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By Sam Strickland

Financial incentives for teachers might not be the panacea they seem. Headteacher Sam Strickland explains why we should be wary of the latest Government plan to recruit teachers in Science, Maths and Computing for challenging schools.

At the Conservative Party Conference held in Manchester during October 2021 the Prime Minister made a commitment pledge. He offered teachers in the early phase of their careers a salary boost of up to £3000 tax free to teach Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Computing in challenging/difficult schools. These payments are set to be in place for the first five years of any given teacher’s career, with a view to both recruiting and retaining specialist teachers in schools and areas that need them the most. In total this approach will cost the government £60 million. Political critics of this policy approach argue that this is nothing more than a recycling of a previously similar and failed policy that offered teachers in the same subject areas up to £7500 in bonus payments.

At face value this sounds like a generous commitment pledge. To those outside the profession it will seem like another example of gold plated contracts for teachers who only work 9am to 3pm and receive 13 weeks off a year. However, at face value it is very easy to ignore what is potentially a ‘Fool’s Gold.’ This commitment pledge misses so many of the deeper, systemic and system-wide issues that make working in a challenging/difficult school all the less inviting. It also makes a number of critical assumptions, which I feel we need to challenge.

Fundamentally, this is why I have cited numerous times that any given Secretary of State should engage in meaningful dialogue with the profession and with school leaders. As a leader myself I have no desire to see our education system fall apart and I have no desire to offer bogus advice. My MO, like that of so many of my colleagues in this profession, is to do the right thing by our schools and by the children we serve. So there are a number of issues I would like to present, as follows:

Firstly, where is the supply chain of teachers specialising in Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Computing? Take Physics, for example, where only one in four of all secondary schools nationally have a Physics specialist. In taking a Physics teacher from one school to position them into another we are in actual fact robbing Peter to pay Paul. I work in Northamptonshire and I can very safely and sadly state that Maths and Computing teachers are like gold dust. There isn’t a huge fishing pool of these people. Of those that are available and willing to move schools there is also a quality issue. Not all Maths and Computing teachers are cut from the same cloth. Some will require far more significant levels of professional development, training and support than others. This presents a huge challenge to schools in an Ofsted category, as they simply do not have the luxury of time to upskill staff.

Then there is the challenge of moving school, namely of establishing yourself in a new school, of learning the new school’s systems, processes and procedures. Having moved schools many times myself I would argue that it takes a good term to establish yourself in a new setting and a year to actually truly learn the school. Again, schools in a category do not have the luxury of this time.

Secondly, there is a pay issue. I have personally cited multiple times that teacher wages are not high enough. At present the starting salary of a teacher is £25,714, with the average salary £41,900. The average sounds significant but it takes, on average, 9 years to hit the top end of the pay scale as a UPS3 teacher following four years of degree and teacher training preparation. So, arguably, it takes 13 years to reach this dizzy height.

When you compare this salary to an engineer whose average salary is £48,000, with a senior engineer earning roughly £72,000 and at the highest, a salary in excess of £150,000 then suddenly teaching is on a back foot. Added on top of this is the small matter of an annual bonus that can range from £1,000 to £30,800 per year. The financial remuneration a teacher, especially with a Maths, Physics, Chemistry or Computing background can command, dwarfs into insignificance by comparison. Whilst it is an uncomfortable truth, and those of us in education want to cite that teaching is like a calling, the hard reality is that there is a huge issue at the sourcing level.

In short, just how attractive and lucrative is teaching (and believe me it pains me to say this)? Unless something meaningful is done to increase teacher salaries so that they are actually competitive at every level, including at a leadership level, then little will be done to overcome the initial recruitment and later on the retention issue/s that we face. Do we want the best, the brightest and the most able to enter and stay in the profession? If so, well money ultimately talks.

As Alan Hansen once famously stated ‘you can’t win anything with kids.’ Whist I would argue that if you are good enough you are old enough there is an issue here for schools. Critically the £3000 being thrown at teachers to move to challenging schools is during their first five years in the profession. The reality for any school is that you need a blend of experienced and relatively new staff to transform a school that is in trouble. If disproportionately your staffing body is made up of teachers in their first few years of teaching then you have an imbalance and an experience gap.

Equally, it is worth remembering that ECTs have a reduced timetable commitment for two, not one, academic years. This in its own right will present challenges to schools and there will be a need to invest more heavily (understandably and rightly) in the training and development of these early phase teachers. It takes a good three years for a secondary phase teacher to become truly comfortable in their own skin and to iron out the initial professional mistakes that they will inevitably have made in the early phase of their career.

There is also a danger that an imbalanced staffing body will see the over-promotion of colleagues too early on in their career. Whilst people have succeeded through being promoted early into their time within the profession there are also those that have not. Promoting staff early tends to work successfully where there is the staffing infrastructure in place to allow those early advancers to thrive. Invariably, Maths, Science and Computing teachers are promoted more swiftly than others as a means of retaining them because, guess what, these people work out fairly quickly that they can command a higher salary. This over-promotion can bring with it many unintended consequences for schools, most notably in the form of professionally immature leaders.

Critically, the missing ingredient that appears to be forgotten within this commitment pledge is the need for quality experienced leaders to move to and work in the most challenging of schools in the country. Having worked in and led a challenging school in an Ofsted category I can very safely and confidently state that the challenges are completely different to working in a lovely leafy school (which I have also worked in as a leader).

