Recruitment and retention

Why a retention bust could follow the Covid recruitment boom

I sought refuge in teaching but soon I’ll be a refugee from its destructive workload crisis, writes Clare Macnaughton – and I won’t be alone

I sought refuge in teaching but soon I’ll be a refugee from its destructive workload crisis, writes Clare Macnaughton – and I won’t be alone

21 Nov 2021, 5:00

My copywriting business crumbled in the pandemic. Like so many others, I didn’t have time to dwell on the ruins of what had taken me years to build. And like many of them, I decided teaching was an attractive prospect. So I took the leap, and here I am, a 49-year-old PGCE student retraining as an English teacher.

I started the course in September, and I am astonished that it has only been some ten weeks. The pressure teachers are under is indescribable to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. I am going to complete my PGCE; but I am already questioning whether I will ever embark on a teaching career.

I am in a great school. I am completely supported. In terms of behaviour, the worst I can expect is a little low-level disruption. Yet the workload and pressure are already unsustainable and I am not even experiencing anywhere near what that’s really like yet. I am 50 in January. Why would I walk into such a high-pressure, low-paid environment?

It’s no exaggeration to say that the impact of this workload is front and centre of everyone’s minds in the staffroom too. Just scratch the surface and its imponderable depth reveals itself. We’ve just started Animal Farm with year 7. In the English office, I half-jokingly suggested teachers should rise up like the farmyard animals. “Perhaps,” answered one, “but it won’t be me leading the charge.”

My mind quickly turned to Boxer’s motto: “I will work harder”, and I wondered how many of my colleagues are headed prematurely for the glue factory. Like government policy chief Oliver Letwin all but promised in 2011, “discipline and fear” are keeping public sector workers in check.

From extra sanitation work to teaching students on- and off-site simultaneously, there’s no doubt the pandemic has added a new element of stress for teachers. But it’s not just that. Classroom differentiation is also becoming more complex as mainstream schools desperate for additional funding accept students with SEND, and absorb the extra money into the daily running of the school. And in these straitened times, per-pupil funding creates an incentive for some schools to attract students beyond their true capacity, converting staffrooms into classrooms on the cheap to accommodate the larger intake. The result? More work and less space for teachers to come together to support each other.

The worst of it isn’t even the tiredness and stress.

It’s the constant feeling of failure

Every day I see teachers working tirelessly, yet inevitably drowning as the tasks pile up and the clock ticks away. There are simply not enough hours in the day. A teacher is contracted and paid for 37.5 hours per week but can easily work up to 60. At the Conservative Party conference, Boris Johnson committed to transforming the UK into a “high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy”. Teaching is high-productivity, high-skill and low pay, but I can’t see the government putting their money where their mouth is any time soon.

And the worst of it isn’t even the tiredness and stress. It’s the constant feeling of failure. The to-do list is always longer at the end of the day than at the start, no matter how productive. And that feeds into negativity and doubt, affecting reflective practice and feedback. Across schools and the system as a whole, one person’s junk is another’s treasure. Uncertainty and negativity feed into an endless downward spiral.

What of the students? Perhaps teachers are eminently replaceable bodies in front of a class. But even accepting that, what a waste that is! Here I am, with over 20 years of experience in business, marketing, journalism and copywriting. Yet, not only do I not have the time to consider how I might impart some of that knowledge and experience, I can’t even imagine a time post-qualification when that will be valued. There is no interest, because there is no time.

Everybody is so supportive, friendly and welcoming. To a fault, even. But I don’t feel like I am joining a profession. I feel like I am stepping on to the bottom rung of a ladder carrying a heavy sack of coal.

So please forgive me if I don’t. I expect I won’t be alone.

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  1. Katie Douglass

    I couldn’t agree more with you. I was also late to teaching (primary). At 46 years old, I trained, qualified and completed my NQT year in a global pandemic. That wasn’t the problem. The hours necessary to even attempt to stay ahead, the curriculum size, the constant threat of Ofsted, the assessment data requirement, the relentless scrutiny of teachers and support staff is insane. I too have work experience that I thought may be of use to me and, more importantly, to the pupils I teach but as you say, there literally isn’t enough time in the day. I have never felt more stressed than I do now. And if you have kids of your own, you’ve no chance.