This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in January 2018. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here.
If our schools are to succeed, school leaders must secure a rich supply of qualified, high-quality teachers, and – once they’ve entered the classroom – they must invest in them professionally and make them feel valued in order to ensure that, once they enter the profession, they remain in it.
Indeed, this is exactly what the best education systems in the world do. Take, for example, Finland…
I was lucky enough to visit Finland a couple of years ago in order to research their education system and, while in Helsinki, I discovered that teacher education was run exclusively by universities and – unlike in the UK where ITT provision has, by and large, moved away from higher education institutions towards school-based programmes – in Finland there were no such plans to divorce teacher training from universities.
The primary function of teacher training in Finland, I discovered, was to equip new teachers with the skills they needed to act independently as professionals. The aim was for trainee teachers to become, by the time they qualified, autonomous, responsible teachers; the aim was also for trainees to learn the art of self-development, to become increasingly proficient in their own subject, and to learn how to develop in co-operation with other members of the profession.
In Finland, I discovered that teachers have many more professional freedoms; indeed, their system is predicated on having trust in teachers and having trust in the effectiveness of teacher education.
There was also a commitment to providing in-service education opportunities for every teacher. Indeed, there was a commitment to lifelong education for every citizen – and, what’s more, it was free for life.
Having spent a week in Finland talking to a great many teachers and education leaders, I concluded that if we are to remedy teacher recruitment and retention, we need to change our national culture – and that, of course, is no mean feat and is certainly not in the gift of mere education leaders. But it is not impossible and here are some steps I think we could take in order to make some progress in the right direction.
Steps in the right direction
We could raise the status of the teaching profession so that it attracts the very best candidates. We could make sure teaching is regarded as highly as law or medicine. Then we could improve the quality of teacher education so that the best candidates get the best, most gruelling training. This training should be lengthy and tough, it should weed out those who are not suitable and strengthen and empower those who are. Once selected and trained, we should improve the quality of the CPD teachers receive to make sure they remain well-informed.
Once we have great teachers operating at all levels of the system, we should empower them, we should place more trust in their professional judgement and skill. We should foster greater levels of autonomy, we should encourage risk-taking and experimentation. We should develop supportive systems of quality improvement rather than high-stakes systems of quality assurance and inspection.
I’m not advocating a free-for-all, hands-off approach; rather a process of peer review and evaluation leading to developmental feedback and support. Autonomy shouldn’t mean an utter lack of oversight, a vacuum in which poor-performing teachers can harm the life chances of students. It should mean giving people the freedom and independence to act as professionals, making professional judgements.
We should involve education professionals – experts in their fields – in top-level decision-making and policy-creation, particularly with regards teacher recruitment and retention. We should break from the election-cycle whereby each new Parliament brings with it ideologically driven reforms and a political desire to “stamp a mark”.
We should move away from a position where curriculum and qualifications, not to mention pedagogy and practice, can be transformed on the whim of a politician.
Politicians have their part to play, but in our brave new world they should focus on broad policy and budgeting and allow professionals to decide the details.
So far in this series, I’ve argued that if schools are to successfully stymie the crisis in staff recruitment and retention, they need to appoint, recognise and reward “architects” – school leaders who quietly redesign their school and transform the community it serves (see part one).
What’s more, our schools need leaders who understand that it takes time to improve a school and so take a long-term view. They need leaders who create the right environment for teachers and the right school for its local community by improving student behaviour, increasing revenue, and improving teaching and leadership.
In short, our schools need leaders who take a holistic view of their school, its stakeholders, the community it serves, and its role in society.
Next, I said, our schools need to allow these architects to build organisations based on the “commitment” model: in other words, schools which engender a sense of trust among staff that entices everyone to work harder and stick together through setbacks (see part two).
School leaders, I have argued, should invest heavily in professional development. They should value making employees happy over quick results and gift teachers more decision-making authority. They should foster a strong culture and ensure that new recruits fit that culture.
In short, they should think hard about staff recruitment in order to ensure they hire the best people, then they should work hard to ensure those staff stay by making people feel valued and rewarded, and – perhaps more importantly – making sure they are developed professionally.
In part three, I shared some tips for improving the organisational effectiveness of schools and explored ways of increasing teachers’ intrinsic motivation so that their job satisfaction and wellbeing improves. In particular, I said that schools need to allow teachers and other staff to develop autonomy, mastery and purpose.
