News and opinion

Lucy Crehan

BLOG - Placing good teachers

23 May 2016

Lucy Crehan, associate for Education Development Trust, comments on how other countries have succeeded in placing good teachers in rural schools

My Facebook feed is peppered with adverts asking me to help a struggling school. The marketing algorithms will be targeting me because my job history includes being a teacher, and because I post articles with keywords like 'education' and 'teaching', but this time they have not hit their mark. The adverts are for the National Teaching Service, a new scheme attempting to convince the best teachers and middle leaders to move across the country and work in rural or underperforming schools that struggle to attract and retain the professionals they need. And that is not me. I've been out of the classroom for three years. But, my experiences visiting and studying education systems in 'top performing' countries in the years since do allow me to throw out some internationally-informed ideas on how this ambitious national programme might be best implemented.

The challenge of getting qualified, quality teachers into schools that need them most is one that all countries face. Australia, for example, has some significant geographical challenges. When we talk of rural schools here, it conjures visions of coastal schools, two or three-hour's drive from the nearest city. In Australia, that is more likely to be a three-hour flight. How does the government convince their teachers to move into the outback?

Australian states offer a number of incentives to encourage mid-career teachers to these remote schools. They get housing subsidies of 70-100%; retention benefits of £2600-£3200 if they stay beyond a certain number of years; vacation travel expenses; and an 'isolation from goods and services' allowance. The NTS at the moment is offering relocation subsidies of up to £10,000 which is a great start, but allowances for travel home, retention benefits for staying beyond the three-year programme, or even pocket money for holidays abroad might be quite persuasive. What would convince you to move?

Some 7000km North, the Japanese also offer benefits to even out the inconvenience of being posted to unpopular locations, but their approach to evening out quality is much more structured. The Japanese have a system called 'tenkin', in which employees of companies and of government are rotated to different offices (and sometimes roles) every few years. Teachers are posted to a new school every six years, with the purpose of this being to allow for rich professional experiences, and revitalize the teaching workforce within each school. Teachers are compensated with subsidies, and they are guaranteed prefecture-wide induction, mentoring and professional development; these opportunities are not reliant on the individual schools.

While England does not have a recruitment system in which teachers can be posted where they are needed, the National Teaching Force could make a start on this by virtue of it being a national programme. Like the Japanese system though, it would be important that the professional development offered was of a guaranteed, recognised standard, and not reliant on the individual schools to which teachers were posted.

Another important feature of the Japanese system is the inverse of the National Teaching Scheme; while they do post great teachers to schools that need extra help, they also consciously post teachers who are in need of improvement to school environments in which they can learn from better teachers. This latter point is crucial. Just moving around good teachers isn’t enough to make a significant impact on the system; if that’s all you did you’d have the same amount of talent, just distributed in a different way. To have a more significant and long-lasting impact on the quality of teaching across the country you need to ensure that there is the time and infrastructure to support teachers learning from one another.

In Japan, Singapore and Shanghai, this learning happens through the process of lesson study, where teachers of different levels of expertise and experience plan a lesson together, observe each other teach, and have discussions about the effectiveness of the pedagogy observed. In Finland too, teachers have a weekly timetabled session in which they plan lessons together with their colleagues, allowing them to learn from one another. The focus in all of these places is on supporting struggling teachers, rather than replacing them. NTS teachers must be given the time within their timetables to plan professional development and to engage other staff in conversations about pedagogy. Their impact could be so much greater if headteachers were able to make space for these conversations and observations in other teachers’ timetables too.

Korea's system rotates teachers like Japan's does, with teachers' preferences taken into account, but they also achieve a remarkable feat: the teachers in their disadvantaged schools are more qualified, and more experienced, than the teachers in more affluent neighbourhoods. This is not because they force people to teach in undesirable locations, but because they make the experience of working in such neighbourhoods count when it comes to promotion. Their career structure progresses through Grade 2 teacher, to Grade 1 teacher, vice-principal and principal, and the final stages of promotion depend partly on whether you've had experience in a more challenging area - thus making those experiences more sought-after.

So now perhaps, as England embarks on its own ambitious plan to use teacher redeployment as a system lever, though it might not be structured in the same way as in Korea or Japan, if the National Teaching Service helps to achieve similar outcomes here, it could receive a warm welcome from schools and teachers alike. As for me, I'm off to Like it on Facebook.