Supply & demand: the school staffing crisis

There is, I believe, a looming crisis in school staffing. In fact, I think it’s already here.

We already know that the number of new teachers being trained is falling, and that schools struggle to retain staff after a few years. I think schools have coasted by until now knowing that there will be a new crop of Newly-Qualified Teachers (NQTs) each September, fresh cannon fodder if you’re of a cynical persuasion, ready to go over the top and take what’s coming for the greater good.

Except I think we have already run out of teachers, at least in primary schools.

A quick word about me: I am a late career-changer, training on the salaried School Direct scheme last year. I got offered a job in a different school after my first interview, survived Ofsted in my first half term, but didn’t survive until Christmas. The workload and stress was too much and incompatible with any kind of family life: I have three school-age children whom I never saw, and when I did I was unbearably stressed, shattered and grumpy. I was given a choice: your teaching career or your family. I chose my family.

Since then I’ve been working as a general supply teacher. It’s been absolutely fascinating, and has led me to my conclusion that already there aren’t enough teachers to go round, and things are getting worse.

A few caveats: I only work in London and the home counties, the situation may be different elsewhere. And you may argue that, as a supply teacher, I am by definition only seeing schools with staffing problems. I’d counter the latter by saying that I know of outstanding schools which never use supply teachers who currently have several unfilled roles.

The vast majority of schools I’ve been in have unfilled teaching roles, not for next September, but right now, or for after Easter, just three weeks away. Most schools I’ve been in have offered me contracts or jobs almost before I’ve taken my coat off. One deputy head was practically begging me to take a job, knowing she currently has unfilled roles filled with supply teachers on contracts and more staff about to leave. I’ve turned them all down.

Speaking to fellow teachers in staff rooms all over London, a common picture is emerging. Teachers are leaving the profession, or want to leave. Some are going part-time, if they can’t do that they are becoming Higher Level Teaching Assistants (HLTAs) in order to regain a work-life balance. Several have approached me to find out about how to become a supply teacher.

Pressures from management to assess pupil’s performance to three decimal places (or shades of orange, depending on which level-replacing assessment scheme they’ve bought into), demonstrate progress and change classroom displays weekly are driving both NQTs and more experienced staff out of schools.

It’s not just jobbing class teachers either. The recent Radio 4 File on 4 programme painted a shocking picture of the pressure already facing head teachers, even before election rhetoric about sacking heads whose children don’t know their 12 times tables. Heads of ‘failing’ schools are being ‘disappeared’ in some areas, with gagging clauses that prevent the true state of affairs from being talked about. If we keep sacking head teachers like football managers, where are their replacements going to come from? Who in their right mind would want the job?

It may be that I’m just not cut out for primary teaching, but I am shocked at the almost universal low morale of teaching staff in the South East of England. Doing supply isn’t financially sustainable for me in the long run, but I love it – and there’s no shortage of work. Since I put my CV on the Guardian web site, I’ve been fending off agencies offering guaranteed 5 days a week supply work.

Working off other people’s plans is tough, but I’m getting better at it, and more confident. It reminds me that I do love teaching, being in the classroom, working with the children. They seem to like me, too, and it’s lovely to get asked back and be remembered by children I taught for one day several weeks before. After marking and tidying, I can go home and cook dinner, talk to my children without biting their heads off, and even read with them. In the evening I might watch TV. TV! And I have my weekends back.

Working in so many different settings is so interesting, I’d even say all teachers should do general supply for a month or so. Odd to think in a few weeks I’ve worked in more schools than some head teachers have in their entire careers.

Why have so many schools offered me jobs? It’s not that I’m a particularly outstanding teacher. It’s because they are desperate for qualified teachers who will stick around longer than, ooh, 24 hours. So many classes have had several different teachers in a year. One class I was in had had a different supply teacher every day for a week. It’s not because we’re afraid of hard work. It’s not because we’re fickle. It’s because finally teachers are saying ‘enough is enough’ as their minds and bodies conk out, and they are walking. And I don’t think any political party realises or cares about the impact that this is having on our children.

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Brew School

I was lucky enough to get a last-minute place on the Brew School at the Brockley Brewery in Lewisham, London. I’m a huge fan of their porter, and have always wanted to have a go at home brewing so this was a perfect opportunity.

