Take the grind out of school

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
Geoff Barton, general secretary, Association of School and College Leaders

Respected, but still overworked and underpaid – we are simply not valuing our teachers highly enough, says Geoff Barton in SecEd

One of the great strengths of British education is the quality of our teachers. That shouldn’t be a surprise in a country which boasts great universities, teacher training, and educational leadership.

But given our national tendency towards gloomy self-deprecation, we sometimes don’t fully appreciate the excellence of our public services.

So, it is refreshing to be given an international perspective in a recently published report by the Varkey Foundation, across 35 countries, asking the public for their views of teachers. Its Global Teacher Status Index ranked the UK 13th overall, and the second highest European country of all those polled, just behind Greece. It also found that UK respondents have a higher opinion of their country’s education system than those in all the other major European economies.

Despite the drip-drip of controversies and negative headlines, faith in the British education system has actually increased over the last five years. It isn’t the government that has done that. It is our schools and colleges and the teachers which make them tick. The views expressed by respondents in the UK are no doubt informed, not by the corrosive discourse about education, but by their direct experience of teachers, their professionalism, their commitment, and the quality of education they give to young people.

So much for the good news. The bad news is that the Varkey Foundation report shows that we are simply not valuing our teachers highly enough. This is true in financial terms. The public thinks the starting salary for secondary school teachers should be almost £31,500, a great deal more than the actual starting salary of around £24,000. Indeed, the report tells us that the starting salary for a British secondary school teacher is lower than in all the other major EU economies.

But it is not only in financial terms that we undervalue our teachers. We are also asking them to do too much. British teachers surveyed say they are working longer hours per week (50.9) than anywhere else surveyed in the world apart from New Zealand, Singapore and Chile.

The summary of this state of affairs is straightforward. We are literally overworking and underpaying our teachers. No government should be surprised that the result is a recruitment and retention crisis. And that is indeed exactly what has happened, creating a critical shortage of teachers in school across the country, and often particularly in schools in the most challenging circumstances.

What is to be done? The issue of pay can be solved only by the government. It holds all the cards. On workload, however, there is a shared responsibility. At ASCL’s annual conference in March, we made a joint commitment with the education secretary and the chief inspector of Ofsted to tackle this issue.

The education secretary pledged that there would be no new changes to tests, exams and the curriculum for the remainder of this Parliament, beyond those already announced. This may sound a little bit like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, given that there have been so many changes in recent years, many of which are still working their way through the system, but let’s give credit where it is due and welcome a commitment which at least presses the pause button.

This isn’t just a job for government, however, but also for the profession. To this end, we took part in the recent workload advisory group on data collection which published its findings this month.

It includes a recommendation that school and trust leaders should not have more than two or three attainment data collection points a year, and that these should be used to inform clear actions. We know that schools across the country are looking at how to tackle workload, and the purpose of this guidance is to give them the support and confidence to reduce the burden of data collection. There is plenty more to be done, but we hope that this is one step in the right direction.

One of the most worrying findings of the Varkey Foundation report is that, despite holding teachers in higher regard than most other countries, less than a quarter (23 per cent) of British people would encourage their child to become a teacher – the ninth lowest of all the countries surveyed.

We have to improve that statistic by better valuing our teachers and ensuring that teaching is a job that more parents would want for their children. Taking the grind out of teaching is essential to achieving that goal.

  • Geoff Barton is the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

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