As we build towards a general election, parties and unions are refining the detail on their plans for the education sector. But are they missing a trick when it comes to the workforce strategy needed to deliver on their promises?
Where these manifestos do refer to the teacher workforce, they focus on the recruitment and retention of our ECTs.
Labour’s fifth ‘mission’ refers to the ‘crisis in recruitment and retention of school staff’ and notes the ‘important role of mid-career teachers’. However, concrete commitments emphasise plans to attract 6,500 new teachers with ‘money raised from ending private school tax breaks’ and ‘a new Early Career Framework retention payment’.
The Conservatives take a similar approach, promising an increase in salaries ‘for new teachers’ and then jumping all the way to the end of the line with ‘increased contributions into the Teachers’ Pension Scheme’.
In a September 2023 policy motion, the Liberal Democrats called for properly funded teacher training and ‘high quality professional development for all teachers’. Callum Robertson’s article in these pages last week encouragingly emphasised reactivating teachers who have left and retaining more of the teachers we have by improving flexible working in schools. Officially though, the party’s emphasis remains on recruitment and short-term retention, rather than teaching as a lifelong career.
In sum, all parties (and unions too) appear to be missing or shying away from a vital piece of the puzzle. None of their other ambitions for the sector are achievable without a robust and stable workforce, and a single demographic is key to delivering it: women aged 30 to 39.
Making up one-quarter of our workforce, these women represent our biggest group of teachers – a group so large that it even outnumbers our total population of male teachers across all age brackets. They are the experienced subject specialists who can deliver on politicians’ curriculum promises, the mentors who support those precious entrants to the profession, and the new and developing leaders who bear the responsibility when Ofsted comes calling.
They also make up the largest group of leavers, with 8,965 of them quitting the profession in 2022. This is more than both genders in the 24- to 29-year-old bracket – the ECT demographic who form the central point of Labour and the Conservatives’ workforce strategy.
With the motherhood penalty well documented in other industries, does it come as any surprise that over half of these women are mothers and leaving because of the motherhood penalty in education?
Some unions have made a good start in using this knowledge. ASCL, NAHT and NASUWT are all calling for improved flexible working practices and support for colleagues who fall under a protected characteristic. Flexible working on its own, however, is not the silver bullet to save our teacher workforce. Neither is referring to all of the protected characteristics as a homogenous group, implying that they all have the same needs.
Instead, a full eco-system of support is required for the cornerstone demographic of our profession. Our mother-teachers need financial support to afford childcare and an overhauled system to increase accessibility around the logistical demands of their roles.
They need equal parental leave and pay to enable them to share their parenting responsibilities from the get-go, and to attract more fathers into the profession. They need the DfE to recognise that professional development and progression are impacted by parenthood and invest as much into support over this period as they have done into the new ECF and NPQ offers.
Labour speak about re-establishing ‘teaching as a profession, that is respected and valued’. It is these benefits that will transform teaching into an attractive and lifelong career.
If the current or any future secretary of state wants to build a stronger, healthier system for our children and young people, they simply must notice, understand and explicitly serve the needs of our mother-teachers.
Without them, all aspects of our education sector will remain broken.