And breathe. After two of the most extraordinary years that schools in this country have ever experienced, we’ve finally reached August and a much-need opportunity for teachers and pupils to catch breath. But for all the talk of how education should look when schools return in September, there’s one issue that hasn’t been mentioned once this year, and is in danger of slipping under the radar yet again, and that is the image of the teaching profession.
Both on university campuses and among the middle classes at large, there persists a not-so-silent stigma against teaching as a career. As someone who graduated only relatively recently myself, I can attest that graduates with ambition and drive are too often put off from becoming teachers by the persistent prejudice (which often comes from their parents) that it is a merely passable fallback if all else fails. ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.’ The old canard is alive and kicking, and, as a result, potentially excellent teachers instead go into management consultancy, law or accountancy – and the whole country ends up poorer for it.
One of my own pupils unwittingly hit the nail on the head when commenting on another of his teachers last week. After praising my colleague’s skills as a teacher and general intelligence, the pupil spoke for Middle England when he then asked quizzically why my talented colleague hadn’t become a doctor instead.
And no, this isn’t all just about money. While it’s true that the state sector is never going to be able to match the starting salaries offered by some of the big graduate employers, other moderately remunerated professions such as social work – hardly known for its six-figure pay cheques – nevertheless carry higher street cred than teaching. Why?
So it’s all very well for John Major to opine about reforms to GCSEs, as he did to the Times Education Commission last week, but unless we do more to attract the brightest and the best to teaching – and that includes those who might be changing careers – any such reforms will always be in danger of running aground in the face of insufficient teacher numbers.
That said, it’s encouraging to see a rise in the numbers of trainee teachers this year, with the Department for Education reporting a 23% increase in applicants compared to 2019/20. This was also the first year since 2012/13 in which the target number of secondary school trainees was actually surpassed.
Unalloyed good news? You’d have thought so, yet even here a narrative is developing that people are merely using teaching as a stopgap in times of economic uncertainty, and that numbers will return to pre-pandemic levels once things have settled down.
Surely people aren’t actually going into teaching because they view it as an exciting and fulfilling profession? Perish the thought.
Teaching is in urgent need of a brand overhaul, and it’s true that we teachers must do more to sell our profession as the intellectually stimulating and cutting edge career that it truly is. However, wider society also needs to challenge its own preconceptions.
In this brief hiatus before thoughts turn to exam results and the annual UCAS jamboree, let’s all think afresh about teaching. Less, why teaching? More, teaching – why not?