Notes from a departure lounge at Belfast Airport

I write this after a miserable day in Northern Ireland trying to recruit a few teachers amongst the impressive PGCE students at Queen’s University Belfast.  The unsurprising reality is that most trainees who choose to take a PGCE in Northern Ireland want to teach in Northern Ireland, and I return to London empty-handed (apart from two rather cumbersome pop-up banners which the good people at Flybe have kindly checked into the hold at no extra cost).

While in Belfast I met with a couple of recruitment agencies who link southern Irish teachers with English schools, but they tell me that English schools are a hard sell: Irish teachers still enjoy three months’ holiday and decent status relative to other professions, alongside pay that compares to salaries in England.

The teacher crunch is well documented and will only get worse as (a) the economy picks up, (b) more students enter our schools (c) budgets are tightened and (d) international options increase, particularly in the Middle East.  Some schools are already taking drastic measures to fill their staffrooms: I know of one school on the south coast which recruited more than a dozen teachers from Canada last year.   I’m told they’re not repeating the exercise this year.

Before we look at possible solutions, let’s take the threat posed by the Middle East for a minute.  We know that teachers in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar can earn comparable salaries to UK with no tax, plus a generous accommodation allowance to sweeten the pill.  While teaching affluent children in the Middle East might not provice the social fulfilment offered by gritty English schools, it seems to me that many teachers feel disheartened by the high stakes, low autonomy culture at work in England, so I can understand why some teachers might choose to swap this high stakes, low autonomy culture in England for a high stakes, low autonomy culture (with better weather, pay and lifestyle) in the Middle East.

Here’s some solutions to this growing teacher shortage:

  1. Take a leaf from the NHS’s book and recruit teachers from abroad. As I noted above, this isn’t always an easy sell.
  2. Bigger classes
  3. Use technology to reduce contact time with teachers.
  4. Retrain teachers from surplus subjects (perhaps PE, the arts, DT?) into shortage subjects.

I find options three and four most viable. Schools like School of One in New York are pioneering online learning platforms which adapt to the needs of individual students and would seem to suit certain subjects, such as maths.  We might not want students to receive all of their maths tuition in this way, but if we can’t recruit great maths teachers then 2 hours of online learning (in a class of 50 in the school hall with a few Teaching Assistants) combined with 2 hours with an excellent maths teacher (in a class of 25) might be a solution.

As for point 4, while we would want our children to be taught by mathematicians and physicists with a passion for their subject and a first class degree, we might need to be more pragmatic and offer re-training programmes for teachers in surplus subjects.   Excellent training, combined with a supportive department, might enable a strong teacher of DT, for example, to successfully deliver Key Stage Three maths.

None of these solutions are optimal, but we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good as we tackle our clear and present teacher shortage.

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