Speech: Festival of education: Wellington College

Let me start this speech about teacher recruitment by telling you about my daily commute – fascinating as that is.

Every morning, I join the thousands upon thousands of commuters spilling out of Cannon Street station on their way to work in the City. Very few of them look happy in fact, most look incredibly miserable. I can understand why the prospect of 7 or 8 hours cooped up in the office chasing red and green dots across the screen might be financially worthwhile. But I suspect it is often corrosive to the soul.

That can never be said about teaching. It may not be the best paid job in the world but, done well, there is no better job to satisfy the soul and energise the spirit. There is no better job to bring out the altruism in us all. That’s why I’ve been tempted on so many occasions to set up a stall outside Cannon Street to advertise teaching to people who may be thinking of a change of direction. Maybe I’ll do all this in retirement.

But I make the point that a bit of creative thinking about how and where we market the profession could solve a lot of problems in teacher recruitment.

It’s almost 50 years since I started teaching but I still have a dewy-eyed nostalgia for the history lessons I taught to youngsters in difficult schools across London.

I still remember my brilliant lesson on the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ with stirring military music in the background, Tennyson’s poem being read out by one of the students and whiteboard graphics showing the course of the unfolding drama. I still remember making even the Great Reform Act interesting and as for the wonder of Watt’s separate condenser, well, class 9Z was wide-eyed by my mock demonstration.

Indulge me – I’m blowing my own trumpet but my lessons must have had some impact because middle-aged men and women who I taught as boys and girls still stop me in the street to remind me of them. They usually kindly add, “I was lucky to go to that school and it made me what I am now.” It may be a cliché but it’s always worth repeating it. No one forgets a good teacher and certainly no one forgets a good headteacher.

All of you in this room know that there is no greater thrill than inspiring young people in a lesson and there is no greater achievement than seeing young people do well – particularly those from poor backgrounds.

Teaching is great – and there has never been a better time to be a teacher. Teachers have never had more autonomy, more promotion prospects or more support. It’s a better job now than ever before.

If that’s the case, why aren’t we getting the message across?

I believe there are 2 reasons. Firstly, all too often we don’t hear about teaching’s triumphs, only its problems. But the facts about the English education system speak for themselves:

  • a million more children in good or outstanding schools
  • a larger percentage of schools moving to good from requires improvement and special measures than ever before
  • more schools remaining good and not declining
  • more youngsters reading by the age of 7, with record numbers reaching the required levels of reading, writing and mathematics at the end of Key Stage 2
  • outcomes at Key Stage 4, despite the odd blip, continuing to improve with more youngsters pursuing the tougher subjects at GCSE
  • many more young people from poor backgrounds going to university than ever before and a much greater focus in schools on closing the attainment gap
  • significant improvements in early years, including for the poorest children

So why don’t we hear about the joy of teaching and the nobility of our profession as much as we should? Why do so many in the profession doggedly focus on teaching’s problems but ignore its infinite successes?

I recently came across an advert in a professional association magazine encouraging colleagues to leave teaching and become driving instructors. Whilst I admire the British School of Motoring’s marketing tactics, shouldn’t the teaching organisations be encouraging and supporting their members in their teaching, rather than giving space to other careers?

It’s disheartening to see the way teachers are portrayed by representatives who should be their greatest cheerleaders. I think the new recruitment campaign from NCTL [National College for Teaching and Leadership] is at least a step in the right direction but we have all got to do a lot more to promote and honour our profession.

Teachers should feel incredibly proud of what they do and the impact they have on children’s lives. No other career shapes the lives of young people more. Teaching is the profession that informs all the rest. We need to be as candid about its successes as we are about its setbacks.

The second reason I think there is a problem is because popular culture and the media, sometimes inadvertently, portray the state system in negative ways.

We don’t see, in the main, great teachers teaching great lessons in well-ordered state schools. What we do see is a programme like ‘Tough Young Teachers’ on the BBC, which showed some idealistic, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed new recruits struggling daily to cope with Jack the Lad and Sally Show Off.

