Teaching crisis: learning the
hard way

Stuck on the same salary for years, working regularly until midnight and not sleeping – teachers are under pressure like never before

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When history teacher Tara Wright went back to work last September, she found herself in tears in her classroom cupboard. Wright, who worked as head of her department at a high school in Barnsley, had become increasingly unhappy due to escalating workloads and mounting pressure to achieve outstanding results, but her first inset day after the six week break was the final straw.

“It was so overwhelming,” says Wright. “I went to see the head teacher and I told him it was probably the worst inset day I’d ever gone back to. I had never actually sat in my cupboard on an inset day on the first day back and cried. I felt like we’d been talked at and talked at.”

Wright joined the teaching profession in 2012 after completing a postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE) at Edge Hill University. She was optimistic about her new career when she was offered her first post in a high school in Blackburn.

“I remember going into the doctor and crying, begging him for sleeping tablets.”

“I was so excited to be starting teaching,” she says. “At the time when I was applying for jobs, history was like a lifer. Once you were at a school and you liked it you never left. I will never forget the acceptance phone call. I think I actually cried on the phone when they told me.

“I decided that I wanted to be a teacher when I was in high school. I had a really good history teacher and I’d always enjoyed working with young people. My granddad was a teacher, my mum was a teacher and my sister qualified as a teacher.”

In 2014 Wright was offered a position as assistant head of department at a large community college in Yorkshire, but the size of the school combined with the added pressures of helping to manage a department took its toll. It’s a story familiar to the many teachers who have felt compelled to leave their jobs in a crisis for the profession.

“I would try to get into school for around 7.30am. I’d then finish the school day and I’d then work at home until 10, 11, 12 o’clock at night, from Monday to Thursday and again on Sundays. There was no thanks for it – it was just a case of when you did the job and did it well there would be more to do.”

On top of Wright’s teaching, planning and marking responsibilities, she and her colleagues were tasked with analysing and collating data on how their classes performed.

“Data collections were increasing. It’s not in the job description of teachers to take on additional roles like being a data lead, but these data meetings would go on for over an hour to analyse the data of a year group, and then there was an expectation that you would collate that data and then you’d go back to the department and discuss it as though you were in charge of it. The expectation wasn’t fair.”

The increase in workload started to have a detrimental effect on Wright’s health. In September 2015, she started suffering from anxiety and insomnia,
and she was eventually prescribed medication by her GP.

“I was desperate to sleep but I couldn’t because my brain wouldn’t stop processing work and thinking about work. I went to the doctor and I was diagnosed with anxiety through stress. The doctor said it was tied to my work. He told me that until I left my job I probably wasn’t going to get over it.

“I remember going into the doctor and sitting there crying, begging for sleeping tablets. I’d take Kalms like sweets. I was necking Night Nurse and trying to use it as a sleeping aid.”

The pressure put on teachers has been at the centre of controversy since the coalition government came into power in 2010. In 2013, former education secretary Michael Gove announced the introduction of performance-related pay for teachers in state schools. The scheme means teachers’ pay rises are awarded in accordance with their classes’ results. If their classes perform badly, they are unable to progress up the pay scale.

“Turfing exerienced teachers out of the profession is not the way to go about this.”

The announcement sparked outrage from the unions, and in February 2016 a study by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the National Union of Teachers found that the introduction of performance-related pay had increased teachers’ workloads and discriminated against black and part-time teachers, as they were less likely to progress up the pay scale than their colleagues working in the profession.

In December 2016 Wright decided to leave teaching and applied for a technical educational role in the private sector.

“I wanted a normal life. There’s too much pressure for improvement. I think the improvement in schools mainly comes from content and well-rested staff who have the time to do the job that they signed up to do, which is work with kids and help kids.”

Wright is part of a growing trend in teachers leaving the profession. According to government figures, nearly a third of newly qualified teachers who joined state schools in 2010 had left the profession by 2015. Last year the National Audit Office (NAO) found that the number of teachers leaving schools had risen by 11 per cent between 2011 and 2014, and the proportion of those who left the profession ahead of retirement increased from 64 per cent to 75 per cent.

