From Alice Thomson in THE TIMES, 26 September 2018:

Angela Rayner left her school in Stockport without any qualifications and became pregnant at 16 but she was determined to get a job. Now she’s a granny at 38 but also shadow education secretary. She’s punching above her gene pool, as she once explained to me. Her mother, who had bipolar disorder, couldn’t read or write except to scrawl Angle on her Christmas cards.

Rayner has holes in her formal education which she has made up for by devouring policy papers and biographies. She is mocked for her accent but she is one of the sharpest, funniest, wisest MPs, with friends on both sides of the house. She told me that her mission is to help others like her succeed.

But this week’s speech in Liverpool shows she’s falling into the same trap as every recent education and shadow education secretary. Her proposal to rein in academies and scrap free school programmes focuses only on names and structures, mimicking the Tories’ obsession with grammar and faith schools. The arguments have become vicious but they’re almost as pointless as the remarks of the teaching assistant who was cheered at the Labour conference for saying that with a proper education no child would ever vote Tory.

What really matters for children and their parents is that teachers are quitting the profession in numbers not seen for decades. Just under 40,000 teachers, or about 9 per cent of the workforce, left in 2016, according to government figures. There is a shortfall of 30,000 classroom teachers in England and at secondary level 20 per cent of teacher training vacancies are unfilled.

This Friday more than 1,000 head teachers will bunk off to protest outside Downing Street against seven years of budget cuts, inadequate recruitment and retention of teachers, the reduction in special needs and mental health provision, larger class sizes and the erosion of curriculum choice.

It’s the pressures they now face that are causing them to flee. I come from a family of teachers (my mother was a headmistress); it has always been a stressful job but those with a vocation found it stimulating and rewarding, even if they did moan regularly. Now it feels different. Far more are escaping after a few years. In subjects such as physics and maths more than half quit the profession after fewer than five years.

One head teacher explained: “The tougher GCSEs and A levels alone wouldn’t have tipped the balance. It’s the rise in mental health issues and teachers constantly feeling they are being tested, as well as having to test the children”.

The number of teachers ringing the crisis helpline of the Education Support Partnership over the past 12 months has risen by 35 per cent to more than 8,500 cases. Some say that they vomit every day before classes, others have panic attacks or depression. The inspirational Now Teach programme, which trains older professionals to switch careers, found that 25 per cent of its cohort last year deferred or left, blaming schools’ “data-led, assessment-heavy culture”.

This lack of teachers means class sizes are growing again, so it’s harder to maintain discipline and there’s more work to mark. Teachers have to prioritise who to help, meaning some students fall behind and others become even more unruly. Fewer schools have assistants to pick up the stragglers. Cuts to services such as child and adolescent mental health services, educational psychologists, and speech and language therapists mean that many children aren’t getting the extra help they need. The teachers feel overwhelmed and guilty and even more quit. It’s a vicious circle.

How can head teachers cope? They are having to spend large amounts of time recruiting new staff and are using up their precious budgets on agency teachers. More than 71 per cent of head teachers in a poll said that they spent more on temporary staff last year. No child, parent or school wants an endless round of supply teachers, however kind they are.

In the next decade the number of pupils is expected to grow by 11 per cent, according to the Education Policy Institute. The government wants 90 per cent of GCSE pupils to be entered for the English baccalaureate by 2025, compared with 38 per cent now, taking subjects that include English, maths, sciences and a language. Yet there are not nearly enough science teachers to contemplate this and the number of modern foreign languages teachers would need to increase by 78 per cent in 2019-20 to meet these targets.

Unless we can train more recruits, current teachers’ hours will have to increase to fill the void, yet they are already some of the longest in the western world. Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, has warned that school improvements could be jeopardised if the pressure on teachers is not reduced.

It doesn’t really matter whether a child goes to an academy, a free school, a faith school or a grammar school: if there aren’t any teachers left they aren’t going to learn.

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