Trickle Down Edunomics?

What is the currency of education?

Is it knowledge? Skills? Values? Respect? The true answer is probably that it should be a mixture of all those things. The balance of those things is different at different times, and probably rightly so – different circumstances lead to different priorities.The problem is, that isn’t what the currency actually is.

Education is going through the biggest recruitment and retention crisis I can remember, and this is mixed in with the other issues surrounding education at the moment. What is at the root of that crisis though? Why are schools finding it so hard to keep hold of staff?

I’ve tweeted before that people don’t leave teaching because of the teaching part of the job, on the whole and I am convinced this is true. When I contemplated leaving it was not because of the bits with the kids, I still thoroughly enjoyed every single minute of that. I’m not entirely convinced it is the pay either. That has certainly been exacerbated recently with the cost of living increases we have seen (at this point I am talking about teacher pay, support staff have long been underpaid). Some may leave teaching because of the pay, especially in recent months but I don’t think that is the main reason for most. This might vary depending on where you live – the national pay scales can have an impact on this. When we relocated from north to south the costs had a big impact on the choices we had to make (I’m not implying people in the North have it easy either, I know this isn’t true). 

So, what is it? I suspect we all know the answer – workload, wellbeing, toxic atmospheres, unreasonable expectations. These are damning reasons for anyone leaving a profession and education needs to take a good hard look at itself as to why this is the case. While funding (and I don’t want this to a funding blog at all) has a part to play in this there are still issues with all these things. In better days of funding there were still issues with retention past five years. Do people not really know what the job actually entails? Are people leaving as they thought it would be an easy life and the workload comes as a real shock? Again, I don’t think so. 

We come back to that question again, what is the currency of education. If it was knowledge or skills or anything that I mentioned at the start I don’t think we would be in the position we are in as a profession. The real issue with education is that the currency that has been chosen to give value to education is accountability. This is where the trickle down that falls to teachers and other staff on the front line and in the classrooms causes the problems. 

This focus on accountability was a conscious choice. It has long been the measure of the value of education. The fact that this has been chosen as the currency of education at the highest level has meant that it has become increasingly high stakes over the years. This is the root of the retention problems; the effects of this accountability need falling from layer to layer of the profession. I genuinely believe that almost all leaders do things because they think they are in the best interests of the school but over time it is easy for what those best interests of the school are to get skewed. The high stakes the accountability the more it seems in the best interests of the school to perform well by those measures.

It starts with the measures and the impact of failing to meet those set by the DFE. The floor targets, the progress measures, the outcomes, the data, the attendance. On their own these might be valuable things, but the issue is the impact of not meeting these standards. It can be catastrophic for a school and a community. This then moves down to Local Authority level or Trust level where they are feeling the heat to perform. This influences their decisions about the way forward to the school and how it can, instead of serving its pupils the best, serve the measures that are being forced to be met and they can end up chasing the unattainable because there is a consequence for them if they aren’t. So, we then move down to school level leaders fearing the worst if they don’t meet their targets. How are they supposed to try and have an impact in one area when everything they are judged against is in another space? Of course people are going to focus on the wrong thing if this is the case. So, what do they do? They make decisions that push the pressure they are feeling down on to teachers. As a leader it isn’t always apparent what the cumulative effect of little things being asked of teachers can have. On their own they seem reasonable, manageable but when taken as a whole and on an already burden teacher’s shoulders they become too much. 

Teachers then bear the brunt of this, and it becomes the workload issue we have today, pressure, expectations, jumping through hoops and doing work that seems meaningless in terms of its effect on children. This then trickles down further to support staff, and then worst of all to the children who feel the pressure too. 

When people are scared, they make bad decisions and often bad decision that are made in school are out of fear. Fear of the consequences of not meeting the accountability measures that trickle down from level to level. Each rung of the ladder makes a series of decisions that impact everyone else that are not made for the right reasons. They are made from fear of Ofsted, fear of poor results, fear of audits, grilling and at the very worst fear for their own careers. 

Is this really what we want the motivation for our wonderful profession to be? In too many places this is what drives the crisis we see now. Fear. It takes a strong leader to stand against this and to continue to do so when the outcomes can’t be visibly seen. In most circumstances the recruitment and retention issues get laid at leaders’ doors, but they are, quite possibly, just feeling the fear from what is coming down to them. 

What we have now in education is the result of years of policy decision and accountability based on judgement and not support. So, what is the solution? For leaders and teachers to try and stand against the tide, to try and be confident in what they are doing and stand up for what they believe in. This, however, is easier said than done, for all the reasons I have discussed above. 

Funding won’t solve the retention crisis, pay won’t solve the retention crisis, even more time for teachers won’t solve the retention crisis. They are sticking plasters, patches and cover ups. What really needs to change is the currency we trade in for education. This is what will trickle down to all levels, and now that currency is all wrong. It’s time for education to visit the Bureau de Change and start focussing on what really matters and makes a difference for people at every level, not just those who sit at the top removed from the effect their choices have made. 

Published by @secretHT1

Primary HT. Using this as a space to write honestly and freely about the state of education currently.

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