The total number of TAs working in English schools is down for the first time ever – but encouraging signs from the MITA project show how a strategic focus on TAs can unlock their potential.
Educational Excellence Everywhere? A solution to the teacher recruitment crisis is right in front of us
19 March 2016 by Rob Webster
You can’t fault Nicky Morgan for aiming high. Given the education secretary fancies a tilt at the premiership, you’d be mistaken for thinking her new white paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, is an early piece of legacy planning. The white paper pulls no punches in setting out an agenda for systemic change to state education. As Chris Husbands writes, it’s plan that will usher in “a radical new education structure”, much of which was put in place by Ms Morgan's Conservative forebears. Even her hyperactive predecessor, Michael Gove, stopped short of anything so fundamentally seismic and controversial.
Lots has been written already about the big policy ideas, much of it expressing anxiety and outright opposition to full academisation, the removal of parent governors and the scaling back of the local authority role. Multi academy trusts (MATs) are put forward as the vehicle to generate and spread excellence, creating with it a new layer of system leaders sitting somewhere between Regional School Commissioners and headteachers of individual schools. There will be qualifications to support these new leadership positions, though details on the accountability procedures and mechanisms that will allow communities to hold these handsomely-paid educational ‘big cheeses’ to account are, so far, underdeveloped.
Small state conservatism demands the government establishes a self-improving, school-led system of educational achievement and improvement. So it’s no surprise that the proposal to institute an architecture to support this new system features strongly in the white paper. Capacity building is another key feature of the proposed reforms, with the managerial framework (see below) populated by members of the existing workforce. Talent is to be identified and fast-tracked to new and emerging leadership roles.
I’ve written elsewhere that the new creation of hundreds, if not thousands, of MATs could be welcome news given the oncoming leadership supply crisis. However, as even the Dept for Education is now wont to admit, schools are amid a deepening crisis over the supply, recruitment and retention of classroom teachers. So with talent being drawn away from the classroom and into the boardroom, we'll need to be extra creative about how we attract people into teaching.
For me, a potential answer lies between the lines of the white paper. The first thing that struck me when I went through it was not what was it what saying, but what it was missing out. Over its 128 pages, there is not one reference to teaching assistants (or similar role titles). As I never tire of repeating, TAs comprise 25% of the school workforce. On the basis of headcount, they actually outnumber teachers in primary and infant settings. Schools in England employ over 330,000 individuals in TA roles. Imagine if we can find a way to entice just 5% of them into teaching each year. This alone would be enough to replace the number of teachers that leave each year to teach overseas. While many TAs have and do go on to become teachers via new and conventional routes, I think a dedicated pathway into teaching especially for TAs would convince many more to realise their potential as classroom leaders.
If Educational Excellence Everywhere is to become a reality in the face of considerable funding pressures (that ‘if’ just doubled in size!), it makes sense to think seriously about extending the talent supply pipeline not only forward into leadership, but backwards in the immensely rich and populous pool of classroom support staff. The white paper proposal to replace QTS surely opens up the possibility of new assessment models, processes and qualifications. A route into teaching that builds on TAs’ skills, knowledge and classroom experience is not just conceivable, but necessary and within reach. Think Troops to Teachers, but with greater demand and the actual potential to deliver!
But, I hear you ask, if more TAs becoming teachers, where will their replacements come from? Well, that’s perhaps another blog for another day, but those 3 million apprenticeships the government want to create by 2020 will have to come from somewhere…