The school ran from 10am until, well 4pm in theory, but we were so darn efficient we finished early. Brewing is all about efficiency. And cleaning, apparently. (“We’re mostly cleaners who make beer as an incidental by-product,” one brewer said.)

There were 8 of us – a good number – and we paired up to choose what beer we wanted to make out of a choice of pale ale, porter and red ale. I chose porter to do something a little different, and because I love the Brockley porter so much.

We were taught an all-grain method, the idea being that we could replicate, more or less, what we did today at home. First up heated water to between 75 and 78 degrees C and we weighed the grains out. For porter we used mostly pale malt and added much less black malt (for colour), chocolate malt (for chocolatey flavours), torrified malt (for head retention – don’t lose your head) and crystal malt. I have no idea what crystal malt is, but probably best not to use crystal meth by accident.

When the water had hit the right temperature, we put the grains in mash tuns made out of large plastic coolers with taps and sieves fitted and added the water. With the lid back on, this steeped for an hour while we had lunch.

After the mashing is done, comes the sparging. Brewing is full of great words, and sparging is a new one on me. It’s apparently also known as launtering, which may possibly be an even better word. “He was launtering with intent to brew ale, m’lud.”

The idea is to run water through the wet grains to extract as much sugar as you can, because sugar makes alcohol. We got a very pleasing black oil-like liquid off at first, which got paler as it went. Then the fun bit – you boil it for an hour and start adding different hops at different stages to add bitterness and more flavours.

I added Fuggles (see, another great word), East Kent Goldings and some added Bramling Cross at the end of the boil, which I’m told should add some blackcurrant and citrusy notes.

By now the brew was smelling amazing and already tasted sweet. At the end of the boil, you are left with wort. You need to chill this as fast as you can down to 20 degrees C before putting in a sterile fermenter. This would, I think, be the trickiest part at home. Today we used a heat exchanger with cold tap water running through it – this worked really well costs around £200. (The brewery uses a much bigger one with commercial refrigeration units). You can use an ice bath at home, or make a heat exchanger with copper pipe loops that run cold water through the hot wort.

Then it was time to put the black gold in the fermenters, add an air trap and drink some beer. Well, we were in a brewery, it would have been rude not to.

A measure of the original gravity of the porter suggests it may end up around 4.3% abv. We took our fermenters home to add yeast to and in 5-9 days we should be ready to bottle. Joe our instructor made sure he explained how we do that, and gave us a syphon, yeast and sterilising powder to take home, so as long as it’s kept at the right temperature, none should go to waste.

In all a fantastic day which I’d highly recommend. The group was just the right size, our instructor was perfect: friendly, knowledgeable, enthusiastic and relaxed. We never felt we were being lectured, yet we learned a lot.

Just need to see how my porter turns out now…

You can see more photos from my day here and find out more about the Brockley Brewery on their web site

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DIY semi-interactive whiteboard

There’s been a bit of a debate on Twitter, hosted by @oldandrewuk, over the last few hours about the benefits of different display technologies in classrooms. Alongside interactive whiteboards (IWBs) like Promethean and SMART boards, people have been reminiscing about overhead projectors (OHPs), ‘traditional’ whiteboards with marker pens and extolling the virtues of visualisers.

In my incredibly short teaching career I have used all of those – yes, even OHPs, ‘modern’ touch screen TVs (awful – you can’t write on them properly, at least the two different models I’ve used) and I’ve done an observation in a classroom that still has a chalk blackboard in use daily. (Personally, if I had the choice I’d have an ‘old-fashioned’ Promethean board & projector with a mahoosive normal whiteboard right next to it. And a cheap visualiser – webcam on a gooseneck connected to the computer.)

Slightly flippantly, I suggested that perhaps this is a case of ‘a bad workman (or woman) blames his tools’, as I can’t say any of these different display technologies made much difference to my teaching. But it was interesting to see some people with a love for a ‘traditional’ whiteboard and a projector combined. I can see glare problems here – but no worse than you get on those AWFUL glossy touch-screen TVs some schools are fitting (ripping out perfectly serviceable IWBs in the process).

And that gave me an idea for a cheap semi-interactive DIY whiteboard:


Have a big ‘traditional’ whiteboard, with marker pens in a magnetic holder, magnetic board rubber, and a projector on the ceiling hooked up the class computer or teacher’s laptop. Here’s the clever bit: you wrap tin foil round the caps of your marker pens. Connect a MakeyMakey* to your computer and wire up the left and right arrow pins to left and right arrows you cut out of tin foil and stick to a corner of the board. Between the two foil arrows you have another strip of foil you connect to the earth on the MakeyMakey.

