John Tomsett: Lesson number one - we need truly great teachers

Theresa May must address the teaching crisis, says York headteacher John Tomsett.
Theresa May must address the teaching crisis, says York headteacher John Tomsett.
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I HAVE been a teacher for 28 years, a headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 51, this much I know about how we are on our own when it comes to the teacher recruitment crisis. Only great teaching will make our country’s education system great.

Finding great teachers isn’t so simple, however. We are in the middle of a teacher recruitment and retention crisis in England. And it is not just a matter of having enough teachers to stand in front of classes, it is the quality of those teachers which is an equally serious concern.

In the last four years, the number of recruits to teaching has been insufficient to meet demand. In 2015, for instance, 18,000 teachers left England to teach abroad whilst only 17,000 teachers were trained.

I know of a school whose science department comprises 17 teachers, but only two have science degrees. The school is in one of the most deprived wards in the country. More than most, its students need the very best teachers.

If you cannot recruit enough teachers, then just find a way of teaching which requires fewer teachers. I have heard the notion of a single teacher in Sidcup video conferencing Physics A-level lessons to classrooms scattered across the country lauded as the next big thing.

I have had sufficient conversations with policy-makers to convince me that 60 students taught in a hall by a teacher supported by a teaching assistant is the future as far as the DfE is concerned. The DfE’s obsession with all things Chinese makes so much more sense if teaching students by the hall-full is where we’re heading.

The DfE seems to have almost given up. The first finding of the Public Accounts Committee report entitled Training New Teachers, published on June 10, was damning: “The Department for Education has missed its targets to fill teacher training places four years running and has no plan for how to achieve them in future.” When it comes to recruiting teachers, the DfE isn’t much help.

Other Government policies are actually making it even harder for schools. Many teachers working in our schools come from Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Canada, but they will only be able to remain working in the UK if they earn over £35,000 thanks to Theresa May’s genius piece of legislation which became law in April 2016.

The new rules state that anyone from non-EU countries working in the UK from April 6, 2016, must earn over £35,000 or be deported. The impact on schools is being felt already. A headteacher friend of mine has recently lost two mathematics teachers.

So, what should we do?

First, school leaders need to eradicate the fear from our schools’ corridors. We have to stop the madness of overbearing quality assurance systems, penal performance-related pay policies and ridiculous policy which has no grounding in evidence.

Secondly, even though most don’t teach for the money, we have to pay our teachers as much as we can. Six years of pay freezes and below average pay rises have led to real terms pay cuts of around 10 per cent since 2008.

Thirdly, we have to prioritise continuous professional development and learning. We are the worst trained profession in the country. Think about it: when did you last receive training which changed your classroom practice and improved your students’ outcomes?

If we do not make teaching a much more attractive profession we are in danger of seeing the school system in England implode.

At Huntington, I want to work with teachers who are academically well-qualified, who enjoy working with children, who are prepared to work really hard for those children, who have genuine humility, who are open to improving their practice for the entire length of their teaching career, who are idealists, who acknowledge the fallibility of the human condition, who always see the funny side of things, and teachers who teach for the love, not the money.

In return I want to provide teachers with the very best opportunities for continuous professional development and learning, give them as much professional autonomy as I can over how they manage their working lives, treat them with respect, honesty and kindness, show them unqualified humanity, acknowledge that they have a life to live outside of school, give them free tea and coffee, and, even if they do it for the love, to pay teachers well.

If Theresa May really does care about the ordinary working class family, then sorting out the teacher recruitment crisis should be a priority.

John Tomsett is headteacher of Huntington School in York. This is an edited version of his blog on teacher retention.