CamFest Speaker Spotlight: Professor Clare Brooks

Clare Brooks is Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge. She will be speaking in a Question Time-style panel discussion on the teacher recruitment crisis on Who can fix the teacher recruitment and retention crisis? takes place on 20th March, 5-30-7pm in the Faculty of Education, Donald McIntyre Building.

people sitting on blue carpet

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

What do you think are the main reasons for the teacher recruitment crisis? 
There are a few things that we need to understand about teacher recruitment. Firstly, the problem is not a new one, and it is not unique to England. Many countries around the world are suffering similar issues about not just recruiting new teachers but recruiting the right new teachers. For example, in England we have a problem recruiting male primary and early years teachers; and teachers with particular specialist expertise like languages, mathematics and physics teachers.

Research by academics at Durham University has found that, in policy terms, there is a repetition of policies that have been used before, and that have been used elsewhere, which are unlikely to make a dent in the long-term problem of teacher recruitment. Here we have a classic example of politicians looking to each other for solutions rather than looking to the sector. 

Two key research findings should shift the debate on teacher recruitment: Emily MacLeod’s work on why young people who are good at science don’t become science teachers, and a study by Professor Stephen Gorard and Professor Beng See that highlights that teaching is a gateway profession for first-generation university attendees.

Both pieces of research point to questions about the poor status of teachers. Such findings should lead us to question whether current policies around teacher education, which seek to constrict and limit what new teachers learn, will encourage teaching to be seen as high status.

Policies which take away all the professional autonomy of teachers and effectively deprofessionalise teaching are likely to scare off the very people who would want to be teachers. Why would a bright graduate, with the world at their feet and a desire to make the world a better place, enter a profession that seeks to control their every move? The teacher recruitment crisis in this country is a crisis exacerbated by the Department for Education. 

Is retention a bigger issue than recruitment, what’s driving this? 
We know from the recent report from the National Foundation for Educational Research that teacher attrition is making a bad situation worse.

The report suggested that for every seven additional teachers we retain, we would need to recruit 10 fewer teachers into training. We are often told that teachers leave because of poor pay or concerns around workload, but research into this issue suggests that it is an example of selective hearing.

A study by Jane Perryman and Graham Calvert, for example, shows that this doesn’t scratch the surface – everyone knows that teachers aren’t going to get rich and that they work hard and people who go into teaching expect to work hard.

The issue is not the hard work – it’s the sort of performative, bureaucratic, unnecessary work that teachers are expected to do – that’s why teachers leave. Now we have to ask ourselves, why has teaching become like this? And again, the answer can be found in research.

The over-burdensome levels of accountability, the bureaucracy and lack of trust that government shows in schools has trickled down to how schools treat teachers. It's not workload that drives teachers away from teaching; it’s poor leadership and high levels of bureaucratic performative accountability. 

What is the main impact on students, on the teachers who don’t leave and on budgets (for supply teachers)
The impact on students who don’t have a stable, experienced set of teachers who are able to help them develop over time is clear. The impact on teachers who stay and have to take on larger classes and cover for colleagues is clear. The impact on budgets taken up with expensive alternatives (like supply teachers) is – again - clear. 

What we should really be thinking about in addition to this is a whole set of other impacts: on societies, communities and the country. Which schools are the most affected? Which schools are finding it the most difficult to recruit?

The answer is always those schools who are the most in need of good teachers, particularly those in socio-economically disadvantaged communities, and increasingly in rural, coastal and post-industrial communities. We need to look at the broader and longer-term impacts on these regions and society as a whole and ask whether the policies we have are really addressing these issues. 

Which areas are worst hit?
We used to have a problem in this country of finding teachers to work in challenging urban areas, we used to call them the inner city – as a euphemism for diverse and multicultural communities. Now the pattern has changed.

Yes, London still has a high turnover of teachers, and a relatively young teaching workforce. But, on the whole, London has less of a recruitment problem than other areas. Schools in rural, coastal and post-industrial communities experience huge problems recruiting teachers, while transport and infrastructure problems make accessing these communities difficult.

The impact on towns of holiday homes and the lack of stable communities make these places difficult for young professionals to live in or build their professional and personal lives. Again, as a young graduate, why would you stay in a ghost town when you could move to the vibrant city for a few years? Many people used to move back to their home area when they needed to buy a house, but now they are often priced out of doing that, and a teacher’s salary doesn’t let you thrive in the city.

Our local towns need vibrant professional communities that encourage people to stay, build and contribute; to feel valued and to see that they can make a difference. 

Will the new Initial Teacher Training and Early Career Framework make any positive difference in your opinion?
I am utterly bewildered by the new framework. The criticisms of the old frameworks were clear: a lack of attention to SEND, phase and subject specificity, a narrow curation of research as “evidence”, a focus on technical teacher behaviours as though the performance of teaching is enough and all compounded by a costly, restrictive and soul-destroying repetition that turned off mentors and new teachers alike.

So what has the new framework done? It has combined two documents [the Initial Teacher Training Core Content Framework, and the Early Career Framework], both of which are inspected by Ofsted, so that the repetition will get worse rather than better. They have paid lip service to the concerns about SEND, specialist development and research literacy – to the point where if you blinked you wouldn’t notice it. 

But fundamentally, what is the logic that a content framework will improve recruitment? Why would this compartmentalised, reductionist view of teaching attract anyone to the profession? Even claims that it would affect retention need to be examined critically.

Will teaching defined in such a narrow, rigid and uncreative way attract the brightest and the best teachers to stay in the profession? If I want to make a difference to young people, to my community and I feel I have the ability to do so, why would I enter a tick-box deprofessionalised work environment where my every move is monitored? 

Has the need for a more flexible framework grown since Covid, given the long tail of the pandemic?
The pandemic was an accelerator. I was part of a team who conducted some research with schools and teacher educators and new teachers across all four nations of the UK. They told us that the trends we see in schools today were around before the pandemic.

Yes; we really need to address why young people are choosing not to go to school. But we can’t solely blame the pandemic for that. Instead we have to look at why anyone would want to go to school, particularly when the experience of school is characterised by crumbling buildings, lack of SEND support, tick box teaching and teachers spending their time filling in paperwork and preparing for Ofsted, rather than getting to know, build relationships with, and work closely with their students. 

Has teacher training kept up with technology changes in the last few years?
I am always intrigued to see how what goes on in our schools reflects the outside world. In the outside world, people are getting to grips with Generative AI – using LLMs such as ChatGPT, considering how we can use technology to do mundane tasks, collate and curate new information and to lighten the load.

In schools we are banning mobile phones. Don’t get me wrong, learning how to do things is important – if you can’t do mental arithmetic then you can’t spot if calculations are way off or not. And we only have to watch the news to see how too much trust in technology can be problematic. But we can’t just ban things because they aren’t like how the world was when we went to school. 

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