The Coming Schools Crisis

By all accounts teaching has become a pretty miserable profession in the past few years. From speaking to more experienced teachers this slide seems to have been underway for a while, but it has undoubtedly reached new levels of unbearability under Gove and Morgan, record highs which it will certainly challenge in the next five years.

But why is this? What’s been happening and why are people still signing up to teach, albeit in declining numbers?

Teaching remains hugely rewarding. I’m still slightly incredulous that what I’m doing on a daily basis is my job. Yes, it’s stressful and frustrating, but it’s also infinitely more fun and rewarding than any office job that I could think of. But at the moment, as the job constantly demands more attention, emotional investment, energy and time, this fleeting and increasingly rare enjoyment is the only thread by which the whole profession is hanging, and it’s beginning to fray.

Firstly, it requires pointing out that funding for schools did increase slightly under the last government, roughly keeping pace with inflation. But this was only true of 5-16 education, with funding for 16-18 education being cut back, leading to those secondary schools with an in-house sixth form having to redirect funding from their 11-16 budget, and several standalone sixth form colleges closing outright.

But even where schools budgets have roughly remained steady over the past five years, this has not meant that schools have necessarily been able to function in the same way as they did in 2010. For one, austerity has handed schools a whole host of new problems with which to deal. Children are finding life harder.

As a direct result of austerity their nutrition has deteriorated, which makes the day at school harder for them to negotiate.Their mental health is widely reported to be suffering.Their families increasingly can’t afford the basics required for them to attend school, and teachers are increasingly dipping into their own pockets to meet the shortfall.

A population bulge is making its way through the primary system at present and is set to make landfall in secondary schools in the next few years, and the secondary system will doubtless be told to provide for this without funding meaningfully increasing to account for it, all the while hearing that the schools budget has been protected.

Moreover, the dramatic cut in capital funding for school building programmes will, without a stark change of policy, lead to this increase in the size of school populations having to be crammed into school buildings designed to educate many fewer, which will not contribute to anyone’s wellbeing.

Elsewhere, the threat of OFSTED and forced academisation has led to an extremely high-stakes environment for test results, with a single blip in attainment or in the level obtained in an inspection often being used as an excuse to shut a school and hand control over its many lucrative contracts to an academy sponsor which is explicit about being more interested in making a return for shareholders than it is in providing a high-quality education.

This raising of the attainment and inspection stakes has led to senior managers loading an excess of additional work on to classroom teachers, without increasing their numbers. This has taken the form of an explosion of data being recorded and managed by teachers in order to attempt to track students’ progress and attempt to intervene as soon as possible after a pupil has begun to deviate from their expected curve of progression, regardless of the fact that most teachers are aware that progress in a subject cannot be measured in this stultifyingly simplistic manner, of simply expecting a pupil’s attainment constantly to increase along a pre-identified curve, and that many, if not most, of these demands for data from senior management are a complete waste of their time.

An anecdote to illustrate this: recently, at my placement school, many teachers were furious because senior management, in response to an OFSTED inspection at a nearby school which found that their provision for students eligible for the pupil premium, ie the most deprived students, was insufficient, demanded that all staff, with two day’s notice, add an intervention for every pupil premium child that they teach onto the school’s data system. They didn’t ask that teachers think hard about how to improve the education of these pupils; teachers were simply required to produce a mountain of evidence, even if that evidence is fundamentally meaningless or tokenistic. Some of these interventions are shallow and barely helpful, and have been written for the sake of proving that they have been written. Many of the students don’t require specific interventions, but management demanded and teachers provided in a climate of vague threats about having talks in the head’s office should they not comply. GCSE preparation for Year 11 and mock feedback for Year 10 simply had to wait, and many people ended up relinquishing their bank holiday to the endeavour.

Added to this, the advent of performance related pay is going to be used by senior management to control and monitor teachers even more closely, and it is going to be a source of even more anxiety on the part of the profession as teachers’ ability to afford mortgage payments and Christmas presents becomes contingent on the performance of a group of sixteen year olds in a two hour exam at the end of two years of study.

Another trend that has become noticeable in recent years is the manner in which pay distribution in schools has changed. Academisation, as well as a widespread managerialist response to the funding cuts at Sixth Form and FE level, with the appointment of executives in the place of heads and deputy heads, and the casualisation of the teaching staff, shunted into jobs as ‘lecturers’ and ‘tutors’ that pay by the hour, has led to the pay packets of senior managers ballooning in recent years.

When you set this alongside the only slight increase in overall schools funding, it should be clear that a net increase in cash going to schools does not necessarily translate to a net improvement in the daily lives of classroom teachers.