This means that you can display, say a Powerpoint / Keynote / Prezzi, annotate using whiteboard pens, and you can use the foil caps if your pens to flip back and forth through slides without having to reach for the computer keyboard. Perhaps you can come up with some ideas for other buttons you could make on your whiteboard to trigger other things. What’s that at the back there, yes you in the Creeper hat? Minecraft controllers..?

UPDATE: I’m grateful for my old friend and colleague @jameswest for pointing out this awesome cheap IWB solution made from a Wiimote and some pens with LEDs fitted:

*the MakeyMakey is an awesome gadget that you plug into any computer’s USB socket, and you can trigger keyboard presses using switches you can make out of anything that conducts even a small amount of electricity – not just tin foil but also PlayDoh, fruit, vegetables and even small human beings.

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Raspberry Pi 2 hands-on

Raspberry Pi 2 setup in son's room
We’re now a FOUR Pi household. One Raspberry Pi is our wireless print server, enabling us to use an old cheap laser printer to print from Macs, Raspberry Pis, iPhones and iPads; another is our kitchen radio; the third is for my tinkering.

Enter our 4th Pi. It’s a brand new improved RaspberryPi model 2 I bought for Son A. It now boasts a quad core processor (I’m guessing that’s why you see 4 raspberries when it boots) and is generally regarded as being 6 times more powerful / faster / tastier. And yet it still costs just £30, less keyboard, mouse, case, screen, wifi dongle and SD card. Adding all of those things except the screen cost about £85 bundled from Pimoroni, though you could do it more cheaply, especially if you have a keyboard, mouse and power supply spare. The monitor is a supermarket TV that cost about £120, but again you could save money here.

We got a full starter kit with a lovely cool blue Flotilla Pibow Coupe case from the people on the good ship Pimoroni. And I’m very envious. It runs and boots darn quickly, and seems quite happy with a web browser and other applications open at the same time.

Audacity running on a Pi2

I’ve found that the audio editor Audacity seems to work pretty well (I did over-clock the Pi). There’s a small delay when playing audio over HDMI, but the audio does play in-sync. Next I’ll try analogue audio playback and also try my Griffin iMic USB audio adaptor for playback and capture. This could a great tool for school radio stations, or just teaching audio editing and making podcasts. I’ll be doing some more work on this, and looking at possible playout solutions. CoolPlay for Linux, anyone?

It will play YouTube videos back in the browser, at least at standard definition, the graphical desktop is much, much faster than previous Pis, to the point where you could use this as a general computer. Son A installed GIMP for photo editing and Open Office for word processing, and I just installed CUPS so he can print his homework on the colour inkjet plugged into our iMac or the old Brother laser printer plugged into the Pi print server. I didn’t even need to configure it, it just found the printers on our home network. Flickr is perfectly usable on the default Raspbian web browser (‘Web’) and I’m happily writing this blog post on the Pi2 too. A hell of a useful tiny computer for a school, or kid’s bedroom at only £30 (around £200 including a TV and all the bits) – and it’ll save squabbling over access to the family iMac.

Son A has a cheap Sainsbury’s 22 inch Celcus LED22167FHD TV in his room and we got the picture filling the screen nicely with these settings in /boot/config.txt:

# uncomment this if your display has a black border of unused pixels visible
# and your display can output without overscan

# uncomment the following to adjust overscan. Use positive numbers if console
# goes off screen, and negative if there is too much border

Now I want a Pi2 of my own. Can I justify becoming a FIVE Pi household?

The Raspberry Pi has certainly come a very, very long way in 3 years. Here’s what the desktop looked like back in 2012 when I got my first Pi (still going strong).

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Where’s the joy?

A couple of weeks ago I took part in a school INSET day, and I have to admit I didn’t recognise the name of the guest speaker, all I knew was that he was a world champion ping-pong player. I immediately had visions of the character in the radio version of Little Britain – Denver Mills – a silver-medallist Olympian who gives speeches at corporate events likening almost anything, selling double-glazing, making furniture, packing fruit, to running the 400 metres.

As soon as the speaker appeared, I realised my mistake – it was the Times journalist Matthew Syed, and I recognised him immediately from some thoughtful TV appearances.

