Review by Fiona Atherton

Headteacher, Ladypool Primary School

21 Oct 2023, 5:00


The conversation – with Fiona Atherton

A crisis with no solutions

In my last column before the summer break, I wished for better news for us all in the autumn term. So much for that.

Six weeks in, teacher morale is already at a low. Record numbers left the profession again last year, and the government’s answer amid its conference announcements seems to lie in the age-old bribe of bursaries for new teachers, tweaked to encourage more of them to stay for five years – not quite the ‘long-term decisions’ of the party’s slogan.

The policy may boost the number of people training to be teachers and provide much-needed new blood in the classroom, but it doesn’t address the fact that we are losing experienced teachers. They simply don’t feel appreciated, and paying their younger colleagues more is unlikely to change that.

When Teacher Tapp sounded the profession for their response to the idea of paying new teachers up to £30,000 in bonuses over five years, not a single subject came out with a majority in favour. No wonder. We’ve all experienced trainees who have taken the DfE’s shilling and never made it into the classroom.

Shortages are already such that bursaries for trainee secondary science and maths teachers are rising to £27,000. Meanwhile, there are no bursaries for primary PGCE trainees who are getting harder to recruit year on year. 

The fact is that these incentives may be causing as many problems as they solve, or worse. Many want to remain in the classroom for their entire career (and we need those experienced teachers), but they quite rightly feel aggrieved when they see that their salaries are restricted, in some cases for many years. Might I suggest sabbaticals for long service as an incentive for them?

Solutions for the wrong crises

For an excellent round-up and analysis of all the main policies on offer at the conferences, I found this conversation between Mind your ed podcast host, Tom Richmond and his guests, David Thomas and Joe Moore particularly useful.

For me the biggest conversation to come out of Labour’s Liverpool event was around the early years, on early health intervention and early maths skills. Many will welcome this, especially with the struggles some schools are facing around younger pupils, and particularly those with special educational needs. More children are entering school still in nappies or not fully potty-trained, and they are the very children who missed out on ‘Stay and Play’ and other early interventions due to Covid.

More controversially, they also put forward the idea of schools teaching and monitoring tooth brushing. The idea is backed by dentists, paediatricians and other health professionals but understandably received mixed reviews in schools and with the teaching unions.

Some feel that it is yet another element of parental responsibility placed on schools, and others that it is necessary to reduce strain on the NHS. I’m somewhere in the middle. More access to school nurses or health visitors might be an answer, but if schools pick up the responsibility I worry we’ll end up held accountable somewhere down the line for tooth decay as well as everything else.

Meanwhile, we still don’t know how the party proposes to recruit the 6,500 extra teachers it has promised – and that number is already outstripped by the growing staffing crisis. And that’s just one of many. There’s a funding disaster at the DfE (maths to 18, ha!), insufficient SEND provision, low attendance, growing mental health issues and a hundred other ringing alarm bells. Labour had precious little to offer these.

A coping mechanism

So as we crawl through exhaustion to the first half-term break, I’d like to draw your attention to the words of another fabulous Brummie, Claire Stoneman. In her latest blog, she encourages school leaders to slow down.

“Slowness nourishes attention and fends off distraction,” she says, reminding us that we are not expected to be available to all and sundry every minute of every day. I particularly liked her suggestion that we should find a balance between being visible and making time to think.

I’ll be taking a leaf out of her book. Perhaps our politicians should too.

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