After years of teacher shortages the tide may be about to turn. Figures from Ucas show that applications for training courses surged by 15% in England during the Covid-19 lockdown and its aftermath.
Improved starting salaries – the government has promised to raise them to £30,000 a year by 2022 – have made teaching more attractive as businesses fold and unemployment escalates.
But there is a less welcome side to the story. Provisional figures show newly qualified teachers going into state schools are less likely to stay there. In 2016, 83% (20,433) of new teachers in the state sector were still in their job after 16 months. Government figures estimate that went down to 79% in 2018-19, meaning more than a fifth of teachers joining state schools had left after less than 16 months.
So what is going wrong? Do they have unrealistic expectations? And for the four-fifths who continue, what gives them job satisfaction and keeps them motivated? To find out, we will follow three newly qualified teachers over their first year of teaching. Because of the pandemic, which closed schools to most pupils in March, they missed out on their final and most important teaching practice. But, they say, they are excited and ready for what the year will bring.
Ibraheem Ali Khan: ‘I know the importance of role models’
From his father and grandfather, Khan learned the importance of education and how the lack of it can hinder your life chances. One of his science teachers was also a role model, and now Khan, from Wakefield, West Yorkshire, is hoping, in turn, to be a role model for the children he teaches. He is teaching science in his home town at Outwood Grange academy, after a year spent training on the job in the school and others in the Outwood Grange academies trust through the Teach North school direct PGCE route.
“As a young child, there was no one I cherished and respected more than my father and my grandfather,” says Khan. “My grandfather – like the majority of the first wave of migrants – was a poor, illiterate farmer, but skilled in menial work, who migrated to Britain in 1961 from what is now Mangla dam in the Azad Kashmir region of Pakistan. He worked in textile factories all over the north-east of England before settling in Wakefield. His sacrifice in leaving behind all he knew, dealing with 1960s racism, working absurdly long hours for little pay, all to selflessly give his family better opportunities and escape third-world poverty, is a sacrifice I will never be able to repay.
“My father was part of the first generation of my family to be born in Britain. He grew up in poverty but, despite this, he was the first person in my family to graduate with a degree in electrical engineering. He taught me about how the mavericks of his field made their discoveries and revolutionised the world. This was amplified by my high school science teacher, who was also incredibly passionate about science and would talk to me about anything, from atoms to supernovas. At this point, at the age of 12, I realised the importance of having role models.”
While studying for a biochemistry degree at Sheffield Hallam University he did a “sandwich” year in research, working in the medical school at the University of Sheffield. To help him decide whether to do a PhD or go straight into teacher training, he underwent a four-week internship with Outwood Institute of Education. His mind was made up. “The institute said come back to us when you finish your degree to complete the School Direct route into teacher training.”
The Outwood Grange academies trust has more than 30 academies. “Not only did I work at two placement schools, I got to go to different primary and secondary schools up and down the A1 and M1,” he says. On Mondays he went to the Outwood Institute of Education with the Teach North team and on Fridays he was at Sheffield Hallam University. Having finished a year of training, he has QTS status and will be fully qualified once he has successfully completed an induction year.
“I spent a day with the support staff of my placement schools. They told me about the sort of issues some students are facing and many of them were shocking. It confirmed my decision to teach. I will hopefully invigorate a love of science in them,” he says.
Khan feels more relaxed about his induction year because he has already spent time in the school and was able to work out how to better differentiate lessons, something with which he struggled at first. “Catering for all the different abilities is a real skill and learning how to do this and organise myself was stressful in my first placement, but the help I got from the teachers was unbelievable. The lab technicians were angels … they really do help you out. There is a real feeling of camaraderie,” he says.
He worries about misconceptions around teaching, such as “those who can’t, teach”. “Teaching is an undervalued profession. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking it’s a 9-3 job. It is not! You really have to learn to organise your time. I’m looking forward to being a teacher. I feel it is my calling – though I am apprehensive about the constant changes of policies by government. That causes additional stress for teachers and students.”
