It’s time to decide what our schools and teachers are for

Are schools education specialists or the front line of children’s services? Without clarity we are failing children and staff

Are schools education specialists or the front line of children’s services? Without clarity we are failing children and staff

11 May 2023, 15:51

Through my work at Education Support, I’ve had the privilege to speak to hundreds of people working in schools across the UK. I am also a parent to children in year 7 and year 5.

In my personal life I am very clear: I want my kids to be taught by people who want to be teachers.

I want those teachers to enjoy their jobs and step into my kids’ classrooms with energy, interest, and a belief that good teaching can change lives. I’m sure many of you, and those who run our country and education system, feel the same way.

Increasingly however, everybody’s kids are more likely to be taught by exhausted school and college staff. They’re more likely to find that there are gaps in subject specialisms as another Miss or Sir leaves their job.

Kids are inclined to think that a job in education seems like a stressful way to make a living when you grow up.

If we quietly change the role so that it becomes de-facto social work, we will continue to watch talented professionals completing their tour and moving to alternative careers.

One recently retired teacher who spoke to us for our latest report, said: “Teachers who are short and sharp don’t make classes fun… the fun has gone. I can’t begin to imagine the drudgery of education that kids experience now.”

I remember being slightly horrified in 2019 when a wise headteacher in Yorkshire told me that her son, a soldier, compared teaching to doing a military tour.

It seemed to him that one could only expect to do a teaching tour for five years and after that would need to find a new, civilian career. 

‘Children need more from any available adult’

Given the craft involved in teaching and the fact that our teachers are beginning to hit their stride after seven years in role, this is a painful and costly flaw in the system.

This is the context in which this generation of children and young people are being educated.

A school system in which teachers are wrung dry and the love of learning is lost as school staff struggle to meet the level of need in the system, and paper over the cracks of squeezed children’s services.

There has always been more to the job than ‘just’ teaching and learning – teachers and support staff have long worked to be there for the ‘whole child’ – but our research signals that this has now crossed a line.

Post-pandemic, with everyday difficulties intensified by the cost-of-living crisis, children and young people need more from any available adult. The fact that education staff are accessible ought not to make them the default front door for public services.

We ignore this at our peril.

As we point out in our report, it is time to decide whether schools are the front line of children’s services, or whether they are specialists in education.

The status quo is failing children and education staff. If we cannot provide this level of clarity, we should plan for increased attrition from and recruitment into the profession.

The attractiveness of working in education is declining rapidly, due to the consequences of this lack of clarity.

‘So much gets in the way of teaching’

I’ve observed many focus groups with teachers and leaders this year. Time after time we heard two simple refrains – “I love the teaching” and “there is so much else in the job that gets in the way of teaching.” We hear again and again that teachers just want to teach.

If we quietly change the role so that it becomes de-facto social work or counselling support, we will continue to watch talented professionals completing their tour and moving to alternative careers.

If teachers wanted to become mental health professionals or social workers, I imagine they would have chosen those career paths.

I’m left thinking of another comment made by a teacher based outside the UK, during a recent research project. She said, “In our country, the only people who will teach are those who can’t find jobs anywhere else.”

Let’s not sleepwalk our way to such a dystopian outcome. We can make a different choice. This generation of children and young people has carried more than its fair share of challenge and loss.

They deserve a well-resourced school system that supports their healthy development, academic and vocational achievement, and nurtures the talent and ambition that our future requires.

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    • C Campbell

      This is depressingly accurate.
      I left teaching at Christmas after 25 years in the profession I used to adore.
      Again…I love reaching but it was everything else that tipped me over the edge.
      I now work for a literacy resource company so I am still doing my best to play a part in improving child and adult illiteracy in this country but I don’t feel the same stress and anxiety and I actually enjoy my job.
      Something has to change.

  1. Georgina Kosanovic

    This is, perhaps, the most vital question to be asked in today’s world of education. I am so glad that this article has been published.