This is not a call for increased teacher pay. Teachers aren’t, as a whole, demanding better remuneration in return for this increased burden on their time. The point is that the burden on schools has increased, while the amount of money being spent employing classroom teachers has remained stagnant or even fallen in real terms, with the number of classroom teachers employed in state secondary schools remaining roughly steady since 2010. An unchanging number of teachers are being asked to cover this increasing list of demands being made of schools, and rather than eating into the schools budget these demands are into teachers’ lives instead.

Casual conversations in and around the staff room (the population of which is steadily decreasing as staff barely have time to eat their lunch while walking between canteen and classroom) abounds of extra-curricular activities and staff social events enjoyed by many a decade ago having become casualties in the drive to meet the demands made of you as a teacher in this country today, which is, essentially, that you must work almost all of the time.

These things are hard, and they are making teachers unhappy in their job and family life (it was recently pointed out that only one member of staff in our faculty had children, an inevitable consequence of the demands of the job). But teachers have endured them because they care passionately about the children they teach, and because their careers are dotted with the moments of intense joy that educating young people can bring.

But the signs are that the profession’s resolve is beginning to snap. A steady stream of findings that should raise the eyebrows of anyone with a passing concern for the future of the profession has recently been appearing in the press.

Thus we hear that four in ten Newly Qualified Teachers quit within their first year of teaching. This would merely be wasteful if it weren’t for the fact that applications for teacher training have been plummeting year on year, leading to a £50 million increase in school spending on supply teachers to plug the gap.

Meanwhile, the Department for Education’s own figures shows the number of teachers quitting the profession reaching a record high this year, having increased by 25% in the past four years. This represents roughly one in twelve full-time teachers quitting the profession each year.

It should be clear, then, that something over the past five years has changed to damage teachers’ collective resolve. It is no longer a healthy profession, and it is no longer a profession in which people are able to survive for very long. As a result the teaching profession is fizzling out, steadily burning through teachers faster than it can replace them.

At present the school system is remaining above water by breaking young teachers and leaving them exhausted by the wayside after a couple of years. The most extreme version of this is perhaps Teach First, more than half of whose graduates decide not to return to the classroom at the completion of their two year course, but this is also happening to young teachers who have taken on significant quantities of student debt in order to fund their training at universities in pursuit of a PGCE (I’ve added around £13k of student debt to my own personal mill stone).Teaching is no longer a profession in which you can reasonably make a career with any pretence of keeping your health and your family life intact. It is a profession that is dying.

The only short-term response to this unavoidable fact that I can imagine is that our schools are, in the very near future, going to be kept afloat on the backs of unqualified teachers (look out for a Conservative Party policy announcement near you that says something about private schools not requiring qualified teachers, meaning that state schools shouldn’t either, with no mention of the fact that this will be an attempt to paper over the recruitment crisis) as well as Teaching Assistants, who are probably going to end up delivering lessons pre-prepared elsewhere, who the government will be happy and able to be burn through and replace far more quickly than professional teachers, given the lack of professional training required. (Incidentally, I’m sure someone somewhere is lining this up as a lucrative business opportunity as education consortia will doubtless begin to sell fully-prepared schemes of work to departments which can’t find qualified teachers).

I doubt schools will shut, and I’m sure everything will be done to portray this as an obstreperous profession selfishly demanding more holidays than they already have, and a wise government making hard decisions to secure our ability to compete in the global economy. But in short I can see the secondary education system as we know it, in which children are taught by subject specialist education professionals, able to assess and then meet their individual needs, ceasing to exist in the next five years without a significant increase in funding in the schools budget to pay to employ more teachers in order to reduce the average teacher’s workload.

What to do about this?

The prospect of the NUT’s recent agreement to ballot for strike action should a significant increase in schools funding not be secured in the Autumn Budget, which it doubtless now, under a Tory government committed to securing the education budget in cash terms only, happy to let it shrivel with inflation, won’t be, offers a glimmer of hope, if only as a chance to spend a day catching up with marking and planning.

But the time for largely symbolic one-day strikes is over, especially in the face of a government that has already made up its mind and to which increasing public expenditure is anathema. If we as a teaching profession truly want to protect our secondary school system from its onrushing death we’re going to have to escalate to something of the order of an indefinite strike, a tactic which has seen recent success at Lambeth College this year and on the part of Chicago teachers in 2012, that makes it clear to the rest of society what is at stake for the education system and that makes the issue practically and politically unignorable for the government.

We’re going to have to do this and we’re going to have to do it soon, before we turn up at school for the first day of term and find there’s nothing left to defend.