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Weak leadership, not workload, is forcing teachers to quit

It’s weak leadership, not workload, that drives too many teachers out of the profession – so why are we letting it happen, asks David Didau...

  • Weak leadership, not workload, is forcing teachers to quit

It’s widely accepted that far too many teachers quit in their first few years of teaching. The government are pretty concerned about this as teacher shortages are poised to soar, with an expected 400,000 additional children due to make their way through the system over the next decade.

Currently almost half of the fully qualified teachers under the age of 60 are not working in the classroom, and so it seems sensible to ensure that as well as convincing new graduates to give teaching a punt, we make some sort of effort to convince those who’ve already given up a portion of their lives to qualifying as teachers to consider staying in the profession for a bit longer.

Great plans

Most surveys of disgruntled teachers have cited unnecessary workload burdens as a fair part of the reason for why so many decide teaching is a less attractive career option than they first supposed.

Whilst it might be tempting for those who’ve dedicated their lives to advertising or commercial law to point to teachers’ generous paid holidays and dismiss us as whingers who don’t know we’re born, the truth is that few people – teachers included – mind hard work; but we do tend to resent pointless, time-consuming make-work tasks that appear to contribute little or nothing to children’s education.

The truth is that when work seems purposeful and allows for a sense of mastery and autonomy then it can be rewarding rather than soul-crushing.

The government’s plan to address the retention crisis is threefold: first, to address the workload issue; second, to try and find ways to make teaching more flexible; and third, to support new teachers with the Early Career Framework. All of these are great ideas – but there’s a real risk none will actually address the root cause.

And that root cause is? The horrible car crash of perverse incentives and weak school leadership. The cliff-edge accountability pressures of league tables and high stakes inspection make it seem desirable to find ways to game the system.

Such gaming, in turn, allows weak leaders to direct teachers to waste their time on things that are unlikely to enrich children’s lives. We know that a relatively small number of schools – so called ‘sausage factories’ – are responsible for a disproportionate number of teachers quitting the system.

Valuable assets

As teachers are such a precious and hard to replace resource, such wastage is criminally irresponsible – and unless school leaders are directly held to account we’re unlikely to be able to deal with it.

One approach would be to make staff turnover part of Ofsted’s judgement on the quality of leadership and management in a school – when too many teachers leave a school it should prompt some fairly searching questions about why this is going on and what the school is trying to do to retain its most valuable asset.

And this is the key point: teachers are a valuable asset. As teacher shortages start to bite over the coming years, teachers will – or certainly should – become increasingly aware of their own worth and refuse to tolerate poor leadership.

If this school is forcing you to waste your precious time on soul-deadening guff then the school across town will welcome you with open arms.

Teachers must start to ask hard questions about the management ethos in schools, and schools will – if they have any sense – compete in presenting themselves as enlightened regimes where individuality is valued and hard work is not taken for granted.

In such a system, teachers will demand – and so should schools – that the wonderful spirit of the Early Career Framework is made flesh and that teachers are nurtured, challenged and genuinely supported. Not to do so is to be complicit in a scandal.

David Didau is an independent education consultant and writer. He blogs at learningspy.co.uk and is the author of several books, the latest of which is Making Kids Cleverer: A Manifesto for Closing the Advantage Gap (Crown House).

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