Boris Johnson believes the shortage of good maths and physics teachers is like Britain’s shortage of petrol; there’s enough, but not in the right places. Like extending visas to foreign lorry drivers, his solution is a simple one: £3,000 a year for five years to incentivise good maths and physics teachers to teach in the places they are needed most.
This seems sensible. After all, working in a challenging school is usually more difficult than working in a less challenging school. If we pay people more to work in them, we should get more applicants.
But just like the emergency visa scheme, which saw only 27 fuel tanker drivers apply from the entire EU, we’ve seen plans like this fail embarrassingly before. In 2015, the National Teaching Service set out to deploy 1,500 outstanding leaders and teachers “to the schools that need them most” by 2020. It folded the next year, having appointed 54 candidates from 114 applicants.
Those with experience of working in challenging schools know paying more money to individuals regardless of how talented they are doesn’t work very well at scale. They also know why.
For this policy to increase raw recruitment numbers of supposedly good teachers in needy areas, £3,000 a year – while certainly not a trivial amount – is probably not enough. Where people choose to live and work is not only based on how much they earn. People live in areas where they have networks of friends and family and where they can best live lifestyles most attractive to them.
For most people, £3,000 a year will not go far enough to outweigh other considerations – such as relocation costs – especially factored against the financial reward of promotion or extra responsibility. (For a good maths or physics teacher, both are probable very early.)
It’s also worth noting that money-motivated maths and physics graduates have a lot of options that pay much more than teaching ever can. Which means those maths and physics teachers who do take up this offer are likely to be too few and too isolated to make much of a difference, even if they are genuinely better than the teachers who are already in those schools.
Effective teachers and leaders know their ability to have impact is at least to some extent limited by the team that works around them. Regardless of how good they are, a teacher in a context where poor behaviour is common will be less effective than they would be in a school with a culture of hard work and a tradition of high achievement and aspiration.
And all this is before we’ve even begun thinking about how you select these teachers. Do we do this by qualification? By experience? By results? All these are flawed indicators. Advanced academic qualifications are poor proxies for teaching ability. Experience is often not portable from one context to another. Results are very much dependent on school culture, and years of them are needed to get any degree of certainty, ruling out some potentially excellent early-career candidates.
But more importantly, the scheme just misses the point. The problems faced by schools in our most challenging areas are not linked to how much teachers earn. They are concerned with just how much more there is to do and how much more stressful it is to do it. Even the best teachers can’t make extra hours in a day, and nor are they immune to the physical and mental effects of working in high-stress environments.
A much better bet would be to overstaff schools in disadvantaged areas and decrease contact time. This would reduce workload and stress, which is probably what the majority find most off-putting. Happier, more relaxed teachers with more time to plan and support are most likely to have a direct impact on the children who attend these schools; and they’re much more likely to stay beyond the expiry of financial incentives.
Unfortunately, doing this properly would cost a lot more than the £60 million earmarked for this scheme. If Johnson was serious about “levelling up”, he’d think it was worth it.
Perhaps he isn’t.