  2. Georgina Kosanovic

    I remember reading, years ago, a book that suggested that schools should be staffed by two types of teachers – those who were subject specialists, and those who were focused on enrichment, pastoral matters, etc. The writer, and I am sorry that I cannot remember the author’s name, made the point that often the people who excelled in one of these areas were not necessarily the same people who excelled in the other.
    Along those lines, I would beg to differ slightly with Sinéad Mc Brearty when she writes ‘If teachers wanted to become mental health professionals or social workers, I imagine they would have chosen those career paths.’ In fact, as someone who has worked in education in this country and in Canada for over 30 years, one does often encounter people who say that they went into teaching to ‘give back’ or to ‘work with kids’ or similar ‘youth work’ style reasons.

  3. Sylvia Dobie

    I worked in Local Government Education Services until 2018. In 2010 the Cameron/Osborne Government made the decision to cut billions from Local Government. I worked with many who lost their jobs overnight. Wonderful colleagues totally devoted to schools and supporting schools. As a society we are all paying the price for this. Many in schools are on their knees supporting children and their families. Whole swathes of professionals are no longer in positions working with school staff and that expertise has gone. Schools are now mini welfare services, more children with SEND and mental health and no support.

  4. Patrick Obikwu

    Thank you very much for this apt article. It is an existential question and one that needs a clear and urgent answer because of its immediate and long implications on society which is evident as we speak or write.
    The prevalent values and norms of a country or culture have a significant impact on students’ attitudes towards their education, whether those influences be favourable or bad. If schools and the education system are failing, it is simply a result and a reflection of failure at the very top, where many people lack the knowledge and competencies necessary to understand what education is; education policy makers, leadership, management, and so-called experts are devoid of knowledge and competencies about education, pedagogy, the learning process, cognitive science, developmental psychology, the complexity of teaching and learning, and the very important role that teachers play in the teaching and learning process.
    The ignorance at the top will flow downward and percolate throughout society to produce ignorance at the bottom due to its twisted, myopic viewpoints, and localised (mis)understandings. This is due to the fact that the focus, and thus your question, will be on incorrect values, ineffective practises, and goals.
    The values, attitudes, and behaviour of individuals as well as the larger community are significantly influenced by education. The Latin word “educere,” which meaning “to bring forth” or “to lead out,” is the source of the word “education.” The verb “educere” was originally used to refer to bringing anything out of hiding, obscurity, or darkness and into the light. The phrase was eventually linked to education and the notion of guiding students from ignorance to knowledge. The word “educate” is derived from “educere” and has a similar meaning, referring to the process of teaching and learning that promotes personal development. Expanding horizons, broadening perspectives, sharpening mental faculties/cognition, and improving talents and abilities for functionality, adaptability, opportunity, and mobility in life are all part of what education is all about. Education is essentially the practise of improving oneself.
    After the above lengthy introduction, it should be clear that schools, as one of the key institutions for formal education, should act as a location for students to grow and develop different elements of their entire selves during their educational journey known as life. For the sake of society’s health and well-being, skilled instructors (teachers) are essential. Giving students agency for their own learning while assisting them and enabling them is of far higher importance than allowing them to engage in behaviours that subtly promote and habitually reinforce physical and mental indolence, academic stagnation leading to students’ intellectual impotence and cognitive sterility, and the illusion of learning through an undue focus on exam results.
    When schools just emphasise passing exams, young people develop a distorted, superficial, and limited view of education. This severely curtails their educational opportunities and goals, which narrows their outlook on life and stifles their personal progress. Therefore, a significant problem with the goal of education as practiced currently is the narrow, arid, and myopic focus on a small number of academic subjects that has equated education with taking tests, receiving credentials, and receiving grades in particular subjects. Therefore, schools have been diminished to de facto (Ofsted) glorified test preparation factories, where pupils are trained/conditioned just to earn paper qualifications. Everything else is viewed as insignificant and irrelevant in the context of students’ learning, education, wholesome, and comprehensive development, especially everything having to do with self-discipline, personal responsibility, empathy, mutual respect, responsible behaviour, and character development. Such a constrained, constricting, one-dimensional, and warped view of education and approach is certain to distort students’ worldview and have detrimental long-term effects on society. Schools are less able to generate cultured people the more they emphasise passing exams, and society suffers as a result as more people with certificated impoliteness enter the workforce.
    Knowledge, wisdom, morals, and character cannot be measured by grades, written on a piece of paper, or purchased at a store or on the internet. When knowledge, understanding, values, and character are missing, it is impossible to discuss education and excellence. This appears to be the situation in many schools and society at large. Knowledge or learning processes that do not result in positive character and culture are a complete waste and cannot be referred to as education in the proper meaning of the word.
    In my more than 20 years of teaching science, I have made deliberate effort to extend students’ horizons and adopt a different perspective on their overall education in contrast to the narrow, myopic, convergent, reductionist, and redundant concentration on completing the exams that society has made them take. I tried to impart life lessons to my students. I have left teaching, and I’m now seeking for a job as a bin man. As a follow-up to an earlier article I wrote on “Reducing the scourge of antisocial behaviour and recidivism,” it would be beneficial if those in charge of developing the secondary school curricula would consider adding the following subjects and making them mandatory to be taught across six years:
    1. Character Development
    2. Ethics and Philosophy.
    3. Civic and Social Responsibility
    4. Psychology
    5. Stoicism
    These could contribute to the humanistic psycho-social reawakening, reorientation, transformation, and direction that society sorely needs but which is notably lacking in schools.
    As a conclusion and in response to your question, in my very limited understanding, schools and teachers should be focused on developing students who will have the knowledge, morals, (adapt)abilities, personalities, and cultures necessary to make constructive contributions to society.

