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Teacher recruitment – Should we be looking to late career changers?

Illustration of older teacher stood in front of a blackboard teaching a geometry lesson

If the same teacher recruitment well keeps running dry, asks Melissa Benn, why not try enlarging the pool of potential candidates?

Melissa Benn
by Melissa Benn
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Last month, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lucy Kellaway about teacher recruitment. The former Financial Times columnist left journalism in her 50s to embark on an entirely new career as a classroom teacher.

What’s interesting about Kellaway is that she not only swapped one profession for another, but also set up an organisation called Now Teach to help others make the same journey.

Intense pressure

Kellaway has frequently written about her experiences of working in state education for her old newspaper. She used a series of FT columns to examine some of the key issues affecting state education. This included unsustainable workloads.

I spoke to her soon after the publication of a DfE report on that very topic. The department’s ‘Working Lives of Teachers and Leaders’ study is long and detailed, but we can summarise its findings as, ‘Teachers and leaders are under great pressure.’

A separate study published in April by the NEU, ‘State of education: workload and wellbeing’ similarly found that many in education are facing ‘unmanageable’ workloads.

This is hardly a new problem, of course. Though it’s striking to look back over the past decade and see just how little has changed. That’s despite repeated efforts by both government and unions to reform working cultures.

Kellaway’s experience provides an interesting frame through which to consider various issues raised in both reports. The first of these is simply financial. By the time she entered teaching, Kellaway had already paid off her mortgage and her children had left home.

By the time she entered teaching, Kellaway had already paid off her mortgage and her children had left home

Observing her younger colleagues, she’s seen the intense pressure they’re under. They’re trying to meet the financial demands of setting up homes and raising families on middling salaries that haven’t kept pace with inflation.

The lesson to be learnt here? That teaching simply doesn’t pay enough for what it demands.

Enforcing limits

Kellaway’s second key observation is that, to put it crudely, she had already met and satisfied certain ‘status’ ambitions well before she entered the teaching profession. Having been a national newspaper columnist for the past 30 years, by that point she had nothing left to prove.

Instead, she became increasingly motivated by her writing job feeling empty. This was compared to the value she saw in improving the next generation’s life chances.

Now aged 63, Kellaway has also come to understand and increasingly enforce her own limits. This has enabled her to keep the job both sustainable and highly enjoyable.

“I absolutely love being in the classroom,” she says. “What could be (better) than spending your life with teenagers? They’re funny, and by definition, optimistic, because they’re at the beginning of their lives?”

“What could be (better) than spending your life with teenagers?”

Again, however, she is acutely aware of how her younger colleagues lack such freedom of choice with respect to their careers. They have to contend with working days of 12 hours if they want to earn more or rise up the ladder.

Teacher recruitment talent pool

The takeaway is perhaps that when it comes to teacher recruitment, we need to create a larger pool of experienced classroom teachers. And we need to properly pay and genuinely value them for their talent and experience.

At the same time, however, we also need to create the conditions that will allow them concentrate on their jobs. They shouldn’t have to take on additional administrative stress.

Finally, Kellaway highlights how the drive to get top marks and secure a place at a top university can create incredible stress. This is not just for young people, but teachers and school leaders too.

Having worked in both hyper-ambitious schools with high staff turnovers, and more relaxed settings where greater emphasis is placed on cultivating good relationships, she’s seen first-hand the great value of the latter.

It’s still difficult to question the relentless prioritising of achievement within contemporary state education. It may be that the issues faced by today’s overworked teachers can be traced back to a broader excessive emphasis on individual achievement across wider society – and not enough on the importance of social equity or harmony.

Melissa Benn (@Melissa_Benn) is a writer and campaigner, and visiting professor of education at York St John University

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