02 May 2023

The Monday Briefing: Dog With a Bone

principal, teacher, college

As Principal, I’m always very keen to receive feedback from staff with a view to gaining a full understanding of morale ‘on the ground’. This can come in a few forms, whether through an annual survey, termly appraisals or day to day conversations with colleagues who take advantage of my ‘open door’ policy. 

One of the most pleasing comments I’ve received since I took the helm at Ealing was from Nemone, our Head of MFL, who told me that, in her opinion, I had managed to get recruitment at the College ‘completely and utterly spot on.’

Though I don’t get absolutely every appointment right, I believe that my success rate stands up to scrutiny extremely favourably. Perhaps one or two ‘flops’, and even then, I don’t think I’ve overseen the bringing in of any unmitigated disasters.

Such comments please me as much as they do because I understand the contextual background of such achievements. Recruiting successfully in any sector is a challenge at the moment. Recruitment successfully in education is particularly demanding.

There are several reasons for this.

In November last year, the NFER (National Foundation for Educational Research) published research which provided insight into the struggles of Headteachers to appoint staff to relevant roles. 

It found that they were floundering: many schools are facing recruitment challenges, particularly secondary schools, where recruitment of trainees to teacher training programmes has been below the target numbers required for many years; when asked to rate the extent they were ‘unable to assemble a field of quality applicants’ (1 being ‘not at all’ and 8 being ‘to a great extent’), on average, secondary school leaders said 5 and primary school leaders 3.8; only 13 percent of primary school leaders and 27 per cent of secondary school leaders reported that they could have afforded to recruit another teacher, regardless of whether they wanted to do so or not.

This has, in turn, a range of knock-on effects which can impinge on the quality of teaching and learning. Faced with a low-quality field of applicants, senior leaders can either hire a teacher that applies but that may be less than ideal, or not hire at all and mitigate the impact of the resulting shortage. Either way, they find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

Recruiting teachers with less experience is obviously not ideal. Recruiting inexperienced or unqualified teachers certainly has negative implications for teaching quality, and particularly in the first few years following the appointment, without adequate training, mentoring and support.

Not hiring a teacher also has potential negative consequences for the school and pupils:

-A key mitigation strategy used in secondary schools when teacher recruitment is difficult is deploying non-specialist teachers to teach certain subjects. Deploying non-specialists to teach a subject is likely to have negative implications for the quality of the pupils’ learning in the classroom.

-Another option is to have school leaders doing more teaching than usual. This, however, reduces the school’s leadership capacity and, in turn, limits the schools’ ability to function well operationally and make improvements to teaching.

When the problem gets to pandemic levels - and every school seems to have the same issues (at the time of writing, on TES Jobs there are over 15,000 school based jobs being advertised at the moment) - then the problem becomes an extremely acute one.

When parents come with their children for interviews at the College, a common theme they discuss when explaining why they are considering coming to EIC is the lack of continuity in teaching within their most recent schools. Tales of teachers being covered by temporary supply teachers for terms at a time or not being replaced adequately don’t surprise me because I’ve heard them so often.

Of course, there are a number of reasons for this situation:

-A succession of below-inflation pay rises over the last decade means teacher earnings have fallen by 13% in real terms since 2010. Teacher pay is 11 percentage points lower than for similar graduates, a gap that has widened since the pandemic.

-An alarming shortfall applies to nine out of 17 secondary subjects in Initial Teacher Training, including Physics, Modern Foreign Languages, Computing, Design and Technology, Business Studies and Religious Education. English, Maths, Chemistry and Geography are also at risk of under-recruiting this year.

-The problem is particularly apparent in schools where the prospect of a bad grading by Ofsted looms large. The result is a vicious spiral: schools that have a series of below-good Ofsted grades tend to have higher teacher turnover, which in turn makes it more difficult for school leaders to turn standards around.

I consider the College to be bucking the trend where it comes to staff retention. 

Since I became Principal in 2020, we’ve had two changes of staff: one an English teacher going into postgraduate studies; one a Head of Physics moving closer to home. We managed to appoint good staff to fill these roles, who remain at the College, and, to all intents and purposes, they are happy to work at Ealing. Filling one of these roles was rather painstaking, documented in a previous blog, but we got there in the end.

This summer, the College is expanding, a great problem to have, particularly as some independent schools are having to close given the challenging economic climate, but this brings with it the challenge of recruiting the right staff, which has, this time around, been incredibly taxing.

We’ve had smaller pools of applicants this time around than previous recruitment efforts, and that has only been the start of the issues we’ve faced. If the last time we went in to the market was a painstaking process, this year it has been painful: 

-Candidates being offered the job then pulling out due to personal circumstances

-Offers being retracted because of questionable references

-Candidates withdrawing the day before interviews as they have ‘had a change of heart’

-Losing out to other industries who offer higher wages

-Candidates pushing for unrealistic salary awards

-Even interview processes having to be postponed due to road accidents!

Of the four positions we’ve had to fill, we now have two in place who ‘fit’ - and that’s extremely important to our community. Rather than bringing disruption to the harmony which has been so hard won, crucially, they will enrich it - with new ideas and a new level of passion which will drive the College forward.

The two remaining positions remain elusive, but we have interviews this week and I remain hopeful of securing the right appointments to improve the offering we have. 

While teachers continue to take industrial action for improved pay and conditions in the state sector, it’s important to have faith in what we do for staff, and the great environment they have in which to develop at the College.

Whilst a meagre 3% rise has been proposed for teachers from the government, our staff were awarded higher awards last September, and will be again this. This also comes in the context of longer summer holidays, smaller burdens on marking and report writing, having in place centralised detention systems and a supportive working environment focused on staff wellbeing, professional development, and the proliferation of collaborative relationships between staff and students based on trust. 

In many ways, ensuring that we have the right staff at the College comes firstly from ensuring that we take pride in who we are. It is a privilege to work at EIC - to feel truly valued in a role where one truly makes a difference to the lives of the students who come to us - and so we do not settle for anything less than getting recruitment ‘completely and utterly spot on’.

No matter how long or how many attempts it may take.

In such pursuits, one must be a dog with a bone: persistent; tenacious; relentless.

The very characteristics we expect of our students in their attempts to seek out their goals.

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