School leaders – you can solve the retention crisis

Fergal Roche

Who is going to make sure we have enough school leaders and teachers in three years’ time? We currently require high numbers of additional school places and more schools if we are to cope with the rising numbers of school age children.

But we are also running out of teachers. Fewer people are joining the profession than we need and far too many are planning to leave. Recent surveys by The Key and the NUT have revealed that 50% of school leaders and teachers do not expect to be in post in three years’ time. I don’t want to be alarmist at a time when the news in general is putting us all on edge, but if those teachers’ intentions turn into reality, then we are heading for a bit of a precipice. I say ‘a bit of’ a precipice, but either we’re heading over it or we aren’t. And we are.

When we see this kind of thing happening, the most cathartic way of dealing with the associated stress has been to blame the government, blame the unions, blame the media … or blame the ‘difficult bloody parents’ for being so negative about the profession. But if you as school leaders put your heads together for a few minutes, I think you will see that the most effective way of combating the issue is to take direct action yourselves.

“Come on, Fergal, be reasonable!” you might say. “It’s all very well coming up with strategies for attracting staff to Reading or Basingstoke, but come up to coastal Lincolnshire or down to Thanet and you’ll see the problems we’re facing.” OK. I’m not going to propose how to attract people, but I am going to have a go at suggesting how you might retain them.

Energise your staff by making it clear to them how they are making an impact. Point out to them the difference they are making.

Speak to your PTA and parent governors about the positive effect of parents saying thank you to teachers and support staff. And saying thank you for specific things is even more special. Consider how they might encourage more parents to do so.

Don’t allow a depressed glass-half-empty mood to prevail in the staff room, but keep reminding people of the importance of their work. That work, when done well, is life changing, life developing and life enhancing.  It’s even more so for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, as the Education Endowment Foundation points out.

Teachers have the ability to craft lives, to inspire. A few years ago I was standing outside a church on Christmas Day with my family in the middle of rural Kent. Someone tapped me on the shoulder and I turned round to find a 6’4’’ young man standing over me. He asked if I remembered him – never an easy question for a teacher. After a moment I twigged that his name was Roderick, and I’d taught him about ten years previously. Roderick asked me if I remembered a major bollocking I had given him in Year 8 – also never an easy question for a teacher! He said that I had told him that he was letting himself down, that he was one of the cleverest pupils I had taught, and that if he didn’t get straight As at A-level and get to a top university I would seek him out and hound him for his laziness. I had only very vague memories of such an outburst (though I’m sure I would never have acted so melodramatically. I was an English teacher, for goodness sake). Anyway, Roderick said that he had just graduated with a first class degree from Imperial College London, and was about to start his masters in something very clever like chemical engineering. He just thought I’d like to know …

While I can’t say that has happened to me very often in life beyond the classroom, it reminded me  of the power of the teacher and the sustained effect you can have on a young life. There just don’t exist other jobs which have this kind of impact.

I know it’s tough putting all the pressure on the headteacher and other school leaders to step up to the plate on this issue, but it’s critical. Tell your teachers how great they are. And make them work differently.

School leaders have clearly not got to grips with the workload issue. There still exists a sort of martyr syndrome where too many heads are proud of declaring how many hours they have worked that week. I am sure someone like Matthew Syed or Malcolm Gladwell would label this a strange kind of dissonance approach, where we know that long hours are putting people off working in schools, but we like the idea of getting praise for working them.

It’s a barking approach, that is nudging us to that precipice I mentioned earlier. It is not acceptable for people to work crazy hours. South Farnham Primary forbids teachers from taking work home and kicks them out if they are still there at 6pm. If staff do have to stay at school for a parents’ evening, then the school gives staff a decent tea beforehand. They employ cleaning staff to wash up coffee cups after break, and don’t allow teachers to work in the staff room on their breaks, to encourage a culture where staff give themselves a proper break and stop thinking about work for a few precious moments.

I also question the value of teachers in primary schools slaving for weeks to produce written reports for parents. As a consumer of such reports myself, I have to say I’ve always found face-to-face meetings with teachers to be more enlightening on my children’s progress.

It’s time for us to be bolder in deciding how we will use our time in schools on higher value tasks only. If we recognise teaching to be the leading profession that it is, then we must treat teachers extremely carefully. We need to protect them, nurture them, even spoil them. One school I know offers staff the chance to bring in their ironing, to be done by a professional ironer for a very reasonable sum. Another has regular pizza evenings. The point is that school leaders need to do their utmost to rescue their teachers from drowning in administrative trivia and painful, low value activity.

We want teaching to be as prestigious in the UK as it is in Singapore or Finland and I’m going to do all I can to encourage this.

We need a revolution. And it needs to be led by heads. And governors – you need to ensure that it is.

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