This summer, I marked four years since I took the very difficult decision to leave the English state system and take up my current post abroad.
As I left my headship at the brilliant Wyedean School, I remember a lot of the comments, some supportive, but most exclaiming astonishment at the move, and a few even prophesying “career self-destruct”.
During four years in Moldova I have felt re-energised and re-engaged with my core purpose of being in education. Indeed, many UK-based colleagues are making different comments now. Nearly all recognise and understand why I didn’t stay in the UK.
“The factors that drove my decision to leave the UK only seem to have got worse.”
Back home in Bristol this summer, I have reflected on the reasons why I didn’t stay in England and “tough it out” as a head there. The factors that drove my decision to leave the UK only seem to have got worse. The recent RAAC concrete crisis, emerging in the first week back, seems a perfect metaphor for what point we’ve reached.
But I have no sense of schadenfreude. It is more a sense of futility and sadness that the once world class English education system is now at risk of being broken irreparably: Teachers want to leave, potential leaders do not want to take on the stresses of school leadership and newcomers do not want to join the profession.
And a general election is unlikely to change much. The two main political parties are fairly in tandem in their approaches to most key aspects of education and teacher recruitment and retention.
Labour’s July education announcement echoed the need for wider social mobility and offered some new trinkets such as a focus on “oracy lessons”. But using the removal of VAT exemptions for private schools to fund the £2,400 retention bonus after two years service won’t solve the core issues.
“The view from abroad is one of shock.”
Two irrefutable and respected sources of data to back this assessment can be found in the DfE’s own annual workforce survey and the Gatsby funded Teacher Tapp/SchoolDash report on recruitment and retention.
The view from abroad – just looking at the headlines of key structural concerns such as 60 per cent of teachers wanting to leave in five years – is one of shock. That’s 9 per cent of the workforce. A total of 40,000 teachers left in 2022 with only 4000 retiring.
Teachers want to be able to teach in their classrooms but this is sometimes the very last thing they can actually do. I am with former Kellett School head Mark Steed as an advocate of UK teachers having an international experience as part of their CPD, but is unlikely to be taken up by schools.
“School leaders don’t want to deal with a highly politicised, high stakes accountability inspection system.”
Key subjects cannot find the new teacher trainees and those that do train soon leave. We are watching the decimation of the teaching workforce in England over the rest of the 2020s. It is incomprehensible and a national act of folly.
Headteacher vacancies stand at 13 per cent and the next generation of school leaders simply don’t want to take on the pressures of a role dealing with a highly politicised, high stakes accountability inspection system.
They don’t want to work in a system where the damage of a one-word judgement can be so detrimental to what those schools are working hard to achieve, often in difficult circumstances.
Neither main political party is willing to take on this outdated shibboleth. Yet, still, school leaders are also expected to pick up the broken social services role as well as leading a school and somehow make this work.
The view from international schools I work with regularly in networks such as COBIS, Global Schools Alliance, Varkey Foundation/GSL, is often utter amazement that those responsible for the English state system do not look outward at successful public/state systems of education in countries like Finland or Estonia.
There are places where education success is about a decent level of pay but also giving the profession the conditions, status and respect it deserves.
“When will meaningless nonsense such as ‘deep dives’ be banished?”
How will we ensure that education communities are supported fully as a key public sector and public good?
When will the UK look at schemes to support teachers in the middle part of their careers with sabbatical programmes? This exists in Australia, allowing teachers 1.5 months of long service leave every five years?
When will outdated industry management top-down accountability approaches be banished from education as well as meaningless nonsense such as “deep dives” and trust and allow leaders to lead?
The trashing of the UK education profession by politicians, the media and policymakers also looks unedifying from many countries where education is really seen as the panacea for children, their life chances and the future prosperity of society.
The August exam results, with marking and grades back to pre-pandemic levels, appear to be a further kick in the teeth for children of the Covid generation. Even the Government’s pay award – accepted by unions – might only be half-funded.
“The trashing of the UK education profession also looks unedifying in many countries.”
My brilliant 21-year-old niece, who has an impressive academic record, messaged me this summer to ask for my advice on applying to go into teaching after graduation.
I didn’t have to think twice and my advice was to go for it. We need exactly these kinds of young people coming into our profession in the UK.
Otherwise, who else are we going to pass the baton onto?
As I was inspired by my teachers to go into education, we need to continue to focus on what we can all do to improve the profession, involve our communities, engage with policy makers and look after and support one another in our schools.
We need a vibrant education sector in the UK not just for the UK but as a global example to follow.