No more free market for teachers

The North of England Education Conference may have diminished in status over the years, but it hasn’t completely lost its role as a major source of policy announcements, especially in relation to teachers and school leaders. This year, both the Chief Inspector, Michael Wilshaw, and Minister of State, David Laws, used their speeches to the conference to hammer very hefty nails into the long-held doctrine of the market as the solution to all public sector problems by suggesting that teachers – and heads – should be matched to schools where their services are most needed. This is a radical break from the practice of the last 50 years when schools have become used to advertising vacancies, and teachers have been free to choose which ones to apply for.

HMCI talked of a “national strategy” to ensure we place ‘good teachers in schools that face the greatest challenges’, while the Minister announced a ‘pool of top talent within the profession, a champions league of head teachers, made up of heads and deputy heads, who will stand ready to move to schools in challenging circumstances that need outstanding leaders’.

From the policy of matching initial appointments of trainees to schools for their first appointment it is but a short step to the idea of then moving teachers between schools. To do this most effectively schools need to be grouped geographically in a manner that most academy chains, with the possible exception of Harris and some ARK schools, clearly are not. No doubt this will be a point the new school Commissioners will not be slow in making to their boss as they waste large amounts of time travelling around their bailiwicks.

However, the idea of assigning more senior “champions league” head teachers to schools, and possibly moving them long distances, as might happen under David Laws’ plans for heads to be parachuted into failing schools, must come with  terms and conditions that are attractive enough to encourage staff to sign up to the proposals. As we know, most heads, especially in the primary sector, only apply for posts within their existing travel to work areas: this is hopefully something that has been researched properly before the Minister made his announcement.

Now, I have always thought it daft that the weakest NQTs had to wait to find a teaching job, and in some cases were left without a teaching post for some time so that when they did eventually find a vacancy (after term had started) they were even more in need of further help than if they had been hired at the start of term. Of course, if there are more than enough teachers of good quality to go around that isn’t an issue. However since teacher supply is already under pressure in some subjects, and at risk of becoming even worse in 2014, the debate threatens to become academic as some schools will just need a teacher to fill their vacancy. David Laws has no doubt taken advice about the outcome of Labour’s Fast Track Scheme of the early 2000s before launching another national staffing initiative.

Linking training and employment will also help identify whether I was correct in 2008 in coining the phrase, admittedly about the primary sector, of ‘training in cathedral cities to teach in inner cities’ to characterise those who trained in one sort of environment, but found employment in an entirely different setting. Not everyone agreed with me, and there are those that think you can train anywhere to teach in any school. The new HMI inspection evidence will help clarify the situation.

Finally, it will be interesting to see what Mr. Taylor, has to say on Friday morning at the conference. Last year in Sheffield he proclaimed the end to central planning for teacher supply. However, this year, the message now seems to be that the new NSS (National School Service) will look increasingly like the NHS – and be equally devoid of democratic accountability.

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