Quite honestly, it was hard for me to watch without holding my head in my hands. Hard to watch young teachers putting up with this sort of nonsense on a daily basis. What was even harder to watch were senior teachers providing little or no support. Indeed, their presence hardly changed the casual and sometimes disorderly atmosphere of the classrooms in which some of these poor young things were teaching. I found this upsetting and a sad commentary on the nature of leadership in a minority of our schools.

The reason I’m here, after almost 50 years in teaching, is because I was fortunate enough to start my career in schools with headteachers who were absolutely unequivocal in their support.

They were fearsome characters who made it their mission to protect new teachers like me. Bridie Burns was typical. She was head of the first school I taught in – a four-foot-nothing Irish ball of fire who moved around the school as if she was on wheels.

The very sight of her instilled fear and dread amongst both students and staff. I remember quite clearly her reprimand to me one summer’s day, ‘Mr Wilshaw, I know you’re a new, young teacher but should you be wearing short-sleeved shirts? Please change it tomorrow.’

I did change it but, more than that, I grew to appreciate that her style of leadership and her presence in school meant that I could get on and teach the sons and daughters of dockers in Bermondsey the delights of the Spanish Armada and the English Civil War.

We need more of her sort of leaders in our schools – authoritative figures who understand the power of headship and who are not worried about being called disciplinarians.

We’ve got to make sure that good teachers stay in the profession and convey the message to the general public that the great majority of schools are orderly places where teachers are able to teach and children are able to learn.

If we don’t address these 2 issues – selling the profession and raising its status – we’re going to continue to have problems in teacher recruitment, particularly when the economy does well, as it is doing now.

Teacher recruitment problems are nothing new. One of my predecessors, Sir Mike Tomlinson, spoke of an acute teacher shortage back in 2001. Indeed, there have been problems recruiting enough teachers for so-called shortage subjects, such as science and maths, since I can remember. And I speak as someone who went through some really difficult times in the early 90s in inner London – so much so that I was forced to go to the Republic of Ireland year after year to fill the vacancies.

Six months ago, I asked a team of Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMI) to begin reviewing how much progress has been made towards tackling this pressing recruitment issue. Inspectors have been visiting 3 different regions – the East of England, the South East and the North West – to get a better understanding of the challenges of recruiting good teachers in schools in coastal, isolated and deprived areas.

We were particularly interested in how well teacher training serves struggling schools. This HMI research is still in progress and the conclusions will be published later in the year as part of our Annual Report. But I can share some initial findings with you today.

When inspectors asked headteachers, NQTs [newly qualified teachers] and trainees how best to attract more people into the profession, there was a common reply: raise the status of the profession much more than we’re doing at the moment. Trainees said that it was the prime reason why their contemporaries had not joined. This reinforces everything I said earlier.

The media has to play an important part here. Of course we’ve got to have reality TV and show what teaching can be like in some of our schools, warts and all. But surely we’ve also got to get a better balance and show what goes on in the great majority of our state schools – good leadership, good teaching and good learning. This often doesn’t get a look in.

Instead, we get patronising caricatures of state education from Grange Hill to Waterloo Road. Compare this to the paean praise to public schools in a programme like ‘Harrow – a very British school’. It may be British but it’s not typical. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by all this when so many in the media are privately educated.

It’s no wonder that people form a particular view about what it must be like to teach in the state school system. I‘m not telling commissioning editors how to do their job, but wouldn’t it be great to have a series tracking the progression of an inspiring teacher working in a challenging school in the state system? Wouldn’t it be great to see an outstanding headteacher leading a school from inadequacy to success in the state system? Wouldn’t it be great for viewers to see that teaching in the state school system is a terrific job that doesn’t involve a daily battle?

Many of the teachers and trainees interviewed by HMI agreed that the media portrayed teaching negatively. But what HMI found truly encouraging is that the trainees they spoke to, in tough schools in these regions, were buoyed by the support they received from strong leadership teams.

