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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7 Responses to Supply & demand: the school staffing crisis

  1. Jo says:

    I’ve been teaching for 25 years. Last July I left a school I’d worked in for 22 years as the workload was crushing me. 120 books per night to ‘quality mark’ were the tip of the iceberg. Now I’m on supply, loving my teaching again and I’ve got a life again. I agree with your opinion regarding a teacher shortage-I’m in the West Midlands.

  2. j snell says:

    An excellent article! Agree wholeheartedly. I left teaching after 31 years as it had become unsustainable as a job and I only worked 4 days a week! I became a supply teacher. I get work every day and I love it! Definitely a wise decision.

  3. Louise says:

    I am a primary teacher and agree totally with everything you have said. I have been teaching for 21 years and worked as a supply teacher a couple of years ago and loved it. I would have loved to have continued on supply for the rest of my working life but could only do it for a year as I needed the higher and more regular salary that a permanent job brings. I am lucky as I work in a nursery with a great Head who does not put too much pressure on the staff. But I see all my teaching friends getting really stressed out and complaining constantly of the high work loads. When anyone tells me they are thinking of becoming s teacher I tell them to think very carefully. These days if you want to be a teacher you might just be able to cope with the stress and workload if you are a)single, b) have no children and c) have no social life!!! You are literally married to the job!!

  4. polarbear says:

    It is so sad to read this but it hits the nail firmly on the head. Education is in crisis. It is dying. The government has started something that may prove to be irreversible. isnt even featuring in the leaders debate….they have got away with it and no one cares…..only those actually working in school realise what is happening

  5. Suze says:

    I have just resigned from teaching after 21 years. Love the students but cannot stand the constant assessment and the lottery which is the exam marking…the students may as well pick a grade out of a bag on the way out of the exam. It is utterly soul destroying and not worth the toll on mental and physical health. BUT, I do have a solution for the teaching staff shortages, two actually: 1. Make it a kind of national service so that all parents have to qualify and do at least six months in the classroom (thus reducing parental complaints) 2. Get all those people who resent our long holidays and offer them or jobs.

    • blogmywiki says:

      Sorry to hear that, but I understand your decision. I am lucky that I have now found a job in secondary education teaching a subject I love, in a school where we are trusted to do our job and teach as we see fit. Without that I doubt I would still be teaching myself. Good luck for the future.

  6. Vicki says:

    Hello!what an honest depiction of teaching! It’s so refreshing to read thus article. I know that there is a very real reason for why teachers are leaving the profession! I’m a trainee teacher on a School’s Direct course and I see teachers all the time who say they are not coming back on Monday due to stress! After reading this article I am definately going to consider supply work. I am somewhat of a realist and I know all too well the nightmare of the NQT year! I am not looking forward to the horrors of working 24 7!!

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