According to the NAO, the government spends £700 million a year recruiting and training new teachers, but for the last four years it has failed to hit its recruitment targets. The shortage of teachers combined with a surge in pupil numbers is leading to concerns that the quality of children’s education could be undermined.

“I don’t think the government is supporting the wellbeing of staff,” says Wright. “They say they are but I think their main focus is on driving results in young people, but I think it puts too much pressure on young people.

“I have never seen kids run out of an exam with an anxiety attack, but I have this year. One of my best students had a panic attack in the middle of a mock exam. So many kids refused to go in there because they were frightened, scared and anxious, and that’s because there’s so much pressure being put on them by teachers, who in turn are having pressure put on them, because if they don’t get the results their wages don’t go up.”

Ian Phillips became a teacher in 1978. He spent 18 years in the classroom before becoming a PGCE history tutor at Edge Hill University.

Phillips says that although teaching has always been a demanding job, all teachers are now expected to perform at an outstanding level, no matter how early on they are in their career.

“There’s far more accountability these days, and in some ways that is a good thing,” says Phillips. “I think the standard and quality of teachers today is far higher than it was when I started teaching, but I also think that the demands and expectations are far higher as well. There’s this demand that you are outstanding right from the start. There is a lot of pressure on young teachers these days. Some of it stems from the pressures that are placed on them during their training years.”

Although the majority of his former students are still working in the profession, Phillips says that in the last three years he has seen more newly qualified teachers leaving than ever before.

“History teachers used to be in it for the long haul because they like kids and they like the subject, but they are walking away,” he says. “I do think that pay is becoming a significant issue. Since 2011 they have effectively destroyed the national framework of pay and conditions.

“There was a nationally recognised agreement with starting salaries and progressive increments and responsibility scales for being head of department or head of faculty – that has all gone. Schools are more or less free to do what they want. I know of some schools where you cannot or do not deserve a rise in salary if your teaching isn’t outstanding.

“I know of young teachers who have been on the same salary for three or four years and haven’t had a pay rise. Piling on the pressure is not the way to build resilience. It’s this burnout culture of: ‘We’ll just get someone else in – if you can’t stand the heat get out.’ It’s getting to a stage where if they don’t change those management approaches people will vote with their feet.”

Angela Rayner, shadow education secretary, agrees. “We’ve got a cocktail of problems within our school system at the moment which are adding to the stresses that teachers are facing,” says Rayner. “There’s a twofold problem: one is that the government is failing to hit its own targets on teacher recruitment for the fifth year in a row, so not enough trainee teachers are beginning courses in the first place.

“We’ve also got this issue of pay and conditions; you can’t move away from that, especially when you look at the excessive workloads that have been placed on our teachers.

“The government has really created this pressure point, where teachers feel that they can’t be teachers, they can’t do what they want to do and that’s to teach our young people to be resilient and happy. They are instead forced to teach a very narrow curriculum, and to teach to a test, which is not what we want our young people to come out of school with.”

In 2014 the Department of Education rolled out a new national curriculum in which five-year-olds learn fractions and coding, while those in early secondary school have to learn two Shakespeare plays. This summer, students collecting their GCSE results will be graded using the new Progress 8 system, replacing traditional A-E grades. Grade 5 – equivalent to a low B or a high C – will be the new benchmark for a “good pass” required by league tables, where currently the required grade is C. This, the government says, will bring the country into line with some of the top performing education systems around the world.

But Rayner argues that the government’s interference in the curriculum structure and grading system is having a detrimental effect on teachers and their pupils.

“The government has been hellbent since Michael Gove was secretary of state in pushing their policies forward without actually even letting the first one embed before they start the next one,” she says. “We’ve got Progress 8 on the horizon and most employers won’t even know what you mean by that.