  5. It’s really hard to separate the 2. Teachers are often the first person a child will have a relationship with outside the family. If there is social need how can that be ignored? Teachers can only remain education specialists if other children services step up and do their part. I was often dismayed by social services who did not “take” the referrals made because they did not meet threshold. The onus was often left with schools to have those difficult conversations with the parents. As well as this the referral to CAMHS is a joke with a waiting time of at least 18 months in my area. Who else will try and meet need other than schools?

  6. Lets not forget the extreme daily drain amd exhaustion teachers are faced with in having to almost “parent” many students, before being able to teach their lessons.
    The myriad of behavioural issues is one of “the” biggest problems that is so often overlooked. How am I supposed to deliver enjoyable exciting & engaging lessons when so much of my time is taken up in dealing with low level disruption and a range of other disruptive bwhaviours ?

  7. Carole

    I taught fir over 40 years, my son has been teaching for 5 years and our conversations always follow the same route. Teaching is great, helping kids is great but all yhd paoer eirk, assessment and data compilations take so much time it’s so hard to be the best teacher in the classroom. 50 – 60 hour weeks, prep and marking throughout the year and in school holidays exhausts teachers. LET THEM TEACH! Bring in the professionals to help with social issues, mental health experts to deal with issues and LET TEACHERS TEACH!

  8. sally armstrong

    Unfortunately, it is so true that instead of educationalists we have now become social workers. The issues around this is that, on a daily basis teachers are being subjected to pupils who have such deep mental health and behavioural issues.
    As a leader in a school I am concerned about the profession! It is on its knees!

  9. I would say that the role of teaching AHT,is an example of this. Me – class teacher, senco, aht of early years. I wd say tricky to make impact on all 3 and my teaching takes a hit. ……

  10. Nicola B

    What an absolute spot on article and insightful comment.
    I am truly fed-up with being referred to as “child-care”. I love teaching. Passing on ideas and witnessing that “light-bulb” moment is the best reward an educator can aspire to.
    Recognition (and respect) for what a truly good teacher can bring is certainly needed.
    Thank you for doing this in your article 🙂

  11. Joe B

    Spot on. Teachers aren’t teachers anymore. They are Social Workers, Counsellors, Citizens Advice, Charity Givers and everything else in between.

