A culture of research v sabbatical leave

Dateline: Friday 4 May 2018

Problem: Recruitment and Retention of Teachers in England

Headline: Teachers to be offered year’s paid sabbatical to improve retention

Guardian headline

I won’t be the only head/teacher listening to the news headlines or indeed reading these proposals in print that was perplexed by this announcement by our new Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds.  As ever, it does seem as though Mr Hinds needed to have some ‘good news’ to present at the start of the Teachers’ conference season, partly because that is expected of any Prime Minister or Secretary of State when they are speaking to a large public audience. What the Rt Hon MP could not do is stand up in front of committed educationalists and say ‘All’s well, carry on’, because of course within the government’s educational estate, there are some significant long term problems, that no matter what government has tried to tweak, are legacy outcomes from previous failed initiatives and can’t be resolved with ‘gimicky’ headlines such as this.

I agree that schools need to be learning institutions for the staff as well as the children, and that can only happen if the staff have the opportunity to study and learn whilst on the job.  That ‘opportunity’ is about ‘time’ and that ‘time’ is bought by giving teachers sufficient non-contact hours from classes, and ensuring that the work overflow from contact-time does not consume all the available extra. However, as we all know, the school culture must be set around self-improvement and developing others, not just about creating schemes of work, marking, writing reports and data entry/analysis, otherwise the additional energy will be wasted on ‘spinning the hamster’ wheel, not generating new ideas and improving opportunities for all.

When the decision was made during Michael Gove’s tenure as Education Secretary to change every teaching programme in every school in England from Reception to Year 13 5 years ago, and to change every mode of assessment that went with that, it sent the teaching faculty here and every where else to be honest into a flat spin. As an private school, we can choose to be independent of much that central government force-feeds its own schools, but we could not avoid the change for all secondary examinations that are now mid flow. A level grades have not changed, but the subjects have been made harder, so achieving those grades more difficult, demanding an increase in knowledge retention and skill deployment. GCSEs have had the same ‘toughening-up’, with the added dimension of a complete change in nomenclature (numbers over grades, e.g. 4=C) and a switch from criterion-lead marking (a C means the pupils can do this, that and the other) to % cohort classification (63% of pupils will get a level 4 or above).  The latter approach is simply inappropriate and unfair; why does setting an arbitrary bar and %cut mean our pupils who clear the bar will be more capable than before?

What has also been of real import in the state sector is that teacher load has also been increased in terms of class size, with teachers increasingly used to facing classes in excess of 30 at almost all levels below age 16. Some 20 years ago the decision was made to support the teachers in the state sector through the additional employment of teaching assistants and learning support assistants, who now number perhaps 40% of a school’s teaching faculty. As a professional teacher, having additional adults in your room may in one way ease the load, but in plenty of other dimensions decreases the efficiency of the teacher because they have even more variables and liaison activities with which to engage. As austerity measures have rolled out in recent years, numbers of support works have declined, class sizes have increased further, all of which seems to cause the perfect storm of poor teacher retention and the concomitant low teacher recruitment.

LSA Business ReviewOur industry is well used to Secretaries of State coming up with Golden ticket solutions that will noticeably improve teacher retention. Claires Court has not introduced performance-related pay for example, now rolled out in every state school at great expense of time and effort. Because it ‘works’ in ‘business’, Michael Gove and his DfE apparatchiks felt PRP should be rolled out for all teachers as well, back in 2014, suggesting that it would reward the best teachers, encourage teacher recruitment and retention.  Guess what; it dramatically increased teacher and management work load without any benefit to the pupils, and after 4 years, we have the researchers from LSE making it clear that PRP per se does not work- https://www.tes.com/news/performance-related-pay-ineffective-schools-study-finds. Surprise, surprise, the Human Resource Management tool that works best in schools with teachers is the same as for pupils, intense provision of teaching and training.

None of the pressures in the last paras have affected my staff here, because we are completely confident that the pupil:teacher ratios we run are the best in the long term for both pupil progress and achievement and teacher’s well being. Whilst all the research indicates that dropping class size from 33 to 28 gives rise to no difference for pupil outcomes, cutting the class size by half and doubling the non-contact time for teachers actually does make the difference an educational  community needs to thrive. And those are our metrics: class size wherever possible 20 or less and teacher non-contact time at 20% as opposed to at best 10% in public service. If you do the mathematics on that =+0.5 day per week additional non-contact time over a period of 10 years will of course mean a teacher has been given the equivalent of a year of additional work space for personal endeavour, time for research, enquiry, ‘career’ resighting and additional professional qualifications. And in addition, that’s not just given to staff because they have made a really good case for it, but to every teachers, because they need it.

In our research-led community over the past 6 years, with the time to be curious and make enquiry, we have been able to build and embed the Learning Essentials, the use of G Suite and other digital tools, introduce mindfulness and other core thinking tools to support children and adults at work and even have many staff taking part in a mental health induction training programme.  We have increased the number of staff involved in staff development and training this spring/summer. Currently we have 28 teachers in training and 4 working towards Masters qualification, we’ve won the right to manage the provision of apprenticeships under our own training regime, and we have have remarkable initiatives such as ‘Girls on Board’ and ‘The Learning Scientists’ underway helping us retain our pathfinder and trail-blazer ambitions.

Giving teachers a year off at the end of 10 years might work for a very few, nice to have etc. but in no way is it going to lead to the resuscitation and renewal of interest in teaching in the state sector that Mr Hinds suggests. For 90% of teaching staff that is going to be in the future anyway, years ahead down the line. What they needed to hear was the following:

  1. The team around the child includes teaches, parents, health and care personnel. The critical staff shortage is affecting all 3 professional groups, and the £5 million  would be far better spent putting school nurses and police liaison officers back in place, with clear pathways for additional support available at a much earlier stage to ‘nip problems’ in the bud, linking health and care much more closely to school and family.
  2. Children can only learn the behaviours and skills we want them to acquire if they are taught them; society cannot surround them with fast food and instant entertainment, and wonder why we are generating a new generation with a propensity for obesity and short attention spans. Rather than ‘pass the buck’, government should re-invest in the community education programmes we need to support adult education in their local communities.
  3. It was Margaret Thatcher who said “There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families”. Sadly, we are reaping what she sowed; learning from the likes of Finland, Canada, Singapore and New Zealand, where educational outcomes for all are so much higher, we need all schools to be valued for what they bring to their local community and kept integral to the planning for the success of the whole community, not just the easy bits.

And of course if we cannot afford these strategies in all schools and communities, bring them back into play in the communities where deprivation is most acute. Such choices take wisdom and conviction; here’s hoping after a false start, Damian Hinds shows a better set of heels next conference time.


About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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1 Response to A culture of research v sabbatical leave

  1. Henry says:

    Good point, well said. Don’t hang you’re hat on Mr Hinds peg too soon. Unfortunately history has a habit of repeating itself. That said, never say never!!!!!

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