Recruitment and retention

Our recruitment woes can only be solved with ethical leadership

We can’t expect to solve recruitment challenges if we don’t accept our system only allows us to pass the proverbial buck, writes Robin Bevan

We can’t expect to solve recruitment challenges if we don’t accept our system only allows us to pass the proverbial buck, writes Robin Bevan

22 Oct 2021, 5:00

It is not often that a well-intentioned and resourced policy announcement is so authoritatively dismissed. But to the arguments so cogently put in these pages last week about Nadim Zahawi’s plan to offer golden hellos for maths and physics teachers choosing to work in challenging schools, I would add two of my own.

First, there are very many excellent teachers already in schools serving disadvantaged communities. And second, leaders have no appetite for advertising their schools as places where you need an enhanced salary to want to work. Besides, recruitment and retention payments already allow for individual teachers to be financially rewarded as a positive incentive.

So the policy isn’t just poorly judged and badly pitched; It is also wholly ineffective! And the question we must ask ourselves – the lesson that must be learned – is why exactly that is. It won’t do simply to dismiss the DfE as a bad policymaker (though there’s plenty evidence of that).

After all, the policy is well intentioned. Retention and recruitment is a vital issue. We know salary matters and pay increases for the profession are needed – for those already in classrooms as well as those for whom a teaching career is in competition with other prospects. And of course it is absolutely right to ensure resources and expertise are targeted to the areas of greatest need.

But at heart, it is not part of a significant, sustained and sustainable response to the challenge. And it would be easy to dismiss that as a Treasury issue – an inevitable outcome of ongoing austerity – but there is another significant reason that policies consistently fail in this way, and it strikes at the heart of ethical decision-making.

This perpetual asset stripping should come as no surprise

Imagine the following scenario. Having advertised for a physics teacher, a school receives a single application from an experienced, enthusiastic teacher working in a neighbouring institution. The teacher wants to move for sound personal reasons. The selection process is almost unnecessary. There is no one else in the field and the candidate is clearly competent. After lesson observation and interview, the job offer is made.

It is a good outcome in a dwindling teacher supply market. However, the school leader has just appointed the other school’s only qualified physics teacher. It’s the right decision, but with the ethical consequences soundly displaced. Doing the “right thing” has just created (or more likely magnified) the challenges for the other school.

Such examples are rife. And this stark reality of perpetual asset stripping should come as no surprise. Our school system has been increasingly shoehorned into a competitive free-market model and depleted of resources.

But our analysis must run even deeper than that. Our teacher supply crisis is not replicated in other comparable countries. So if the problem is characteristically English, then the solutions must be too.

England is exceptionally unusual in having a highly devolved system of school decision-making. Our approach to pupil admissions masquerading under the “parent choice”’ slogan is an excellent example. It is also relatively unusual in other countries to find schools free to choose their teaching staff, rather than a local education administration assigning teachers to the school of greatest need, with an attempt at best-fit distribution.

The political reality is that there is very little appetite among headteachers or parents to relinquish these levers of control for their own school. And that’s fine, but we need to accept that without structural change, ethical displacement will continue to be unavoidable, feeding the recruitment and retention crisis and many other issues besides.

In the absence of Treasury largesse, there is only one way to dampen ethical displacement: to promote collective and cooperative ventures between schools where the best resources and opportunities are shared.

This no doubt happens in some localities, through some local authorities and within some multi-academy trusts. But for ethical shafting to cease being a defining characteristic of our system, such collaborations must work for the benefit of those both within and beyond their structures.

Incentivising that should be the DfE’s priority. Anything else is just more ethical displacement, leaving our most disadvantaged communities to suffer the consequences.

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

One comment

  1. Schools only want to get a teacher for minimal price. Just look at all the cheap graduate teachers, temporary contracts and long term supply staff. Forcing older staff out. All cheaper than a permanent experienced one. They do not want the best for the students. Means more cash for leadership pay and expenses. Money to retain and recruit already in the system but rarely used.