Teaching, A Profession in Crisis: Portsmouth Councillor Speaks Out

Liberal Democrat councillor Suzy Horton recently spoke at the party’s national conference about the recruitment and retention of teachers. Here, she reflects on her own experiences as a teacher and asks: who wants to be a teacher nowadays?

One of the things that unites us is our belief that education and learning are good things. Even politicians of all parties are usually on the same page in aspiring to create the ‘best’ schools for our children.

Screenshot of Liberal Democrat conference coverage on BBC courtesy of Portsmouth Liberal Democrats.

I was lucky enough to speak at a national conference a few weeks ago about teacher recruitment and retention. With applications for teacher training down by 10% nationally and nearly a third of teachers leaving the profession within 5 years, the profession really is at crisis point.

I was one of those children who lined up teddy bears and dolls whilst parading in front of them taking a register; apart from a brief spell of wanting to be a zoo keeper, I never wanted to be anything other than a teacher.

I don’t know exactly why. Where does that vocational drive come from? Perhaps it’s a personality thing. Perhaps it was role models from my own schooling (Mrs Ide-Smith, Mr.Downes, Mrs.Bryant or Mr.Clayton all spring to mind). Or reading stories like Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St.Clares.

What I do know, upon reflection, is that wanting to be a teacher came more from a desire to help, nurture and enable others than a desire to earn a certain salary, have long holidays or analyse lots of data.

The job and profession that I went into was pretty much as I hoped and dreamed it would be. When I left, 14 years later, it was severely compromised and, in many ways, it is an altogether different career today.

I started teaching in 1989, just after the 1988 Education Reform Act: the Act that started the nearly 3 decades of changes that have led us to where we are today; and which fired the starting gun that:

  • Promotes a narrow and prescribed curriculum
  • Limits the content and breadth of what is learned
  • Reduces learning to lists of skills and knowledge
  • Measures and quantifies everything
  • Reduces the autonomy of teachers
  • Creates an evidence based culture
  • Stifles spontaneity and creativity
  • Increases workload
  • Introduces one new initiative after another
  • Introduced league tables which pitch school against school

Unforgivably, the impact of the 1988 Act also makes success competitive instead of creating success for all. And all the while, still teachers focus on relationships as the most important ingredient in learning.

This is what the marketisation of education and micro-management of learning looks like; where data, growth and measurements trump experiences, relationships and enjoyment. It took us nearly 30 years to get to this situation and we need to begin the movement to save the profession now.

I left teaching half way along that journey, with the utmost admiration for my colleagues who have hung in there despite an effective pay cut, worsening working conditions due to funding changes and increased workloads. So how do we start to change things for the better?

First we need to value the profession. The days of automatic respect for teachers have long gone but most people can appreciate that the woes of society, and the behaviour and actions of children cannot be the sole responsibility of teachers. We need to thank and admire teachers, rather than attack and blame them.

We then need to build up morale again and re-instigate a sense of belonging in a profession that is fragmented and divided.

I honestly don’t think classroom teachers enter the profession for the money; but year on year effective paycuts are no way to reward and inspire teachers (I appreciate this is the case for most other public and many private sector workers too). We need to give them back their lost salaries by lifting the 1pc pay cap.

We need to address working conditions; by reducing bureaucracy (how many data spreadsheets are genuinely used beyond demonstrating compliance with an enforced method of accountability?) and by reversing the cut-to-the-bone damage inflicted by the latest funding cuts necessitating teachers to purchase essentials and deal with classroom support cuts.

But most of all we need to make teaching and learning the business of relationships again; with permission and encouragement to do this from OFSTED and school leaders and managers. We need to give teachers the freedom, choice and space to instill lifelong learning that goes way beyond a league table.

I was lucky to enjoy such a job for the first few years of my teaching career – no imposed schemes of work, no SATS, no monitoring, no OFSTED, no data crunching, no performance management.

Did I work hard? Yes.

Was I totally exhausted at the end of 10, 12 and sometimes 14 hour days? You bet.

Did I work big chunks of my holidays? Of course.

But every bit of that energy and effort went to making, creating and preparing the things that I felt the children in my class needed next. Never have I done a job so hard, but never have I done a job where I felt so fulfilled.

I’m convinced that there must still be children in front of a line of teddies with a desire to help, nurture and enable others; I hope that things change so that they want to become teachers and stay in the profession for their whole career.