It was a slightly surreal event, hundreds of us crammed into a new but shabby, windowless school sports hall. They hadn’t provided a PA for Matthew, who has a lovely voice but he’s very softly-spoken. So he stood in the middle of the aisle so more people could hear, and he was right next to me, which was good because I could hear him very well and make eye contact, but also not good because I had to pay bright-eyed attention for the best part of an hour.

I’m probably going to hideously over-simplify his message, and I admit I’ve not read his book, but here goes.

He made a convincing argument about the dangers of the way we in the Western world regard talent and about fixed versus ‘growth’ mindsets. He argued that talent is hugely over-rated. Saying (and thinking) that you are born with (or without) a talent for, say maths or sport is, he says, hugely damaging and limiting. It prevents people from reaching their full potential.

He had two powerful examples to back this up. He had been told that his reaction times were some of the fastest of anyone on the planet. Armed with this pleasing accolade about his talent, when he interviewed the tennis player Michael Stich he had a knock-about, and told him that he could return any ball Stich served at him. He never even saw the first ball coming, having only a vague sensation of something whooshing past his ear. Stich served 4 straight aces and Syed never got near the ball.

So much for the fastest reaction times in the world. Talking to sports scientists, and getting himself wired up to some sports tech, he discovered he was looking in the wrong place. He’d been looking at the ball. Professional tennis players don’t look at the ball, they read almost imperceptible signals from their opponents’ upper body positions that enable them to read where the ball will go even before it’s been struck. Even armed with this knowledge, Syed couldn’t return a tennis serve any better. Pro tennis players’ reaction times aren’t any faster than yours or mine – but what they have done is spend years and years practising reading these subtle signs. Not so much innate talent, more hard graft.

His other example was about his own sport of table tennis. A huge proportion of the top players in the UK all lived on the same street. His street. This was not because of some freak localised genetic mutation. This because on this street there was one of the few 24-hour table tennis facilities in the country, to which everyone on the street had a key, and an amazing coach. Talent played a small role – some people will always be better than others – and indeed Syed became a world champion, but some of his perfectly ordinary neighbours became county champions purely through hard work and great teaching.

He then talked about how limiting the ‘fixed mindset’ view of talent is. Children who think they are ‘no good at maths’ become disengaged because they will never succeed. But the children born with apparent talent also suffer, and he gave the example of Premier League football academies, who struggle to turn their young players into successful players. The reason, Syed says, is that they work really hard to get into an academy, then when they do get in they decide ‘I must be talented, I got in, agents are waving money and praise at me.’ And talent is supposed to look effortless, so they cannot admit to need practice or to work hard at any of the skills needed to be a great player.

He also said that the trend from the 1970s onwards of lavishing praise on all children, regardless of the quality of their work, was also very damaging. It was a well-intentioned attempt to boost self-esteem, but that kind of self-esteem isn’t worth having, he argued. It’s worthless because as soon as you come up against something you can’t do, you crumble and give up, thinking ‘I wasn’t any good after all’.

If, however, you have a ‘growth mindset’, Syed argued, you do not stop at the first obstacle saying, for example “I’m no good at behaviour management in the classroom, I just don’t have natural authority.” Instead, you think: how can I get better? What literature is there I can read for tips? Can I watch a colleague who does have good behaviour in their class to see what techniques they use? And by this point in the talk I was utterly convinced not only of his case, but also that in many areas I was guilty of having a fixed mindset myself.

Then a man sitting near me asked him “Do you enjoy table tennis?”

It was a great question. He asked it because at no point had Syed mentioned joy. Syed readily acknowledged the importance of joy, but the fact that he hadn’t mentioned it in about half an hour set me thinking. And this is the conclusion I reached: just because I can, with the right teaching and hard work, become good at table tennis / flamenco / calculus / rock climbing / painting – doesn’t mean that I should. Not if I don’t want to. Not if I don’t enjoy it.

Now clearly, some things are more important than others. A child might need to do some things they hate in order to pass some basic exams to get any kind of job. Great teaching can go a long way to inspire, but if it’s something a child fundamentally has no interest in, you are going to have a struggle. And I think that’s probably okay, if – and it’s a big if – the child has at least one thing they are passionate about, one thing they love. And it is the role of teachers to find that thing and draw it out of the child – as in the meaning of the Latin route of the word ‘educate’ – to lead or draw out. Draw out the one thing that brings them joy.

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