Here’s a thing. Two university graduates I know have just been offered places on PGCE courses. They researched current educational issues; prepared presentations; discussed the effectiveness of teaching they’d observed, and took part in literacy tests, numeracy tests and on-the-spot analyses of recorded lessons. Good. When I applied for the same course at one of the country’s most reputable institutions, I only needed to know when chucking-out time was at the local sink school to be accepted. Neither applicant was eligible for the £20,000 bursary being dangled in front of graduate noses by the TDA, and a fine job it is too. They might become accustomed to earning that much.
Education policy can be a little like one of those magic-eye images that were all the rage a couple of decades ago. You remember them? You squinted at a canvas that looked like it had been spattered with cubist vomit, and if you did so for long enough, an arcing dolphin or a leaping gazelle emerged from the spew. I was crap at decoding magic-eye pictures: boss-eyed for an eternity, I’d have only the mother of all migraines to show for my efforts. With current policy, however, the latent picture is often so clear that a) I don’t need to make like there’s a bee on the end of my nose to see what’s going on and, so, b) it’s not…um…that latent. The barfing artist is plain to see.
However you assemble the mosaic pieces – abolishing national pay scales, favouring in-school training routes (Troops to Teachers, Teach First, Schools Direct) over college-based courses, or academies being able to employ any old cubist as a teacher – the picture seems to be the same: a few, handsomely-paid management positions for fast-track People Like Us; and the cheapest possible body of teaching staff, preferably payable on the unqualified scale and replaceable as soon as they become anything close to expensive, sassily knowledgeable or harder to manipulate. As these labels are acquired pretty quickly, the unacknowledged employment crisis among qualified teachers may be about to get a whole lot worse.
Once upon a time, experience made you employable: you were worth paying for because you’d learned how to do a difficult job well. Then, in the eyes of headteachers, it made you expensive, even though you’d be shortlisted for interviews so that the schools appeared to be complying with equal ops legislation. On the sly, ‘highly experienced’ was redefined to mean ‘survived the first year’ and the jobs were offered to cheap candidates. With schools simply looking for the lowest-cost appointments possible, even shortlisting doesn’t happen now. It would seem that only the newly qualified haven’t priced themselves out of the market. Until now.
Over the past fifteen months, I’ve come across scores of teachers who qualified last year and, having yet to secure jobs, are tiding themselves over with scraps of supply work. Many left successful careers in other fields to retrain, having been led to believe that employment as a teacher would be enjoyable, fulfilling and…likely. I know that my window of employability was banged shut some time ago; and, with first-year teachers now being regarded, in some schools, as legitimate appointees to Head of Department posts, so be it. (Here, at least, the ad campaigns are correct: you can expect to become a manager more quickly than in other professions.) However, not only is the class of 2011 competing with this year’s PGCE graduates; it’s also up against the financial allure of unqualified trainees and, as of next academic year, former soldiers taking on substantial ‘training’ timetables for the princely sum of £15,000 a year. That’s about £12,000 less than a newly-qualified teacher in London commands.
Let’s hope that I’m wrong, and that those embarking on PGCEs find a buoyant employment market, with long-term prospects and decent pensions, awaiting them when they graduate. Let’s hope that the seemingly ingrained habits of headteachers, to prioritise ‘cheap’ over ‘effective’ (or to see the two as synonymous), are broken and that the balance between new blood and experience is restored. Because, with the rise of in-house cover supervisors, payable on the support staff scale, the supply market has dried up and the only way to secure employment may be to offer your services for bottom dollar in a brave and unregulated new world: one in which local pay bargaining is introduced (even though we already have regional salary scales); and in which headteachers are given the freedom to offer higher salaries to recruit the best staff (even though they already possess – rarely exercised – discretionary powers for exactly this purpose). What heads will not have enjoyed until now is the right to ignore the salaries a national scale guarantees. So, will we see the situation posited by policy wonks, in which sought-after teachers shop around in search of the most lucrative deal? Or will teachers be pitted against one other, to undercut their competitors’ salary expectations?
“Work a seventy-hour week for effing buttons”. There’s a slogan you don’t see on the TDA posters which, as ever, testify to a governmental obsession with incentivising recruitment. Retention, meanwhile, has been carted away in a wooden box.