The Danish film Druk, released in English last year under the title Another Round, is more of a cautionary tale than a guide to schooling. The story concerns four teachers who run a dangerous experiment based on drinking alcohol at work. But in one sense the film offers an illuminating contrast, and that is the way these middle-aged men treat teaching as a career – and not a staging post. To the enormous discredit of successive Conservative governments, this view of teaching as a lifelong commitment has become a rarity in the UK (and even rarer among men: at the last count, 75.5% of teachers in England were female).
Recruitment and retention of staff is recognised as a problem by policymakers, as it is in the health and care sectors. But with teachers in Scotland already on strike, and the results of other strike ballots awaited, the sense of crisis is mounting. Figures obtained by Labour show that of the 270,000 teachers who qualified in England between 2011 and 2020, 81,000 have already left the profession. One consequence of this high dropout rate is that the average age of teachers in England is much lower than in comparable countries. Just 18% are over 50; the average figure across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is 34%.
Four years ago, the then education secretary, Damian Hinds, produced a strategy aimed at reversing these damaging trends. But six education secretaries later, the situation is even worse. The leader of one headteachers’ union described the huge number of unfilled training places last year as “catastrophic”. Such gaps make Rishi Sunak’s recent proposal of compulsory maths to 18 look like a gimmick.
Pay is not the only reason why schools are failing to find and hold on to staff. Workloads, pressures linked to cuts and changes to the nature of the work are also relevant. But pay is central to the current crisis, and the government’s inadequate response to the unions demeans it. In real terms, the pay of education professionals has fallen sharply since 2009 (by 9.7% in secondary and 11.8% in primary and early years), as capital and other budgets have also shrunk. Especially in areas where housing is scarce and overpriced, the situation is not tenable.
The 8.9% increase to teachers’ starting salaries announced last year was a positive move – though it has now been overtaken by price rises. But the 5% rise offered to experienced teachers is not enough. Teaching ought to be an attractive profession. Children have their whole lives ahead of them. While many face difficulties at some point, they are also lively and rewarding (Adele is among the superstars who cite teachers as having inspired them). But the work is demanding, and the contrast with other graduate jobs has been heightened since the pandemic, with many professionals now allowed to work more flexibly and from home.
That headteachers are also being balloted over strike action is an indication of just how bad the situation has become. In one survey, 87% of heads said their mental health had suffered. Such alarming statistics demand a considered and compassionate response from ministers. While teachers have so far not been directly threatened with a ban on strike action, the anti-union rhetoric from No 10 can only inflame tensions. Since forcing people to teach is not an option, the government must rethink its failed approach. No one should want schools to close or lessons to be cancelled, but ministers’ high-handed and slapdash approach is to blame for the present impasse.