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Geoff Barton: Recruitment and Retention Cannot be Solved by Government Alone. It’s up to us to Tell the Good News in Teaching

If we keep feeding the media only negative stories about the profession we love, we’re making ourselves part of the problem, argues the ASCL general secretary #JustLetMeTeach

Geoff Barton
by Geoff Barton
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A conversation a colleague of mine had with a school leader recently was revealing. Asked why recruitment was a struggle, the answer was instant: “Because of the way the media portrays teaching.”

And a glance at the headlines often confirms that view. Barely a day goes by without stories about workload overload, mountains of bureaucracy, eye-watering accountability, endless reform, and endless stress.

And the trouble is that these headlines are both true and not true. They are true in the sense that all these problems exist. And they are not true in the sense that taken collectively they present a view of teaching which is distorted.

The sum total of these headlines is not the sum total of teaching.

They don’t tell us about the joy of being in a classroom with a group of children we see learn and develop under our guidance.

They don’t tell us about the pride we feel when we see a young person achieve something wonderful, or overcome a barrier in their own life, or gain the confidence in themselves that we helped to unlock.

They don’t tell us about the privilege of being in a staffroom with colleagues who are clever, compassionate, principled human beings, with a shared belief in the value of education.

They don’t tell us about the sheer fun of school life – the sports days, shows and concerts, charity dressing-up days – the moments of laughter that we share together, pupils and staff.

A collective effort

Telling this story, the one that so rarely makes the headlines, has never been more important. Because we are in the midst of a very serious problem. We are not recruiting enough new teachers, and we are not retaining enough of those teachers that we have.

And as nearly 500,000 additional pupils will be coming into our schools over the next five years it is imperative that we come up with a solution.

Traditionally, at this point, you might expect me to say that it is the responsibility of the government to do so. And that is also both true and not true.

It is true in the sense that the government does have some things that it can and must do. Teachers’ pay is the most obvious example.

We cannot go on allowing salary levels to slip further behind other graduate professions. The result of doing so is obvious and inevitable.

But it is not true in the sense that other issues which are hampering recruitment and retention cannot be solved by the government alone. They need a collective effort.

Workload is a case in point. Ministers must press the pause button on reforms, and review the accountability system and the work it generates, but we in school leadership must also act.

We must actively and restlessly look for innovative solutions, software and technology, which would help us to release teachers from the data trail and make marking more manageable.

We have to take the grind out of teaching, and free teachers up to do what they do best, and what makes the most difference to young people – be great teachers.

Mind the language

And we must tell a more positive story ourselves. We cannot blame the media for publishing negative stories about teaching if that is what we give them.

News, to quote a journalistic aphorism, is not all the cats that didn’t get stuck up trees today.

And there is no shortage of experts, organisations, politicians and commentators with the news about the cats that did get stuck up trees. A lot of what they say is right and needs to be said, but as we have already seen, collectively it can have a distorting picture.

So, I’m not advocating a pair of rose-tinted spectacles for all future announcements, reports and press releases. I’m not saying that we must shy away from talking about the difficult issues that can and must be grasped.

But I am saying that it is up to all of us to talk about solutions as well as problems, to mind the language that we use, and to tell the good news about teaching too.

If that sounds evangelical, so be it. Because we need a bit of evangelism about the profession we love.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

We’re sharing this article as part of our #JustLetMeTeach campaign, in which we’re inviting teachers to share the moments when they’ve been able to pass on what excites them about their subject, and what has excited their pupils too – whether or not it helps children pass a test.
This is in response to our survey in which nearly 90% of teachers claimed to have taught ‘pointless’ lessons in order to help children pass national tests; 81% said they didn’t have time in the classroom to follow students’ interests; and 79% suggested that greater autonomy would improve the quality of their teaching.

Get involved by using the #JustLetMeTeach hashtag on social media, or get in touch with us on our Twitter and Facebook pages.

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