One of the most bizarre features of the education sector is the misalignment between public perception of teaching and the reality of working in it.
The government has missed its targets for teacher training for five consecutive years so reputation matters.
One comment we hear time and again from teachers is the frustration of working in a duplicitous industry so unfairly misunderstood by the public, and particularly, parents.
Was teaching's reputation always so bad?
In the early 1990s teaching offered reasonable pay: the average salary was £21,550. Teacher training did not carry the exorbitant cost that it does now: university degrees were fee-free and came with additional grants for many students until 1998. An aggressive recession from 1989 to 1993, the worst in 60 years, left unemployment at record highs during the 1990s. Teaching was a good career to get in to.
Exam results were strong: A decade’s worth of the new exam structures, GCSEs, afforded the government more accurate measurement of schools’ efforts. By 1995, 53% of GCSE entrants were achieving grades A-C, up from 41.9% achieving A-C in 1988. Student numbers had increased in Primary from 4.5 million in 1985 to 5 million in 1995, but an increase in primary school teacher numbers had maintained the teacher:pupil ratio at 22 children per class. In secondary schools, pupil numbers had fallen from 4.2 million in 1985 to 3.6 million in 1995, and the secondary school teacher ratio had also held at 16 per class.
But meanwhile, a great deal of social unrest continued grow against the government. Large parts of Britain were still utterly crushed by the government’s closure of the coal industry in 1984. Then, the 1990’s recession left thousands of people paying famously high mortgage rates (15%) or having their homes repossessed, which again punctuated the early 90s with riots. The population wanted to know why the next generation was finding it so difficult to get a job.
Fuelled by an already bubbling indignation for ‘free loading’ university students who languished in education until the age of 21 then took teaching jobs with spectacular final salary pensions and an amazing 13 weeks of holiday a year, it was easy to garner a culture of disdain, even anger, towards the teaching profession, along with other secure, public service positions. Naturally, newspapers capitalised on this class divide, crystallising this version of the truth.
A new voice for teachers
It’s no coincidence that the advent of social media after the millennium gave teachers a fair voice for the first time. The reality of long teaching hours, increased responsibility for vulnerable students and the impact of relentless pointless policy changes on teaching and learning came to light.
Combined with the negative public perception, suddenly, interest in choosing teaching as a career was waning.
The government, faced with an unprecedented shortage of teachers realised that the established PR machine was doing tangible damage, leaving them with a black hole where a once precious workforce used to nurture and raise new thinkers, workers and voters of tomorrow.
It has only been in the last ten years that the rhetoric has changed. Maths was done, and a significant baby boom was found to be toddling swiftly towards the schools. Primary schools have swelled over the last decade and latest data from the National Audit Office shows that the secondary school population will see a 20% increase in pupil population by 2025.
A voracious campaign to recruit into the profession ensued. Campaigns like ‘Those who can, teach’ filled the airwaves.
Why is teaching still so poorly represented in the media?
The problem is that the messages that educate the public about the incredible work done by teachers (the unpaid overtime and relentless pastoral demands) are also the messages that deter graduates from considering teaching as a career.
So how can we achieve a radical overhaul of public sentiment towards teachers whilst attracting and retaining the ones we need?
The answer is honesty. Cut the blame, increase the transparency and change the language.
1. Start with more honesty about the reality of the imminently oversubscribed class sizes, avoiding phrases like “There are more teachers than ever in the education system.”
2. As a suggestion, let’s restructure the way teacher’s hours are calculated and the language used when referring to it. Teachers are working 55 hours or more a week, without overtime pay so in reality, the ‘holidays’ don’t even scratch the surface of what teachers are owed in flexitime.
3. Increase pay to compete with other graduate professions, and gain public backing for it by educating parents and voters on the importance of an experienced and consistent workforce.
By lifting the secret curtain on teaching, it’s entirely possible that the public’s eyes will be opened, and teachers can be celebrated justifiably for the amazing work they do, and the government can give themselves a fighting chance to recruit some new teachers while holding onto some old ones.
About the author
Katie Newell BA(Hons) PGCE is an ex-primary school teacher, Head of Maths, Head of Year five and languages specialist. Katie qualified in Psychology at Liverpool then specialised in Primary Languages for her PGCE at Reading. Before teaching, Katie was a financial commentator and is now the Content Manager for eteach.com and fejobs.com. Katie feels passionately that teachers are the unsung heroes of society; that opening minds to creative timetabling could revolutionise keeping women in teaching, and that a total change to pupil feedback is the key to solving the work life balance issue for the best job in the world.