As 1 trainee put it, ‘I came into teaching to make a difference; I just needed the right support to help me do it.’ An NQT described the central role played by the headteacher during her first year of teaching at a school that required improvement. She told inspectors that the head was ‘everywhere’ and ‘led by example’ and gave that NQT ‘excellent support’. It is headteachers like this that inspire new teachers to embrace the challenges of teaching and make a real difference.

Teacher recruitment

Let me now turn to the impact of teacher supply problems on the schools we have visited so far. The overriding message our inspectors are hearing from heads in these regions, in schools of all grades and types, is that teacher recruitment is a real problem and is getting worse.

Well over half the heads we’ve spoken to – both primary and secondary – have told us that they are having serious difficulties in recruiting good staff.

Over half of secondary headteachers have told inspectors they are finding it very challenging to recruit maths and science teachers. And a third of them are having to cover posts in these subjects with temporary staff without the right skills. That’s a lot of children going home and saying to their parents, ‘another cover teacher in science’.

There is huge competition for good teachers. With fewer trainees coming through, it has become a buyer’s market. Trainees can take their pick of the schools they want to work at when they qualify. Unsurprisingly, the majority opt for a well-performing school in a nice area.

So it is no surprise that challenging schools in deprived or isolated communities find recruitment hardest. Nearly three quarters of headteachers that we spoke to in the most disadvantaged schools said they struggle to get good staff.

As I said in our ‘Unseen children’ report of 2013, recruiting the best teachers into schools serving disadvantaged pupils was a big challenge. Sadly, the situation has not improved in the two years since then. Indeed, in some areas, it has got worse.

These schools find themselves trapped in a vicious circle. They can’t easily recruit good teachers because they are struggling. But they can’t improve because they can’t recruit good teachers.

Inspectors have seen Herculean recruitment efforts by some schools. A primary school in a deprived community in Kent which advertised for 2 teaching posts last year only attracted one applicant to each, neither of whom was good enough to appoint. The head was forced to recruit from abroad. Sadly, neither of these recruits lasted very long.

About half of heads in the East of England and a third of heads in the South East said they had turned to overseas recruitment.

One secondary school in an isolated part of East Anglia conducted 75 rounds of interviews last year. The headteacher told inspectors that when interviewing potential teachers, she had to weigh up the question ‘Is this good enough for my children?’ against the thought of ‘If I don’t appoint, there will be no one in front of this class’. No headteacher should ever be put in that position.

A primary school in another part of the region only received 4 applicants for 3 teaching posts. By the day of the interviews, two had already accepted jobs elsewhere and only 1 of the 2 who turned up was appointable.

Stories like this are all too typical. I’m sure that many headteachers here today will have their own tales of recruitment headaches. Unfortunately, national data showing low vacancy rates is clearly not giving the full picture and masks the situation at a local level in some areas. It must be an urgent priority for government to develop local intelligence on teacher vacancies and recruitment problems in different parts of the country.

The changing teacher training landscape

As the vast majority of NQTs seek employment in the same area in which they train, local teacher training has a direct impact on teacher recruitment in local schools. So our research is aiming to get a clearer understanding of the distribution of training in different regions.

In recent years, the government’s focus has been on encouraging schools to get more involved in teacher training through school-centred initial teacher training partnerships (known as SCITTs), teaching schools and School Direct.

As a former headteacher, I support this direction of travel. It is only right that schools have the opportunity to have more say in training the next generation of teachers. Furthermore, I believe that there is no better place to learn how to teach than in a classroom under the watchful eye of experienced school leaders.

The majority of headteachers we have spoken to told inspectors that they saw strong potential in school-led training. Indeed, the numbers of training places requested by schools is growing year-on-year.

This would all be very well if there were plenty of trainees and they all moved around once trained. But there aren’t, and they don’t.

It is true that new teacher training courses are opening up in some areas. But the evidence from our fieldwork so far shows that the distribution of new teacher training is skewed towards those areas that already have good training provision and a high proportion of good schools. Why is this happening?

