Managing Teacher Supply – Learning from the NFL

It is 15 years, in January, since I moved into teacher education and as well as being concerned about what the millennium bug might do to us all – I was also being told that it was not a good time to be entering into teacher education. Inevitably every year in those 15 years teacher education has faced new problems but the most consistent and biggest problem that we faced then and that we face now remains teacher supply. When I first entered teacher education there were no bursaries but equally no student fees. Similarly attracting high quality applicants who were committed to teaching and committed to training (not the same thing) to be a teacher was problematic. I clearly remember a trainee teacher at the time having to work night shifts at a local hospital and then turning up at school to give his best whilst trying to make ends meet.

In the ensuing 15 years we have gone through a complete cycle with:
• Significant recruitment difficulties followed by introduction of bursaries (which made a huge difference to trainee commitment and supply).
• Stable recruitment – the introduction of fees (£3k) and bigger bursaries (£9k).
• Recruitment difficulties – the introduction of bigger fees (£9k) and differentiated bursaries (up to £25k).

If you throw in a couple of recessions, which significantly improved recruitment, we now arrive at 2015 where we seem to be faced with as big a challenge as in 2000 (minus the millennium bug) of attracting and retaining the best into teaching. Currently however there is an additional emerging problem of managing teacher supply effectively – namely how do we ensure all pupils have access to talented and capable teaches when there doesn’t appear to be enough new teachers around?

Recent reports suggest there are now 400,000 children taught by unqualified teachers and if this figure is correct it would be interesting to know which children in which schools and in which subjects are being taught by unqualified teachers.

A slight diversion at this point as a central theme of Michael Gove’s argument about using unqualified teachers was that “Independent schools and free schools can already hire brilliant people who do not have qualified teacher status.” Interestingly then that the independent sector (HMC) have introduced their own teacher training programme which clearly does value having qualified teachers. I digress.

If then as indicated we have 400,000 children being taught by unqualified teachers, and this figure could potentially increase given the likely shortfalls in recruitment, then how do we ensure that the distribution of new teachers is managed in an equitable way? You see there is another issues in that the introduction of the market to teacher education has now very much favoured certain types of schools and academy chains in enhancing their ability to attract the best new teachers. Therefore a monopoly is beginning to emerge where academy chains, teaching schools and school direct lead schools can, and perhaps will have to, be strategic in their securing (and in some cases stockpiling) of new teachers. I certainly don’t blame these schools for what they are doing and if I were in the same situation I would probably consider doing the same. However the emerging behaviours in a ‘school led system’ are potentially distorting the distribution of teachers in an inequitable way.

Added to this is the introduction of freedoms in attracting teachers in specific subjects based on their school’s needs (as in willingness to paying more) – then suddenly it is clear that certain types of schools are going to become increasingly isolated and frustrated in their ability to attract the best new teachers.

In many ways this may be central to government policy and the release yesterday by the national archives of Margaret Thatcher’s plans from thirty years ago to create schools independent of local authorities confirms the long held ambition for the marketization of education. The difficulty remains that in any gaming context there will be winners and losers and in this case this means schools having difficulty recruiting teachers and pupils being taught by unqualified teachers. Ultimately this creates a cycle of disadvantage for schools and pupils and the ‘enemy of promise’ becomes government policy and rhetoric.

So how can this issue be addressed?

The ideal solution is that we produce enough teachers, however even if we produce enough teachers, acknowledging that there will be a variability in the quality of these teachers, there is still an issue of equity in the distribution of teachers who can now be seduced by academy chains and teaching school groups. Inevitably in this system the strong get stronger which is fine when dealing with commodities but access to a qualified teacher should be seen as an entitlement consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 26) that “everyone has the right to education” and this should include access to an informed, high quality and well educated teacher.

Distributing a differentiated workforce in a competitive environment in an equitable way isn’t however something new so here is my ‘outside the box’ proposal based on this principle.

Every year the American national football league (those with helmets and pads) distributes the best college players via a draft system. The reason for this is to address the traditional market system, which allowed the best teams to continue to attract the best players and as a consequence reduce the competitiveness of others. The NFL draft operates by the lowest ranked team getting first pick of the best players.

Now I am no expert on NFL and don’t understand the nuances of their trading system however the parallels with the current marketised approaches to education are clear in that the competiveness of many schools will simply be negated unless they have access to high quality teachers and if there is insufficient quality around then perhaps what is available should be managed in an equitable way.

Inevitably this poses the question of the commodification of teachers however given the high bursary costs it would not seem unreasonable that teacher were allocated a school (within a certain location) for their first few years in teaching which could be linked with paying off student loans, accommodation, etc.

Whilst this is clearly a sketchy idea and a pipedream the principles of managing teacher supply in an equitable way (perhaps via a draft system) in a competitive high stakes market needs to be considered in a more strategic way. Many schools and significantly many pupils are not going to have access to the teachers they need or deserve. Therefore whilst Labour has pledged a qualified teacher in every classroom (which seems a far from ambitious target) perhaps addressing the variance and distribution of teacher quality in an increasingly marketised system needs some serious consideration.

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