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First in, first out: the recruitment crisis in our schools

Steve Waters

Founder/Director Teach Well Alliance

22nd June, 2018

Emma Kell’s excellent article ‘Experienced teachers: first cut, last hired’ in the TES online on 11th June was prophetic – at least for me. I was toying with the idea of writing about the internal dilemma many schools face in balancing experienced teachers with teachers in their first five or so years of teaching. And then I saw Emma’s article. It prompted me to write sooner, rather than later.

When I first started teaching in 1976 (was it really that long ago?) there were 65 applications for the standard scale English teaching post I applied for. Most, like me, had just qualified. There were 6 candidates at interview, one of whom had been teaching for 5 years. I was both shocked and proud to be appointed, especially as it was my first application. Some of my student friends had applied for several posts and had been unsuccessful. It would be unthinkable to have as many applications for a similar post today.

I moved schools 3 years later and was internally appointed as Head of Drama against external competition after 3 years. Personal circumstances led me to move to my third – and final school – where I was appointed to the post of second in the English department, 8 years after starting my teaching career. It would be another 14 years until I was appointed as Head of English – after 5 unsuccessful external interviews at a range of local schools. I was then promoted to the post of Assistant Headteacher in internal interview in 2001. My last career move was to a school improvement service with a local authority until 2011, when I was made redundant becauses the National Strategies, and the funding that came with it, ended. The rest, as they say, is history.

If you qualified within the last 10 years, my career profile will probably surprise, even shock you. It is true that, when I was teaching, the post of Head of English was probably the most competitive of all posts, apart from that of Headteacher. Unlike now, where there are on average two vacancies for every available teacher at all levels of responsibility, including some headteacher posts, there was a surplus of teachers. I knew that the road to promotion would be long, with plenty of challenges along the way.

Contrast my journey with the current state of recruitment in our schools. A third of young teachers leave within 5 years of qualifying, most within the first 3 years. More experienced teachers find it increasingly difficult to cope with the levels of stress, heavy workload, lack of recognition and lack of control over their professional practice. It is a regrettable fact of growing older that many teachers have less energy and resilience to cope with what has become an intolerable burden in many - perhaps most – of our schools. The ever-increasing retirement age is unrealistic – how many teachers will be in the classroom at the age of 68 in the next 10 years? It has sadly become common-place for older teachers to joke, with a dark sense of humour, that they will be carried out of school in a box.

As Emma Kell points out, the strain on school budgets also contributes to an imbalance between experienced and less experienced teachers. Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that experience necessarily means that a teacher is more successful nor that there should be a ‘time served’ approach to promotion. There are brilliant young teachers who are more than equipped to take on the role of subject leaders, or teaching and learning leads, or any of the other roles needed in a school. Schools need fresh ideas, innovation and energy. But they also need experienced staff – to offer what they have learned to less experienced staff, to mentor them and to ensure that a school’s development is underpinned by the knowledge and wisdom about teaching and learning and running a school which more experienced teachers have accumulated over the years. Whether to appoint a more experienced or less experienced teacher should not depend solely on cost – it should be on merit.

Unfortunately, as Emma Kell points out, experienced staff in many schools are being sacrificed to save money. Some younger, less experienced staff are being promoted to middle leadership posts because they are cheaper. Some older, more experienced staff are being excluded from promoted posts because they are more expensive. In the worst excesses of recruitment processes, employment practices are deliberately being flouted and employment law broken. Older teachers are often in the position of having to put up with unacceptable discrimination. They are unable to move to another school because they are too expensive, and they can’t leave teaching altogether because their pensions would suffer and their families depend on them. Regrettably, as Emma Kell points out, some unscrupulous headteachers are unjustifiably using competency procedures to force more experienced - and more costly - teachers out of their schools.

When I was first teaching, there was a saying ‘Last in, first out’. If a choice had to be made between a less experienced teacher and a more experienced teacher, the younger teacher was more likely to be ‘asked’ to leave. The pendulum has now swung in the opposite direction, under the pressure of the under-funding of our schools. Neither is acceptable but unlike then, we are now facing a crisis which, if not solved, will lead to a shortfall of around 42,000 teachers in secondary schools by 2020. And this assumes the current number of teachers remains constant.

Is there an answer? As you will no doubt expect me to say, it is to reduce staff absence, and therefore spending on supply cover, by improving staff wellbeing. Schools that improve staff wellbeing also reduce spending on recruitment. Teachers want to work in these schools. The word gets out that their teachers are looked after. Headteachers who promote staff wellbeing also report that, without unduly focusing on results, they improve. And this includes schools that serve deprived communities.

Well teachers, teach well. They have more energy and are less stressed. Pupils in such schools are less stressed themselves, enjoy their lessons more and learn better. If we follow the example of these schools, perhaps we can put an end to the unwritten policy of ‘First in, first out’ and restore the balance of experience to the staff room.

Steve Waters is the Founder/Director of the Teach Well Alliance which is committed to working with schools to promote staff wellbeing through the Teach Well Toolkit - a 3 term programme. He specialises in staff mental health, including preventing and tackling Burnout.

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