It is fascinating and frustrating to realise that the same issues face teachers across the world. The issues perplexing us in Scotland are generating similar doubts and debates internationally.
A superb recent blog by Bill Cirone, superintendent of schools in Santa Barbara, California, notes that Santa Barbara is short of teachers, a shortage attributable to a range of factors which have made the profession less attractive than was once the case (read this at http://bit.ly/1M6539b).
Teaching, says Mr Cirone, pays significantly less than comparable professions. He also however pinpoints the demoralising impact of the toxic language in which the media, politicians and commentators criticise teachers, their unions, their work ethic and their pensions. The results are clear. One out of five new US teachers leaves the classroom within the first three years, even more quickly in urban school districts.
These tendencies are echoed in the UK. Research by Liverpool University on English schools indicated that turnover, but not wastage, of teachers from secondary schools correlated with GCSE results (inversely), eligibility for free school meals and special needs. In other words, the more challenging the school circumstances, the greater the staff drift from the school. It might be added that a major research programme was hardly required to unearth this wisdom.
Mr Cirone saw negative public attitudes to teachers as one key factor in accelerating turnover but he also identified the increasingly challenging bureaucratic regulations that require more paperwork and non-teaching tasks than ever before, again increasingly the case across the UK.
Despite the Scottish government’s well-received 2011 paper, Teaching Scotland’s Future, on teacher education, Scottish teacher numbers are falling (by five per cent from 2005 to 2014), significant shortages exist in specific subject areas and geographical locations, and class sizes are rising.
Workforce planning is not working and local authorities have been offered a Scottish government block grant to maintain teacher numbers. There is a sense however that the grant is more a sop to the teaching unions than a commitment to rational planning. The issues are less about absolute numbers and more about professional morale and the willingness (indeed enthusiasm) of older teachers to seek early retirement.
The question which Mr Cirone’s challenge poses to politicians, civil servants and local education officials, as well as to the teaching profession itself, whether in California, England or Scotland, is how can we recreate teaching as a profession in which its participants take pride and which is held in high public esteem and which attracts the best of a new generation? That will happen only if politicians cease to utilise a market narrative to describe education. Schools are not competing companies producing a commodity for sale to the highest bidder.
It will happen only if the absolute priority given to examination outcomes – irrespective of the validity, reliability or relevance of the examinations – is abandoned along with the bureaucratic paper-chase that distracts every teacher from the job in hand.
It will happen only if schools are encouraged to cooperate and not to compete and if schools encourage learners also to cooperate rather than to compete.
It will happen only if we return to first principles. Schools exist, among other things, to provide a service to society as a whole – not merely to parents as “consumers”. They do that by educating a new generation in the skills which make society work, by preparing young people for further learning, employment and citizenship, and by helping young people grow into adults, infused with confidence, questioning minds and the human qualities of kindness, compassion and fellow-feeling.
It’s time for a paradigm-shift, across the educational globe, to save a beleaguered profession and the young people we teach.
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.