Jayne Dowle: Long hours and low pay adds up to teaching crisis

Do we expect too much of teachers?
Do we expect too much of teachers?
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IS it any wonder teachers are burning out so quickly? A new report headed by former schools minister David Laws finds that classroom staff in England are working longer hours and have lower starting pay than in most other developed countries in the world.

The average secondary school teacher in this country works more than 48 hours a week, with one in five putting in more than 60. Despite this, initial salaries are well below average, compared with other member countries of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).

Those who have never taught might argue that teaching brings its own satisfaction, but it also has to pay the bills.

I was doing some research of my own the other day. Actually, I was looking for careers advice for my son, but was distracted – and then horrified – by the teaching vacancies at my local further education college. There’s a job going for a teacher of maths at GCSE. Do you know how much the hourly rate is? £11.40. That’s only a few pounds more than discount supermarket chain Lidl offers to its customer assistants, who start on between £8.25 and £9.64 an hour.

You don’t need to be a teacher of Maths to work out that for all that would be expected of you in the classroom, you would be better off stacking shelves and sitting at a till. What value are A Levels, a degree, and a post-graduate teaching qualification?

This is not to mention the euphemism known as “continuing professional development”, otherwise known as being forced to undertake further study in your own time to justify your ability to teach. If you were a young person, considering teaching as a profession, wouldn’t this make you think twice?

The matter of fair pay for sensible hours is just one of the reasons why teaching faces such a recruitment and retention problem. Earlier this year, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee issued a highly-critical report into teacher recruitment. It said that the Department for Education had missed its targets to fill teacher training places for four years running and had, “no plan for how to achieve them in future”.

This is despite a series of high-profile recruitment campaigns and publicly-funded bursaries designed to attract high-calibre graduates into the profession. Why though, would any twentysomething want to embark upon a career where long hours and low pay come as standard? I thank those who are prepared to do so, or my offspring would be sitting in empty classrooms.

However, with a daughter at primary school and a son at a secondary academy, I am all too aware of the ongoing effects of the teacher shortage. All too often my son comes home and tells me he’s had a supply teacher again. And this will be in a crucial lesson such as maths or science. He’s studying for his GCSEs now. How can there be any kind of continuity in his learning?

My daughter, and her friends, complain that her school often relies on teaching assistants when their “official” teacher is occupied elsewhere. What they fail to understand is that their teacher might out of the classroom because she is engaged in producing pages of justification to satisfy the bureaucratic culture.

Those 60-hour weeks David Laws talks about? As Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, puts it: “The report confirms what the NUT has been saying – that excessive accountability measures, which have little to do with improving education, are the driving force behind this long-hours culture.”

When will the Government listen? The Laws report is just the latest of many investigations into why are our schools are not producing the results they should. Have any of them made a discernible difference? I implore the Education Secretary, Justine Greening, to take notice and 
then take action.

Teachers should be paid on a scale which reflects their qualifications, and allowed to use their working hours to provide engaging lessons. No job is without its pressures, but they should not be expected to meet such punishing levels of accountability unless it is clear that they are not delivering.

In wider school terms, there is far too much emphasis on targets and percentages of exam passes and not nearly enough focus on the children themselves.

I went to a presentation at a local secondary school with Lizzie the other week. The headteacher stood on the stage and the only thing he showed us on his PowerPoint was the number of his pupils who had achieved five grades A to C at GCSE.

Was that it, I wondered? No mention of inspirational teachers or exciting lessons.

I ask again. Who would willingly embark upon a job which required such levels of personal sacrifice for such high amounts of stress and so little reward?