“The government needs to stop meddling in structures and look at standards, because that’s what parents are interested in. They just want an opportunity for their child to have the best education, and the way you do that is through leadership and good teaching in the classroom. Turfing teachers out of the profession, especially those teachers who have vast experience, is not the way to go about this.

“I don’t think for one minute that teachers go into teaching for the pay, because it’s not the best paid job in the world at the best of times. They really feel that they can make a difference and inspire young people. Everything that this government has done so far is ignore what teachers are saying and that is making that task impossible.”

Despite the difficulties, the profession still attracts significant numbers of hopefuls looking to inspire young people in the classroom. According to figures from the Initial Teacher Training Census, over 6,200 people aged 30 or over started training in 2016-2017 – the highest figure of trainees aged over 30 for four years.

Helen Winter
Helen Winter’s former career as a solicitor prepared her for teaching’s many targets and challenges

Helen Winter left her job as a lawyer and retrained as a teacher in 2006. Winter, who now works as assistant head at a school in Croston, Lancashire, says that although teaching is a challenging job, its expectations are similar to other professional roles.

“I was already accustomed to working in a high pressured environment,” says Winter. “I was used to targets, quick turnovers and change, so for me teaching is a challenging job, but perhaps no different to many other professions.

“I was employed for 10 years as a solicitor but the rewards with this job are incalculable. Without a doubt, recent changes in education have put additional pressures on teachers, but then there are changes coming about at any time in all careers. As long as you are well equipped and prioritise, I do not see these as obstacles that cannot be overcome.”

Winter came through the National College for Teaching and Leadership, whose Get into Teaching website showed a sharp rise in traffic during the new year period as people considered fulfilling career changes. She says the variety and joy of teaching far outweigh the additional pressures on the profession.

“I love the fact that no two days are the same. You never get bored – teaching is challenging and exciting. It’s an absolute pleasure to teach children because they so inquisitive and amiable. They’re truly grateful for the work you put in.

“They often wear their hearts on their sleeves and when they learn something, it’s so rewarding to see their personal sense of satisfaction. Results day is also incomparable: many pupils cry because they are so excited and thankful. You can’t put a price on witnessing their happiness.”

Main image: Ian Phillips spent 18 years in the classroom and says there’s a “burnout culture of: ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out.’” Photo: Rebecca Lupton  

Interact: Responses to Teaching crisis: learning the hard way

  • anne charlesworth
    21 Mar 2017 15:34
    An interesting article with a balance of perspectives within the profession. I am one of the statistics, having left a permanent TLR position four years ago, after 18 years of primary teaching. I have since worked as a supply teacher in many schools and gained much insight into staff morale and varying levels of job satisfaction amongst school staff. I agree with Angela Rayner’s ‘cocktail of problems’ in the school system and the very real issues relating to pay and conditions and excessive workload. Whilst I wouldn’t wish this career on anybody, I do believe that there are some aspects that can be better managed within the current climate of pressure and fear, which seems increasingly prevalent. For example, a supportive and approachable senior management team is essential (one that can actually work as a team) with a realistic approach to workload and expectations’. Additionally, teacher well-being and staff morale must be taken seriously and practical steps must be taken to ensure that this is addressed. Few teachers and schools are actually outstanding and this can lead to teachers feeling inadequate. Outstanding should be an aspiration, not the expectation, and there should be varied opportunities presented to allow all staff to develop their expertise through collaborative working. Team approaches to planning and teaching can be beneficial, as can a balanced and realistic approach to marking, assessments and data collection. There are some great head teachers and senior managers out there but sadly not enough, in my opinion. Too many teaching staff rise through the ranks without the necessary skills to be good managers. It is important that managers have aspirations to outstanding too – an effective and supportive leadership team will help deflect unnecessary pressures and excessive workload and focus on what is actually important to the school itself. Regarding Helen Winter’s comment that the joy of teaching far outweighs the additional pressures on the profession; Helen is very fortunate to experience this joy in her career – I sincerely hope that her staff are able to experience it too.

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