As students opened their GCSE results envelopes a few weeks ago, the curtain came down on my short-lived teaching career.
My last act as an educator was to pore over the data of the small Year 11 English class that I guided through the obstacle course that was the 2021/22 academic year. Their results were typical of a GCSE cohort whose education has been badly damaged by the tumult of the last few years. Meanwhile, I contributed to another statistical trend: newly-qualified teachers quitting with only a few months or years of service under their belt.
Back in June 2020, I had a burning desire to do something ‘useful’ and ‘make a difference’. Fuelled by these good intentions, I soon found myself on an initial teacher training (ITT) course, where I was placed at two well-regarded rural academies. An ITT year severely impacted by lockdowns and school closures was a fascinating and enriching experience, but one that left me ill-prepared for the reality of full-blown teaching when everything got back to something approaching ‘normal’.
On paper I had the softest landing imaginable. I was offered a job at one of the academies I trained at, a small rural school with a catchment area of picturesque villages. If I couldn’t settle here, I wouldn’t settle anywhere. It turns out I couldn’t and I wouldn’t. I lasted just six months before handing my notice in.
Fundamentally I had underestimated just how demanding classroom teaching in England is right now. Big gaps in prior learning, the drop in living standards and the lack of rigour for many students during the lockdown years has made managing and motivating a group of young people harder than ever. Teachers are also competing with an endless stream of distractions that previously didn’t exist. A 200-word creative writing homework does not stand a chance against a TikTok binge. School leaders are well aware of the strain on staff, but have generally done little to reduce the mountain of box-ticking and bureaucracy they have to scale every term.
Our cohort of trainee teachers were promised a starting salary of £30,000, but no sooner had I dusted off my old copy of Macbeth than the Government (desperately looking for savings to offset their Covid-mitigation splurges) canned the policy. This meant we were not only starting an already challenging job in the most difficult of circumstances, but we would only be paid the equivalent of £130 a day (before deductions).
That already modest day rate drops dramatically when you add in the actual hours required to perform the role adequately. I had budgeted for a modest wage, but the coming inflationary storm had other ideas and the salary soon became unsustainable. Not only was I struggling to fill up my car, but I also had zero motivation to mark the stacks of exercise books piling up on my desk when I was being paid so little.
Marking was just one of the never-ending list of tasks that ranged from the essential (setting and reporting assessment) to the tedious (data entry) to the downright disheartening (phoning parents about their 11-year-old’s new vaping habit).
Ultimately the pay, the workload expectations, the intense stress and the complete absence of job satisfaction were not a fair trade for those rare flashes of appreciation from students, parents and school leaders. If I had any doubts about the change of heart, they were put to rest when only nine parents out of a class of 24 showed up to my Year 9 parents evening, which I sacrificed six hours of my free time for. If the parents and their children didn’t care, why should I?
Of course, some people will have had the fulfilling teaching experience I was originally looking for, but judging by conversations with other teachers and the many online support groups for the profession, my experience of feeling under-valued and over-worked is far from atypical. Studies back this up, with one poll finding that 44% of teachers say they plan to quit within five years.
And bear in mind that I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve managed to settle quite comfortably back into my previous industry and am happy with my decision. But I have a real concern about what is coming down the track. As the father of a daughter who will soon enter secondary school, I worry about the quality of education she will receive. The martyrs willing to put up with low pay and huge workloads may be thin on the ground by the time she begins her secondary school studies. After all, what self-respecting graduate would pursue a teaching career when their peers are earning twice their salary and get to work from home three days a week?
As Tim Clark outlined on CapX last week, the new government needs to focus keenly on recruitment and retention of staff, not reheated political battles between unions and politicians. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s coming down the line. The Government has, belatedly, raised the starting salary of a new teacher to £28,000-a-year (although I will believe it when the money hits the teachers’ bank accounts), but by largely resisting significant increases for more experienced staff they have set in motion a course of events that will almost certainly end with strikes.
That industrial action will likely dominate this academic year, all the while moving us further from improving outcomes for young people or the over-worked, under-resourced people who teach them.
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