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City professionals, our schools need you!

Young people no longer want to become teachers and older career-switchers are increasingly stepping in to fill the gap. So why is the government cutting funding for a programme that’s proven to help? Asks Anna Moloney

Laura Armstrong was a secondary school teacher for 15 years before it all became too much. Some days, she didn’t even go to the toilet or eat lunch. “Because I couldn’t. It was break time and I got 10 minutes and I had students coming in asking me questions, and then I had to prep for my next lesson,” she told me. The toll was physical; she would come home every day with a blinding headache and lost a huge amount of weight. “By the end of the half term, you would feel like you were on your knees.” At Christmas, she saw a vacancy at online educational platform Myedspace and applied. She’s now their head of biology, working fewer hours for more money and – for the first time in her career – feels trusted as a professional. The headaches have also gone away.

But Laura’s story isn’t rare, with droves of teachers packing their bags and taking their qualifications elsewhere due to years of deteriorating working conditions. Sluggish pay growth, ballooning classroom sizes and an ever-increasing list of responsibilities have made the career nonviable for many – particularly the young.

The teacher recruitment crisis

As a result, teaching is now firmly in crisis, with the government having missed its teacher recruitment targets every year bar one (2020/21) since 2015. It is on track to miss it again by almost 40 per cent this year. The situation is “critical”, the National Foundation for Educational Research has said and the current teacher vacancy rate in England (up 591 per cent since 2010) suggests such an assessment is reasonable.

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The issue, of course, is self-reinforcing: the fewer teachers there are = the higher workload for those who remain = the more who eventually decide to leave. It’s an equation you don’t need an A* in A Level maths to understand is a big problem.

The truth is, the young no longer want to teach, and who can blame them? If you’re a fresh grad considering becoming a teacher now, you know you’ll likely be working 40+ hours a week, stuck on a salary far below your peers with the same qualifications (for which you’ll be paying a substantially larger loan than your predecessors), and you didn’t even get a doorstep clap during the pandemic. Increased bureaucracy, changing syllabuses and growing pressures from Ofsted – who one teacher describes to me as “a bit like the Spanish inquisition without Monty Python” – compound the problem. To become a teacher now is to be brave or mad, depending on your point of view.

The pandemic exacerbated the issue. Not only have teachers seen their work-life boundaries blurred due to the introduction of remote learning (the integration of classroom tech during lockdowns has set an expectation for teachers to provide their students with digital resources and round-the-clock communication), but they have been unable to pick up the accompanying benefits of the post-pandemic shift to remote working enjoyed by many of their peers (flexible shift times, hybrid working patterns, popping out for a yoga lesson in the middle of the day). Understandably, they have been left dissatisfied, and probably a little jealous.

From the City to the classroom

Accordingly, since 2020, there has been a demographic shift in teaching, with the proportion of teachers aged 29 and under shrinking and those in their forties and above stepping in to fill the gaps. Now Teach, a scheme set up by former Financial Times columnist and now economics teacher Lucy Kellaway, has helped over 1,000 people in their 50s and 60s switch into the profession. It’s been hailed as a huge success and boasts an impressive retention rate among recruits, many of whom have previously led high-flying careers and are now looking for more fulfilling work.

Unlike younger teachers, such recruits often already own their own homes, have paid off their student loans and have a pension to fall back on if it all goes wrong. In other words, they are people who can afford to work on passion – and the government should be doing everything they can to retain them.

Peter Watson, for example, joined Now Teach at the age of 62 to become a French teacher, six weeks after retiring from his C-suite career in the City. He told me not only does he have a greater resilience to the demands of the role than many of his younger colleagues (many of whom he describes as understandably “angst-ridden” due to the intense pressures and skimpy pay packets), but he enjoys the work so much – and is sufficiently financially comfortable – that he now does it for free, regularly volunteering to do shifts at his local school. Peter said there was “no way” he would’ve been able to do the job as a 21-year-old in London. It was only in his sixties, with 25 years of work as an investment banker behind him, that he had the “financial fat to be able to live off a teacher’s salary”.

Yet the future of Now Teach hangs in the balance after the government scrapped funding for the programme. Kellaway slammed the decision as “utter madness” and said it was “beyond short-sighted” to cut a proven successful programme during a recruitment crisis. Those who have been supported by Now Teach are clear the programme was key to them being able to make the transition into teaching. Engineer-turned-maths-teacher Sylvia tells me unequivocally that if she hadn’t seen the Instagram ad for Now Teach, she wouldn’t be teaching today. She had previously tried to make the switch but found the government’s own Get Into Teaching online materials too confusing to navigate – and that’s coming from an engineer.

Kellaway tells me she’s optimistic a potential Labour government would be keen to reinstate Now Teach’s funding, and for the sake of our schools we should all hope so. The scheme has been a rare feelgood story in the media, with its results not only benefitting the teacher recruitment crisis but also the growing number of economically inactive people in their 50s and 60s, who the government claims they are eager to re-engage. If we cannot make teaching more appealing to those in their 20s, we’d be mad not to make it more accessible to those in their 50s. The teacher shortage is one headache that won’t go away by itself.