It’s happening because the current rules stipulate that only strong schools can lead school-led training. Consequently, areas with a high proportion of struggling schools and few good ones have a shortage of school-led training.

Take the East of England region, where there are about 70 teaching schools. The vast majority are in affluent areas of Cambridgeshire, East Hertfordshire and South Essex. Very few are in the isolated rural and coastal parts of Suffolk and Norfolk.

Even where there is school-led training nearby, struggling schools told inspectors that support is not always forthcoming. One grade 3 school headteacher spoke of having little contact from the local teaching schools. He also believed the schools where they trained usually snapped up most trainees.

These isolated schools are telling us that they feel left ‘out in the cold’, confirming the concerns I raised in the ‘Unseen children’ report. The prospect of the most successful schools cherry-picking the brightest and best for themselves, creating a polarised system between the strongest and weakest schools, has become a reality.

Emerging evidence from our research shows that schools in SCITTs are more able to recruit than those that are not – and the schools in SCITTs tend to be the more advantaged schools.

We now have a two-tier school-led training system, with one group of lucky schools more able to recruit and one unlucky group less able to do so, further intensifying the disparity in local and regional performance.

Financial incentives play their part but need to be more targeted in order to get trainees to start their career in the areas and schools that need them most. The expansion of Teach First is a step in the right direction. But numbers are small and more needs to be done.

Ofsted has played its part and changed the initial teacher training inspection framework. Teacher training providers looking to be graded as good should now provide their trainees with experience of teaching in schools in challenging circumstances as part of their course. This professional development is crucial in equipping trainees with the skills and confidence to teach in tough schools.

What needs to be done?

So what else needs to be done? Our first priority is clear: it must be to encourage more people into teaching. The next must be to ensure that teachers are incentivised to teach in the schools that need them most. School involvement in teacher training is a positive development. But school-led training in itself is not a silver bullet.

It is crucial that teacher training flourishes in areas that currently lack it. Those schools that are most in need of great teachers must take priority, otherwise, the strongest will thrive and the weakest will continue to struggle.

Perhaps there should be more flexibility when deciding which schools can lead teacher training. Why, for example, can’t a grade 3 school with a great new head take a lead on teacher training?

It is clear that what we have now isn’t working well enough. I’m aware that the government takes the issue seriously and is looking at incentives. But bursaries, competitive salaries and other financial inducements have to be part of a wider package of support, especially around equipping trainees with the skills to work in schools in challenging circumstances.

Two years ago, I suggested a proportion of good teachers should become ‘national service teachers’, contracted directly with government and then deployed to a disadvantaged area. If 1 exceptional teacher can make the world of difference to a school, just think what a large number of great teachers could achieve, given the incentive to do so. I still think it is something that should be considered as a matter of urgency.

I announced earlier this week that exceptional leaders who support struggling schools will be publicly recognised by Ofsted. Should thought be given to encouraging them to take on further work in teacher recruitment and training?


Let me conclude where I started, pondering as I walked from Cannon Street station. Teaching is a wonderful job. Its problems are well documented; its successes are not. Every few years, usually during a period of economic expansion, the country faces a teacher recruitment crisis.

I have been around long enough to know that this is not a problem caused by any 1 government or any 1 policy. Fundamentally, it is the by-product of a society that does not value teaching enough. It is the result of a culture that pays lip-service to teaching but that doesn’t really think it is for its brightest or its best.

It is a culture that is intelligent enough to perceive that, without great teachers, the arts, industry and science cannot blossom, but is so short sighted that it does little to encourage them. It is a society that regards teaching as a career cul-de-sac, to dabble in when times are bad but to desert when more glittering opportunities arrive.

We need to shout about the appeal of teaching as never before. Because unless we do so, all the improvements in England’s schools we have seen in recent years could be undone. The recruitment difficulties laid bare by our preliminary findings will only get worse.

We have to change the way we talk about teaching and we have to start doing it now.

Thank you

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