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.