How to solve the teacher shortage

Overworked and underpaid. Volt Collection/www.shutterstock.com

In a rare show of unity, six teachers unions have joined together to warn about a developing crisis in the teaching profession. In a submission to the School Teachers’ Review Body, they argued that teachers need a pay rise and that they are working under increasing pressure.

The official line from the Department for Education (DfE) is to reject talk of a crisis and accuse those sounding alarm bells as being guilty of “scaremongering”. The chief inspector of schools at Ofsted, Michael Wilshaw, has raised ministers’ ire by drawing attention to the issues.

Despite the DfE’s protestations, the signs of a system under strain are clearly visible. There is already ample and growing evidence of problems with teacher recruitment, retention and morale while a recent rash of school-based strikes is also symptomatic of a system on the edge.

The reason most frequently cited for failing to keep teachers in the profession – and putting them off entering it – is the pressure of excessive workload. Pay rise restrictions of 1% for the next four years compound the problems. Recent surveys have also highlighted the problem of poor or bullying management.

These problems are products of a system built on wholly unrealistic expectations. Schools increasingly mimic the commercial organisations to which the education system more widely is now subjugated. In this globalised economy, education is part of the race to be “world class” and second is not good enough. Teachers who question this logic risk being condemned for having “low expectations” or “lacking commitment”. Too often teachers risk facing burn out or being cast out.

What is to be done?

The issues that bedevil the teaching profession in England are substantial, and have been enduring. Countless numbers of excellent teachers have been lost to the system because of the problems of unsustainable workload. Just as the system has sacrificed many great teachers, so too have many great teachers sacrificed their health. Addressing these issues is both a practical necessity and a moral imperative.

Only a radical and bold solution will address both the symptoms, and more importantly, the causes of these problems. Fortunately, we already know the answer – and it comes in two parts.

The first is based on a recognition that the employment contract is the key to controlling teachers’ workload. All else is frippery and will make no meaningful difference. Tinkering with advice about how to mark students’ work (the DfE’s preferred approach) will not tackle workload problems – but a contract with clear limits on how much teachers should work, will.

Teachers in England have always had a hopelessly open-ended contract. Historically, it has provided inadequate protection against the myriad pressures to do more and more. And given the undermining of the national contract now caused by the rush to transform more schools into academies, it is less effective than ever. That has to change.

This inevitably points to the second part of the solution – the means by which the contract is generated. Technically, a general contract of employment is an agreement between equal parties, although in reality the employer’s power is privileged. That is why workers, by organising in unions, have struggled for collective bargaining rights to ensure that the relationship between the employer and employees is more balanced.

In the last century, teachers fought for, and won the right to establish their pay and conditions through a process of national collective bargaining. That right was established in 1919, but abolished in 1987.

Teachers in Birmingham on strike in 2014 over pay and pensions. Darren Staples/Reuters

Today these issues are determined by the School Teachers’ Review Body, which is obliged to consult, but not negotiate, with teacher unions. It responds to an agenda framed by the government, which can choose whether or not to accept its recommendations.

If collective bargaining still existed today, governments could only impose contractual changes on teachers in rare and exceptional circumstances. The norm would be changes secured by agreement through a process of negotiation.

Collective bargaining exists elsewhere

To the large number of teachers in England who have never experienced collective bargaining, this may seem incomprehensible – even impossible. But it still happens in Scotland among many other countries and territories, including Finland, Ontario and New Zealand.

In none of these places does collective bargaining magic away all of the problems that face teachers in England – but few face anything like the crisis currently being discussed across the teaching profession in England. Nor are these systems characterised by strikes and industrial conflicts as the right-wing critics of collective bargaining often contend.

On the contrary, in recent years there has been far more teacher strike action in England than, for example, Scotland or Finland.

These proposals to reintroduce national collective bargaining are not impractical solutions beyond our imagination – they are grounded in the experiences and successes of many other jurisdictions. For example, New Zealand has a highly decentralised school system (similar to England in many respects), but combines this with a national system of collective bargaining.

Of course to adopt such an approach requires a recognition that we have an education _system _(rather than an education marketplace) and that government has a significant responsibility, on behalf of us all, for making it work. Alas, to the market fundamentalists currently in charge of English education policy, the notion of education as a public good that needs public management is anathema. To most other people, I would contend, it is common sense.

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