggested that teachers could be given “golden handcuffs” to keep them: “working in the state system that trained them for a period of time.”

I don’t agree. I think instead we need to improve the working conditions in the state system so that we persuade teachers to stay because they want to – rather than forcing them to.

There are a combination of factors which make teachers leave – both to work abroad and to quit the profession entirely.

Over the past decade, teachers have had to endure constant, chaotic policy change. These have included changes to school structures, through the introduction of academies and free schools, changes to the curriculum and exams, changes to the inspection framework, changes to policies for children with special needs, and much more.

Central government has put unprecedented pressure on schools to attain “top” exam results, with those schools failing to achieve certain benchmarks threatened with takeover or closure.

The issue here is that even the government itself has pointed out that many of these exams are “not fit for purpose”: they do not lead to productive learning in the classroom, but rather mean that teachers are forced to teach to the test.

Testing times. David Davies/PA Archive

The high-stakes nature of England’s current testing system means that teachers I’ve worked with and interviewed feel oppressed by the mechanistic ways in which they are obliged to assess students. The bureaucracy involved in creating the data needed for assessment can be very time-consuming.

This pressure comes to a head with visits from the schools inspectorate Ofsted. Teachers often work in fear that they will be judged as failing by the inspectorate or even by someone acting out the role of inspector – school senior leadership teams frequently run “Mocksteds” whereby teachers have to undergo a “mock” Ofsted, usually run by senior staff.

Not in it for the long-haul

Government policies have encouraged candidates to see the profession as a short-term career option. Teach First is a classic example of this: the very name “Teach First” suggests that its graduate trainees should try teaching “first” and then move on to something better.

The millions that the government has cut from university-led Postgraduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) programmes has further exacerbated the problem of the “brain drain”.

PGCEs are much better at producing graduates who stay in the profession. In a blog last year, Sam Freedman, acting executive director or programmes for Teach First, said that data for the charity’s school-based trainees who gained qualified teacher status in 2005 showed that only 42% were teaching four years later – compared to 73% among those who took a mainstream PGCE.

And yet, PGCE courses – including our own at Goldsmiths – are under threat: the government aims to double the number of teachers completing their training in schools and speed-up reductions in university-based places. A big step to solving the recruitment crisis would be to provide better funding and support for PGCEs, which recent research has shown are still the best way of training teachers.

One of the most recent and thorough academic reviews of school-based training routes, as opposed to university-based ones, says that practitioners believe that the recent changes are: “Leading to a narrowing field of expertise … changes in the structure, length and type of school placements are further strengthening such fears.”

Results on a plate

There are other pressures too, and the expectations of parents and students have become increasingly unrealistic. Education has become marketised: teachers are expected by the government, parents and many students to be more like “customer service agents” delivering a product – a good grade for a student – rather than entering into a meaningful dialogue with learners and their carers about the best ways to learn.

Parents and students have come to expect “results on a plate” and can become very angry with teachers who “don’t deliver”. Over the last few years, pedagogues have endured rising numbers of unwarranted complaints from parents and students. I know of a brilliant, experienced teacher who was verbally abused and threatened at a recent parents' evening by an angry mother who felt that this teacher should have “got” a better result for her child. The onus has shifted away from students to work for themselves and instead has been placed on the teacher to do the work for the student.

Messages in the media that teachers are “lazy” and “incompetent” don’t help this situation, regular mainstream media pundits such as Melanie Phillips, Katie Hopkins, Toby Young and Rod Liddle all represent teachers in negative ways.

I don’t think that Wilshaw’s idea to simply give trainee teachers “golden handcuffs” to stay in the state-school system is the best way of solving the teaching recruitment crisis. Rather, the government needs to provide more resources to universities to train teachers, improve conditions of service in schools by cutting back on such high pressure testing and giving teachers more time to assess and prepare lessons. In a nutshell, politicians need to be much more supportive of teachers and the work they do.