Fiona Millar – The fear factor

I recently had a thought- provoking conversation with a teacher friend trying to work out how the current shortage in the profession might play out in different schools.

His view was that teachers looking for new jobs would be in such a strong position in the next five years that they will be able to pick and choose in a way that hasn’t been the case in the past.

It won’t just be promotion, pay and conditions that sway them, he suggested. The extent to which schools promote positive cultures in which trust, mutual respect, work life balance and well-being are valued, could be a key factor in the mix.

To put it another way, schools that provide a harsh and unforgiving working environments may well be penalised and forced to reform their ways. Is that a fanciful idea?

A BBC Radio 4 File on 4 programme earlier this year took a deep dive into the issue of teacher workload and stress. I was struck, listening to it, by the story of one anonymous contributor who had worked in two outstanding schools.

The first engendered a culture of fear and loathing in which teachers worked very long hours, were put through to regular ‘mocksteds’ and also subjected to excessive demands for paperwork and evidence from senior management. She eventually left, ill with stress, and accompanied by a compromise agreement that prevented her talking on the record about her experience.

In her next job she worked in an equally successful school where the same long hours were made tolerable by a supportive, rewarding school culture. This suggests that schools don’t have to be boot camps (for teachers or pupils) to be successful… and that maybe my teacher friend is on to something.

The long game

The teacher recruitment crisis is definitely rising rapidly up the political agenda. The Department for Education has moved quickly from denying there was a problem (before the summer) to reluctantly admitting there may be one, although ministers seem hesitant about how to solve it given that it takes several years to recruit and train a new teacher.

Obviously the state has a role. The decision by the last government to relinquish its historic responsibility for teacher supply now looks deeply flawed.

Placing too much trust in a combination of diverse initial training routes and market forces to ensure adequate supply in every part of the country and in every subject hasn’t worked. At some stage in the future more central control will have to be re-exerted and universities (who have had their teacher training numbers cut) re-engaged in the process.

But in the meantime the DFE and schools will also have to acknowledge that teacher supply is not just about attracting bright new graduates, it is also about retaining people over the long term and making career progression to headship seem attractive.

Positive influence

Pressure on heads, especially in our most challenging schools, can be enormous. Changes to exams, curriculum and school accountability are converging at a time of drastic funding cuts. The bar for ‘success’ is being raised all the time – not necessarily a bad thing if it is realistic (which the new definition of a ‘coasting’ school may not be) and accompanied by support rather than denigration.

However that isn’t the case at the moment, as fear of failure trickles down from the government, through Ofsted, regional school commissioners and local authorities to governing bodies and heads.

This will only be exacerbated by the Education and Adoption Bill currently going through Parliament, which gives the Secretary of State even greater powers to intervene at a local level, to force changes of leadership and governance and to require academy conversion or the take over (of existing academies) by new sponsors.

Who can blame those school leaders who then transmit that fear, anxiety and excessive demands down through their schools? It must be hard to resist when your own job and public reputation is on the line.

If any good is to come out of this teacher shortage it may be the recognition that such negative pressure on schools may ultimately be counterproductive if it leads to such a crisis in recruitment that standards can’t rise and pupils can no longer be guaranteed the sort of stable learning environments they need to flourish.

The ship of state is a very hefty one to turn around so don’t expect any rapid changes to the principles underpinning current reforms. But schools can change their own cultures, and learn from others that are already successful, improving and happy. It takes brave leaders to do this, but in the end they may have no choice.

About the author

Fiona Millar is a columnist for Guardian Education and a co-founder of the Local Schools Network http://www.localschoolsnetwork.