In the second blog of our series looking at key education policy issues ahead of the next general election, David Montagu explores why and how the next government should prioritise the teaching workforce in its plans for education.
The Royal Society has set out its rationale for all political parties to undertake a governmental review of the education system and a long-term plan to implement its recommendations. Of course, the complexity of the education system makes any significant reform a daunting prospect. But if ‘most of everything’ needs to be changed to overhaul it, then it would make good sense to begin by reinvigorating the teaching workforce. After all, as the American educationist, Linda Darling-Hammond observed, teaching is ‘the profession on which all other professions depend’. Teachers are the lifeblood of the education system, and the success of any meaningful reform will require their support and creative input.
But Government data for England show teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers and that too few new recruits are joining it. In many secondary subjects, there is an increasing reliance on non-subject-specialist teachers to take lessons. Anecdotally, some secondary school mathematics, computing and science departments now have no recognised subject specialists.
Any major system reform will need to reverse this situation. A compelling vision is required that, with teachers’ buy-in, resets the teaching profession. This vision needs to recognise teachers’ value and agency by restoring to them the professional autonomy and responsibility they appear to have lost. It might include:
- less prescription and greater trust in how teachers teach students.
- changes to the inspection regime so it is perceived to be more supportive and less punitive.
- formulation of accountability measures that value developing the analytical, problem-solving, critical thinking and creative capabilities employers increasingly need alongside knowledge acquisition.
- embracing AI and other digital technologies so that, for instance, teachers can potentially provide for the specific learning needs of individual students, or work more flexibly, and so that students know how to use these tools properly and about their limitations.
- reinstating subject-specific knowledge as an essential focus within initial teacher education and throughout teachers’ professional careers.
- commitment to a model of sustainable funding for provisioning high-quality professional development on the understanding that this may require absence from the classroom.
In this new system, teachers would be enabled to become what Andreas Schleicher has called ‘active agents of their own professional growth’, free to teach innovatively, and trusted as the principal reformers of education in schools and colleges. Teachers would be more responsible for interpreting the curriculum and for driving their own professional development, an essential requirement for a teaching career. Ministerial endorsement, including through at least an entitlement to 35 hours’ high-quality, subject-specific, continuing professional development would enable teachers to refresh their knowledge, gain new inspiration and embrace change, such as the challenge of integrating AI within teaching and learning. Teaching would become challenging for the right reasons, and an attractive career choice, with new opportunities arising for teachers to follow rewarding pathways that recognise their expertise.
The benefits to teachers of creating a system that recognises the value of high-quality CPD could reasonably be expected to lead to improved student attainment and, in due course, higher economic performance. Recently published modelling of the impact of teachers on the academic progress of their students has indicated that improving teacher quality could result in an additional tax revenue of more than £870 million annually after 10 years, rising to £3.2 billion within 20 years.
Of course, the sweeping nature and types of changes described here cannot be achieved overnight. A review of the education system would need to culminate in a properly considered process for such a transformation to happen. This would need to include a thorough reassessment of teacher recruitment, training, and retention, supported by the required financial and cross-party support to ensure it is truly comprehensive and has heft.
Such a reassessment should be a top priority for the next Government. It would be an ambitious undertaking, one that should not be shirked because of its complexity.