  12. VA Hawker

    I am a retired English and Drama teacher. Attainment targets in English Literature killed teaching for me – when we all had to become adept at ticking boxes, teaching to the exams and jumping through management’s hoops. Such intensity! Teaching became a drain and a chore – more and more bureaucratic and, modelled on school as a business – with its emphasis on competition rather than cooperation. When I started teaching there were Supply pools run by local authorities and not greedy supply agencies who paid less than authority rates, for example. Schools and teachers co-operated and learnt from each other via LEA courses. They shared their resources. Teachers gave their time willingly to take their students to the theatre, on field trips or referee sports matches on Saturdays. Now it’s a divided, fraught profession obsessed with rigid school inspections and Much has been lost along the way. Yes, what did happen to love of learning and spontaneity and fun? The overall development and well being of the child?
    I loved teaching once, but I don’t miss it. And, at MY old school I was taught by teachers who retired from the school where they had began their teaching careers. I lasted thirty – three years in the job – but I doubt I would last three years nowadays.

  13. Michael Spinoza

    Having been a teacher for many years I can’t ever recall any discussion about the nature and purpose of education. It would seem fundamental to me that if we are to have an education system fit for a modern democracy it might help to have some idea of the range of social, academic and personal skills that a young person will need to actively and positively participate in society. Perhaps thinking might be encouraged instead of acquiescence. Personal qualities instead of exam grades. Our ‘leaders’ are mostly drawn from top ranking education establishments. Not really a recommendation is it?

  14. Carole goodchild

    I have been in education for 50 years, first as a teacher in primary schools, Head Teacher, Adviser and Regional Director for the Strategies. I am now a Governor in two schools. I totally agree with the article but would add that outstanding, empathetic leadership makes a real difference to teachers.

  15. A well thought out article. I would also suggest that a major factor in teachers mental well being is the lack of support for special educational needs. Many teachers struggle to support the multitude of different needs within a classroom and do not give all groups the support or challenge they deserve. Another failing of funding, forward thinking and basic planning from central government and local authorities.

  16. K. Phillips

    What an excellent article. I have been saying this for years…the response by some colleagues, ‘ It’s our job ‘. It is ‘part’ of the job. I have just left teaching because I can no longer spend quality time with the kids, making learning enjoyable, fun and engaging. Too much data / paper pushing, box ticking, assessing. I want to ‘teach’ freely and as I see fit.Spend quality time with the youngsters Infront of me, not be forced to work in some kind of regime where every teacher of the subject must be teaching from the same slide of a PowerPoint presentation, at the same time on the same day. Madness.

  17. Mrs Davidson

    It isn’t just the appalling amount of paperwork and the overkill of ‘safeguarding’ CPD in case OFSTED comes – it’s also the teaching-by-PowerPoint: the Head of Dept devises the detailed lesson plans and everyone rigidly follows them – no room for deviation. It’s soul-destroying. (And is, of course, the inevitable result of teaching by non-specialists.)

  18. A very insightful and very well written article. I challenge all those people who are quick to”berate” teachers, to survive 1 week in our shoes. Bureaucratic “red tape” of far too many schools has taken away from teachers, their Feeedom to teach in a manner that makes learning Enjoyable.
    Lets not forget the daily disrespect we (& T.A’s) have to face from a handful of students as well as appaing behaviour of said students that would most certainly not be tolerated im society. Yet we are powerless to address these thanks to the latest “trend” that we are meant to follow as dictated to.us on an Inset day.
    Thank you to the powers that be for taking the FUN out of the FUNdamentals of Teaching.

  19. Ralph Jaggar

    I am a retired headteacher and in my role I saw that I had to make it possible for the teachers to teach and so I was the one to co-ordinate the services available through the LA, health and social services in order to address the social and emotional needs of the children, which in turn, enabled teachers to teach and children to access learning in a calm and positive environment. With the added support of staff in the childrens centre attached to the school I was able to address the needs of whole families and the had an enormous positive impact on the lives and progress of the whole community over time. Sadly this government cut funding ti childrens centres and this wirk could not continue.