The reality is a handful of teachers will not change the culture and dynamic of a school. Yes, they will help by reinforcing a staffing body with expertise but ultimately, and contrary to what some argue, school culture is not amorphous. I find this argument both bizarre and reflective of those holding a very professionally naïve views of school leadership. In schools where leaders know what they want, what they stand for and how a school is to be led, inspired and driven the culture is anything but amorphous. If schools in an Ofsted category are to be transformed then the starting point is to make these schools attractive to leaders who actually know what they are doing and carry the necessary school improvement knowledge, awareness and professional agility to do so.

In some part this comes down to remuneration, especially when the salary of a Headship in a school in less challenging circumstances can often be higher than that offered in a challenging school. There is a degree to which danger money, as crude as that will sound, will therefore be needed to attract key leaders but then we need to go further and deeper than this. These leaders will need time, the suffocating hold of accountability and leagues tables to be taken away and the football management approach to leadership removed. It does not take 18 months to truly change a school. Yes, much can be done in this time and children’s life chances can be greatly improved but to really embed your changes takes longer.

Challenging schools need to be given time to improve and to come a little more away from the spotlight of scrutiny. Having led a Double RI school (which is now an Ofsted Good school) there was not a year in my first four years in post where I was not subjected to some form of external scrutiny and accountability, be it Ofsted monitoring visits, DfE on-site reviews (akin to Ofsted inspections), DfE strategic improvement NLE support or Local Authority SIP support (despite being an Academy), plus an expectation that we were engaging in lots of additional external scrutiny to ensure our saw was sharp. This was despite transforming the school at speed and achieving nationally regarded GCSE and A Level outcomes at the last time of asking in the exam hall.

In category 4 schools the scrutiny is even more intense, with a greater emphasis on tick box approaches to improvement. This becomes wearisome and sadly whilst the tick box seems like it is the right thing to do to improve a school it is often not. For teaching staff they are likely to be subjected to lots of high stake lesson observations which ultimately amount to nothing more than a weighing the pig exercise. I am yet to see any evidence that supports where watching and scrutinising teachers to this level actually benefits teaching, learning and importantly children. It is anything but developmental.

So with this in mind the spotlight of scrutiny needs to firmly shift to one of support. Ofsted needs to consider how it can support, and I genuinely mean support, these schools. Can the timeframes of inspection be pushed back so they are more realistic and allow change not just be initiated, for transformation not just to happen but for proper, deep and sustainable embedded change? Added to this, what can be done to support workload? Teachers in more challenging schools tend, not always, to be led down paths that result in increased workload. For example, tick box approaches to data, marking etc because leaders believe that this is what Ofsted want to see to evidence impact since the last monitoring visit. This becomes a vicious cycle and one that is very hard to break. However, if staff in a challenging school are working twice as hard as the nice school down the road then what is the incentive?

Equally in these more challenging schools behaviour, manners and an adherence to school rules tends to be more of a challenge. These schools need leaders who will prioritise behaviour properly and take a firm, warm and consistent approach to bring about positive change on this front. This then influences the culture, climate and ethos of a school. Teachers swiftly work out, as do parents and children, which schools have the highest expectations of behaviour and which do not. By that I don’t mean what is written on a piece of paper but what is actually lived and breathed. No school can transform itself until behaviour is right. You cannot talk curriculum, teaching, pedagogy nor can you recruit teachers until this battle is won.

Staff need support in managing challenging parents as well as pupils. Sadly challenging schools have their fair share of parents who are educationally disenfranchised. Often the parents who are swift to approach the tabloids at the start of an academic year complaining about a school’s rules are from more challenging schools. More needs to be done to support and protect schools on this front. Parental complaints to Ofsted, which can panic leaders, need to be rationalised a little more. Should complaints about safeguarding be the only ones that are heard and not ones where a school has consistently adhered to its well communicated behaviour policy?

There are also professional limitations to working in more challenging schools. For example, applying to be an ELE, NLE, Ofsted Inspector, to sit on a Head Teachers Board etc are all precluded because you are not part of a Good/Outstanding school. Some people do not want these professional doors closing. I can understand why. I also question why a member of staff in a transformative school would be any less qualified than a member of staff in an Outstanding school and therefore unable to access some of the professional avenues I have cited. This is a short sighted approach generated by a system that believes excellence only resides in limited quarters. Then there is the concern of being sacked, which tends to be more of a concern in a challenging school as you have a shorter timeframe in which to turn things around than in a Good school where you have the luxury of time.

Finally, what happens to these shortage subject teachers at the end of their fifth year, when their £3,000 tax free payments come to an end? What happens if they all decide to move on? You almost have to hit the rest button and start again, fishing in a pool that isn’t swimming with an endless supply chain of teachers in these fields.

I appreciate that this article will sound potentially negative. I am hugely proud to have worked in an Ofsted category school and helped to transform it to a Good school, though I didn’t need an inspection to tell me our school was very strong. Moving schools and picking a school that is right for you is a hugely personal thing and in the process of finding your school it is also possible to make mistakes and get it wrong on the way.

Whilst £3,000 tax free sounds nice, it is worth carefully considering if £250 per month is enough of a pull factor and importantly, whether or not it is the right pull factor for joining a challenging school.

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