3 November 2021

Why are teachers so miserable?

By Tim Clark

No school can be better than its teachers. One of the few positives to come out of the pandemic has been to prove beyond all doubt, as parents valiantly struggled with home tuition, the importance of trained, experienced and committed professional classroom teachers.

And yet, the profession is approaching crisis point. Even before the additional demands of teaching during lockdown, the number of teachers leaving the profession has increased year on year with many newly qualified teachers leaving after only a couple of years. At the same time, the numbers training have simply not kept pace with demand.

And this, worryingly, coincides with a continued rise in pupil numbers. The shortage will become even more pronounced over the next few years as the large number of teachers in their fifties approach retirement. Before Covid, approximately one in ten schools found it difficult to appoint a Head and for five consecutive years schools were struggling to recruit across all roles, from teachers to senior leaders. A survey for the National Association of Head Teachers last year found that 47% of Heads were considering quitting the profession early once they had steered their schools through the pandemic.

Even before Covid struck, low morale was a problem in schools. In January 2020 The Independent reported that one in 20 teachers suffer from mental health problems, up from 1% in the 1990’s (although this may be partially the result of more openness and comprehensive reporting). Professor John Jerrim from UCL, who led the research, said. ‘The teaching profession in England is currently in the midst of a crisis and one potential reason why it’s struggling to recruit and retain enough teachers is due to the pressures of the job’.

For Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), ‘There is no doubt that the excessive demands upon education staff and the poor working practices they endure in schools and colleges are helping create a toxic work environment’.

This, again, was before the onslaught of working during school closures. So what is the root cause? Pay? Workload? Bureaucracy? Low staff morale? Poor pupil behaviour? A lack of respect? A lack of public recognition? Ofsted? Continual change and ever increasing demands? The answer is probably a mixture of some or all.

What is to be done?

Firstly, recruitment to the profession. The Department for Education is already discussing raising the starting salary to £30,000, a very positive move which will, hopefully, send out a clear message about the importance of teaching as a career. Once trained, however, we need to keep teachers in the profession. That means pay progression should be simple, transparent and fair. The status of teachers needs to be on a par with doctors and nurses.

The vast majority of teachers are hardworking and dedicated professionals – they are not uncooperative, militant trouble makers. Although external observation and inspection are essential to raise standards, Ofsted could be seen as much more professionally supportive rather than as a stick with which to beat hard-pressed teachers.

There also needs to be a period of consolidation, not a continual moving of the goalposts. The Ofsted Framework (an outline of for what inspectors are primarily looking), for example, has changed six times in the past nine years. 

The real question for individual schools, however, is how to recruit and to keep the best teachers. With 2,500 secondary schools to choose from, and ten times that number of primary schools, teachers will simply vote with their feet. But there are a few steps schools can take to attract talented staff and hang on to them.

A better pay progression system, as mentioned above, is a key part of that: staff must not be required to jump through additional hoops to progress. If staff are doing a good job, they must be rewarded. Equally, for those who underperform, the appropriate action must be taken.

Bureaucracy needs to be kept to an absolute minimum to enable staff to concentrate on the three essentials of teaching – preparation, delivery and assessment. Everything else is secondary. The good news is that since 2019 Ofsted has recognised the pressures on staff and will consider how teachers handle their workload as part of their judgement on a school’s leadership and management. 

Strict rules on pupil behaviour support teachers in maintaining the highest standards and enable them to do their jobs properly. Not taking a strong line on rudeness, defiance, aggression and disruption not only prevents teachers from doing their jobs well, it also gives the impression that staff are neither valued nor valuable.

Finally, schools need to protect and to respect their staff, not only from unruly pupils, but from aggressive parents, unnecessary paperwork, excessive cover and duties. A school should be a happy, purposeful and cohesive working environment in which teachers are treated as professionals. They are, after all, a school’s greatest asset.

This is not a question of placing the needs of teachers above those of pupils. Empowering staff to do their jobs properly, means pupils will achieve the highest standards. School leaders must enable teachers to teach and pupils to learn.

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Tim Clark was a secondary school Head for 18 years. He now runs a consultancy specialising in school improvement.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.