Let me tell you a story.
Last year, a well-regarded teacher training provider in England advertised for a PGCE qualification in Computing, the government's reboot of secondary school ICT. How many people do you think applied? Go on, have a guess. Thirty? Seven? The answer is zero.
I've heard that at another provider there are two Computing trainees. When jobs are advertised in their home city, they are the only two who apply.
But staffing is not just a problem in new subjects.
Two years ago I worked in a school that had experienced an unprecedented level of staff turnover. “You should probably know that we're all leaving”, one teacher told me, kindly, in the staff room. This was during a phase in which Ofsted had told the school – and many others - that pupils must be constantly evaluated using something called National Curriculum levels – numerical ratings that measure how advanced pupils' skills are in particular areas of the curriculum. This should happen throughout the school day, the inspectors said, every twenty minutes.
Most teachers at the school hated it. So much so that many of them just up and left. They didn't just leave the school, but in many cases the entire teaching profession.
“The older ones are retiring a bit earlier, the younger ones are often moving onto other things,” the teacher told me.
“But why now?” I asked another teacher, “don't silly government directives come and go all the time?”
“It's because this one is bad for pupils.”
A pupil struggling at school would be reminded by teachers or fellow pupils fifteen times a day how far below average they were according to the NC levels. Staff turnover, I was told, was around forty percent that year.
Like many current issues in Education, it is difficult to see where this policy originated. Other schools I've worked at since haven't heard of the directive and it is tricky to locate it in Department for Education literature. Still, in perhaps the most dramatic and far-reaching policy U-turn in education under this government, your department made the feared NC levels non-compulsory last September and Ofsted have backed off from their zeal for assessment thrice per lesson – if indeed the policy was ever consistently promoted. The whole affair was considered a little too boring to make many front pages.
But it seems to me as though staffing in our schools might still be in huge peril. Teacher morale is currently very low, with 55% of teachers unhappy in their jobs, according to the largest teaching union, the NUT. Teachers all across the country are at breaking point in terms of workload, often to the detriment of their relationships with family and friends. With education in the UK now compulsory until 18, including retakes in English and Maths for low attainers at GCSE, the demand for teachers is rising, not falling.
I am not the only person worried about this. Professor Chris Husbands of the Institute of Education warned a Commons Select Committee last autumn of the shortage of trainees in subjects such as maths, science and computing. But it is difficult to see what the Department of Education has up its sleeve to deal with it. In fact a recent proposal by then Education Secretary Michael Gove, to extend the length of the school day, would have increased the need for greater staffing levels even further. (Thankfully, it was thwarted by a review body last spring). On the other side of the House of Commons, the Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt wishes to make it even harder for teachers to stay in the profession by re-licensing them every few years.
This strikes me as a very big and fairly immediate problem, and one that has no easy solution. Your predecessor often seemed hostile to the very idea of expertise in the teaching profession – depicting pedagogic experts as 'The Blob', a homogeneous mass from which free-thinkers should escape – and I worry that the Department For Education might try to stock our schools full of unqualified teaching staff, throwing away pupils' right to an education guided by all we understand about teaching and learning. Or worse, that the government might do nothing and allow the system to descend into the sort of chaos that sees pupils going home early because there is nobody to teach them Computing today.
I know you have a lot to do. This week, the Birmingham schools fiasco will demand much of your attention. Probably next week as well. I won’t trivialise either issue by ranking their importance, but remember that it isn’t everything. I know that you admire Mr Gove’s legacy. But his attitude towards teachers and educational experts has been immensely damaging: the profession’s good will needs winning back. And I know you don’t have much time. But this problem isn’t going away. It demands to be looked at now.
I wish you the very best of luck.