Autonomy is important, I said, because people need control over what they do, when they do it, who they do it with, and how they do it. After all, if someone is in control of their work, they are more likely to be motivated by it and more likely to excel.
Mastery is important, I said, because people need to be challenged. After all, people are only motivated to get better at something they are engaged in and enjoy.
Purpose is important because people need to feel that what they are doing will have long-term meaning and a meaning in the world. People need to feel they are doing something worthwhile.
I ended last time (part four) by saying that, as well as develop their staff’s autonomy, mastery and purpose, school leaders need to display kindness – an oft-underestimated and undervalued trait.
Kindness, I said, plays a significant part in developing momentum with regards school improvement because, when people feel valued and cared for, they repay that trust by valuing and caring for the place in which they work and for the people with which they work.
What’s more, by publicly displaying kindness, the best leaders – and, in turn, the best teachers – model the behaviours they want their students to develop. In short, teachers who are treated with respect show respect for their students and that way a school becomes a community, a family.
I firmly believe that changing the culture in our schools – and following the Finnish model of teacher education and professional development – will have a significant impact on teacher recruitment and retention. But will this be enough? Here are some other solutions to consider…
Although the government recognises there are issues with teacher recruitment and retention, it has thus far been unable to address them adequately enough, and continues to fall short of its own recruitment targets.
What is needed at a national level is a long-term, evidence-based strategy setting out how the government will tackle challenges associated with the supply of teachers which should include improvements to the Teacher Supply Model.
And while recruiting sufficient numbers of new teachers is clearly necessary, the government should also focus its attentions on improving teacher retention and not solely through the lens of workload.
Work/life balance is clearly a problem but many teachers cite other reasons – such as stress and a lack of autonomy – for leaving the profession. Not only is improving retention rates a more cost effective way of tackling the issues of supply and demand, but having greater numbers of experienced teachers staying in the profession will naturally deepen the pool of leadership potential, supplying our next cohort of headteachers.
At a local level, meanwhile – which is to say, in schools and academy trusts – leaders need to develop staff autonomy, mastery and purpose if they are to improve recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers. I’ve already explored what autonomy, mastery and purpose mean in practice but here are some other strategies to help achieve them…
In terms of autonomy, school leaders need to better understand what motivates staff, and accept that teachers need to feel valued, rewarded, and professionally developed. In practice, school leaders might invite staff to identify a problem that exists in their department or in the wider school. Then they might be afforded the time – and resources – to solve it in their own way, perhaps during twilight INSET or in staff meeting time. It is important to end this process by implementing staff’s innovations in order to make it clear that their contributions are valued.
In terms of mastery, school leaders might wish to decouple the twin performance management functions of accountability and professional development, divorcing any evaluation of performance with the means by which staff get better at what they do. This will lead to a sharper focus on performance improvement and personal development rather than on compliance with a set of norms.
Feedback about performance should also derive from a wide range of sources, not just from observation and not just from the line manager. School leaders might also introduce a means by which teachers can be recognised and rewarded for their contributions beyond exam results.
This means being clear and transparent about what being a high-value member of staff means, having clear and transparent processes for identifying such members of staff, and ensuring that staff know that their potential has been recognised. This might mean developing a no-blame culture of openness (see part four) and offering high-quality feedback that allows teachers to learn from their mistakes without fear or favour.
In terms of purpose, school leaders need to understand and articulate what their school has to offer new teachers and what makes it unique. They should talk to existing staff and pupils about why it’s a good place to be then communicate this clearly and frequently.
They should also be clear about the school’s direction of travel – about where it is headed and how it intends to get there. In terms of the mechanism of recruitment, schools need to utilise as many sources of communication as possible, not just rely on TES Jobs. They should, for example, use social media channels to reach out to prospective new recruits. And they should consider the recruitment cycle, pre-empting vacancies and advertising before many competitor schools.
They should also develop a dedicated section of their school website – “Work with us” – which should have a range of enticing resources such as case studies and pupil voice. And schools should regard the recruitment of good staff as an on-going process that takes place all year round. They should always be on the lookout for good people and keep the communication channels open at all times.
Then, once they’ve recruited, school leaders should create clear career pathways for their staff, especially early in their careers, so that they can envisage a bright future in their school. This might involve extending mentoring opportunities beyond the traditional NQT year. It might also involve providing opportunities for teachers to affect and direct their own goals, determine their own working practices, and engage in leadership projects as a means of motivating them through autonomy and decision-making powers.
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