The cracks are beginning to show

Written by: Dr Mary Bousted | Published:
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary, Association of Teachers and Lecturers

From teacher recruitment to examination reform, the cracks in Michael Gove’s grand experiment are becoming too big to ignore, says Dr Mary Bousted

2017 is set fair to be a very challenging year for secondary schools. The tsunami of change set in train by Michael Gove, former secretary of state for education, continues to create aftershock waves.

This is the first year that the new, linear GCSEs in English and maths will be examined. The teaching of these new syllabuses has been hampered by the absence of vital information and guidance which has left teachers feeling unprepared, nervous and worried. Without even accurate knowledge of what the pass mark will be (is it a Level 4 or 5?), without enough practice test papers, and lacking detailed guidance on the requirements of the syllabus, teachers are, as one memorably told me, left floundering in the dark.

Nor do the vast majority of parents have any idea what the new numerical grades mean. Nor how they relate to the alphabetical A to F grades that their teenagers will be awarded in their other GCSE subjects.

It is almost as though the system has been designed to cause the greatest amount of confusion possible – and I predict that student and parental reaction to linear, end-of-course exams, and the resultant grades awarded, will not be positive.

The crisis of teacher recruitment and retention remains top of school leaders’ concerns.

They are not reassured by school standards minister, Nick Gibb’s constant reassertion that there is no crisis in teacher supply. Nor is the National Audit Office (NAO), which concluded in its most recent report that: “Government does not understand and shows little curiosity about the size and extent of teacher shortages around the country and assumes that headteachers will deal with the gaps.”

The last sentence deserves re-reading. The NAO’s criticism could not be more coruscating.

The government is not merely ignorant of the teacher supply crisis (which is grave enough) but is, seemingly, happy to remain ignorant. An astonishing state of affairs.

The apparent complacency over teacher supply is not limited only to the Department for Education. At a recent meeting in the Treasury, I was informed by a government minister that he was not “convinced” that there was a shortage of teachers.

Somewhat flabbergasted, I replied that if the facts did not fit his hypothesis, there was little I could do to change his mind. Because the facts are clear. The recorded rate of vacancies and temporarily filled positions in state-funded schools has doubled between 2011 and 2014.

But even this does not reveal the true state of affairs in many schools, where teachers are being required to double-up exam classes, and to teach out of their subject areas. One in five maths and English lessons are now being taught by teachers with no more than a GCSE in those core subjects. School leaders, desperate to manage the situation, report that they are having to resort to more and more extreme measures to keep the timetable covered.

Standards of education cannot fail, in the end, to be affected by a teacher supply crisis. No education system, as the mantra goes, can exceed the quality of its teachers. When this essential commodity is in short supply, then things start going wrong.

Note that I started this article on the topic of exam reform, and moved on to teacher supply. I want to finish by making the connection. It is not simply that, as a country, we are failing to recruit enough teachers (although this is certainly true in itself). The issue is that we are also failing to retain teachers. And the key reason for teacher wastage in the early years of their careers is excessive workload, caused by fear of an inconsistent Ofsted inspection regime, and too much curriculum and qualification reform, badly implemented.

Sooner or later, the cracks caused by Michael Gove’s grand experiment will become too big to ignore. Parents will begin to notice. And that is when things will get very difficult for the government.

  • Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. Visit


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