Jennifer Murch: from the navy to teaching English
Murch decided she wanted to be a teacher when she was volunteering in a challenging school while at university, but thought she needed more life experience first. After graduating with a degree in English and theology from Hull university, she joined the navy and trained as a frontline medic. After 10 years, she felt the time was right to realise her first ambition and left last summer for a fulltime PGCE at the University of Warwick. Now 32, she is starting her qualifying teaching year at the Sirius academy in west Hull, a 1,500-pupil school for 11 to 18-year-olds.
“I was spending a day a week at a school in my final year and it soon became clear that teaching is a lot more than being passionate about a bit of Shakespeare,” she says. “The school I was partnered with was in a low socio-economic area with extremely high numbers on very low incomes. There was violence towards the staff. One teacher needed stitches and was disfigured after a bottle was thrown in her face. These children needed role models, someone with life experience and above all, someone with the ability to understand, care about and motivate them,” she says.
“The students! How fantastic are teenagers! I am genuinely looking forward to building relationships and empowering them to be their best selves. I particularly enjoy getting those disengaged students on side and seeing them achieve what they thought was impossible. I am always open and honest about my military career and employ the typical military mottos into my classroom, such as ‘adapt and overcome’, and through this I have managed to create some fantastic professional relationships with students that, I hope, made a difference to them, as it certainly did to me,” she says. “I want to use the kind of structure we had in the military to keep discipline but a lot of it is about lesson planning and ways of keeping students engaged, because a 12-year-old is going to drift off if you try and lecture them for an hour.”
Her PGCE course was cut short when schools closed in March. “We had fantastic online teaching, but it wasn’t the same as being in the classroom. However, Warwick has said we can contact the lecturers for help during the year,” she says.
Murch is apprehensive because of what she missed, but she had met the head of English at the school and feels she will get good support. “Throughout my training I enjoyed the challenge of finding those students who have the potential to do well but don’t know how to reach it and giving them the confidence to excel,” she says.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect and many students will find returning to school difficult and many may have been left behind. But we will ‘adapt and overcome’ and get through it together to make sure these children achieve their potential, whatever it takes.”
Sean Kenny: working-class agent of change
One problem with the teaching profession is that, through no fault of their own, teachers are not, by and large, representative of the children they serve. As a “working-class man” whose father worked in a cement factory, Sean Kenny hopes he will find it easier to relate to his students. “I feel better placed to understand the experiences and emotional needs of some children, compared to many of my middle-class peers with little life experience, having jumped straight from school to university,” he says.
This is being put to the test as he starts work at the Commercial primary school in Dunfermline, near Edinburgh. Aged 31, he did his teaching degree as a mature student, graduating from the University of Edinburgh this summer with a first in primary education and the Currie prize for the best overall student.
Between leaving school at 16 and returning to education at the age of 26 he spent time as a traffic planner for a haulage firm, as a traffic warden, and doing manual work.
He aspires to be “a creative teacher with social justice at the heart” of his practice, and hopes there will not be too much central planning from management to get in the way.
While zero-tolerance approaches to discipline and isolation booths are debated in England, in Scotland there has been more emphasis on “restorative practice”, he says. The approach favours conflict resolution over punishment. “Children are encouraged to reflect on their behaviour and consider the feelings of others. This requires a whole-school approach to nurture. Obviously, this is easier said than done, particularly in communities in which there is a lack of trust between parents or care-givers and schools,” he says.
“Rather than viewing ‘difficult’ children as a project to be fixed, I hope to put myself in the shoes of those children as a starting position in any relationship building,” says Kenny. Another aim is to support and develop critical thinking. “It is healthy for children to challenge the systems they are not only a part of, but also quite often become a victim of.
“I once read that teachers can either be the agents of change or the guardians of status quo.” He wants his teaching to make a difference.
We will be catching up with our new teachers later in the year.