Why ‘Tired Teachers’ Might Hold The Clue To The Teacher Shortage

During an event at the RSA, editor Laura McInerney revealed for the first time the paper’s investigations into ‘Tired Teachers’


Over the summer our newsroom had one mission: to find out why everyone in schools said there was a teacher shortage yet government stats didn’t agree.

We published our first deep investigations back in September and concluded a few things:

– Teachers were leaving the country at higher rates than before

– £9k fees for training courses were a barrier to entry

– Rent costs for new teachers were very high, especially in the South West which has the highest vacancy rate

We also looked carefully at the data. We noticed that while total numbers of vacant places are low (something a DfE official said today) the rate of increase was quite alarming as it had almost doubled in one year (something he didn’t mention, funnily enough).

Ultimately if the teacher shortage wasn’t real yet, it was probably on the way.

But there was one thing I didn’t write about at the time. Instead, I revealed it in my RSA talk today.

For a while we have been working on the idea of ‘Tired Teachers’.

Tired teachers split into two types. First there are those tired of the responsibility that being a full-time employee in schools involves – particularly if they are trying to combine it with being a carer. For them, teaching has become too much. The learning walks, the parent’s evenings, the endless data entry. Fifty hour working weeks interspersed with half-terms work for some people, but no longer for them. Part-time jobs would be ideal but there aren’t many around. So they decide to become supply or temporary teachers. By doing so they can spend more time doing the actual teaching – which is the bit they enjoy – but avoid other responsibilities, for example extra-curricular clubs. And if the management isn’t to their liking they can walk away without consequence.

The second group of ‘tired teachers’ are those who have been pushed out of schools, not from their own choosing but because someone else felt they were ‘tired‘. Inadequate schools are now turned around at pace. New managers are brought in and are required to show improvement, fast. Staff struggling to keep up are told they should go elsewhere. Staff who don’t keep up are sent elsewhere. With a P45.

But where do they go? That is the crux of this issue.

England doesn’t have so many teachers it can go around firing people if they’re in the “bottom 10%”. The stigma of being put on competency proceedings, the fact that references reflect a teacher’s prior poor performance, can make it very hard for them to get another permanent job – even if they want to.

England doesn’t have so many teachers it can go around firing the “bottom 10%”

Cynics will think this is good; bad teachers should be weeded out. But reading stories of teachers like Marc Smith, whose experience of new management rating him poorly for his teaching, even though he had always been considered good before, is heart-breaking. His blog is worth reading in its own right – but, in sum, he worked his socks off to improve and yet is told again and again that he isn’t good enough. His blog ends: “I leave teaching in December, with no plans to return to the classroom”.

That’s a teacher, gone. Our shortage just got worse.

Plus not everyone can simply leave. Teachers, like all adults, have complicated lives. They have mortgages, children, mobile phone bills. Those don’t go away just because you’re told you’re no longer good enough. Many people in Marc’s position therefore resignedly head for the temping route while constantly writing applications in the hope someone will look past the weak reference their former school provides and support them in a way that doesn’t break their spirit.

Chances aren’t good for permanent re-employment. Heads are terrified of taking a chance on people because a lapse in results could be pinned on their poor judgement. It’s much easier to justify result dips by saying the place was hard to fill. Hence every school leader worth their salt is hunting for the perfect, and the best, and the absolutely-can-be-trusted teacher. Politicians and parents want them to do that too, because it’s what we all want for our children. Yet when the country is only just training enough teachers to replace the ones expected to exit the profession, rather than being pushed out, this isn’t sustainable.

Tired teachers are hard to find among the paperwork. We know, for instance, that supply agencies are doing better. Hays placed a third more maths teachers in September this year compared to last year and public sector education is their fastest-growing business. But we also know that agencies are focusing on hiring new teachers and selling them on to struggling schools. Their numbers are unlikely to be enough for these increases though.

One thing we can point to is reports of high-turnover in schools that faced management take-overs. We also know that the five largest multi-academy trusts handed out £1m in severance pay. Don’t be lulled into thinking this is an academy-only issue, mind. Heads everywhere face these pressures.

Tired teachers temping is how you can have a teacher crisis without anyone in government believing you

Over time what started to emerge wasn’t a sure-fire answer to the question of a shortage, but a hypothesis: If tired teachers are increasingly being pushed out of their jobs and are then taking temporary ones, it would feel like fewer people were available for full recruitment (because they are), but on paper the statistics would look okay.

Tired teachers temping is how you can have a teacher crisis without anyone in government believing you.


Assuming this is true: what can be done? Should anything be done?

Teachers not up to scratch must be removed. This isn’t a lily-livered plea for their souls. But if we do that, if we build a system to ‘weed out the weak’, then we can’t carry on with this fetish for training the precise number of teachers needed to replace so-called ‘natural’ turnover. If there is a hidden group of not-good-enough-teachers circling around the system then we need to train some more.

That said, we should give serious thought to re-invigorating teachers whose confidence and/or skills have taken a beating. Teaching Schools could take a central part in this if given the resource.

Finally, the job needs to become compatible with caring. We are kidding ourselves if we think a profession which recruited from generations of primary care-givers can suddenly ramp up its average working week to 55 hours with no consequence.

Tired teachers aren’t easy to find, and acknowledging them is awkward. For everyone’s sake, though, I think we will have to.

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  1. When I worked in industry in the 1990s there was a similar macho managerialist culture in many businesses – it was common to claim that 10% (why that exactly?) of staff were poor and needed replacing each year. The consequence for the company I worked for was that innovation was stifled and people developed sychophantic relationships with senior managers who had the final say about who stayed and who went.

    I then moved to a different company and environment – where staff were seen as an asset and encouraged to come up with new ideas and management’s role was to allow them to do to this. The only reason to doubt staff ability was if they were obviously not doing their job properly – and then there was always support first to turn this around.

    The moral? We’ve fixated on ‘poor teachers’ too much. We need to re-imagine teaching so the most important role of management is to support staff in the classroom – by eliminating and automating as much as possible, reducing teaching time for anyone who is having difficulties, and being realistic about how much an individual teacher can be responsible for results.

    Outside of this we must focus on teaching as a long-term career with potential for interesting sideways, upwards and downwards development. Large organisations such as MATs can do this but only if removed from short-term targets.

    Rant over…

  2. The English ‘system’ exhausts everyone fast. It is a system surrounded by endless fixes and add-ons. Nowhere else (except the USA) will you find so many procedures, practices, protocols, policies, principles and procedures. Even the research base seems contradictory. Add inspection and the new/old management by market forces and the tiredness take a toll. Simon’s right. Too much blaming of staff trying to make a broken system work.