All change in the classroom?

  • 13th October 2023

Tiffany Fleming considers how a Labour government might redefine school recruitment models

With a political power change becoming increasingly probable and the likelihood of a VAT levy on independent school fees, schools are industriously investigating ways to mitigate the increase. Many have already restructured, changing from single sex to co-ed or extended their educational offering to include older year groups, but for those likely to be hit hardest it’s a case of digging deep and contemplating more creative solutions.

One such consideration is a change of teaching structure, with schools seeking inspiration from outside the education sector. For example, considering a doctor-nurse model, where a smaller core group of higher paid and better qualified teachers lead the teaching side: planning lessons, researching subjects, and tackling only the most challenging cases (both lessons and pupils). Supporting them would be those with other skill sets, acting in more of an operational role, which has a lower qualification barrier to entry and with it a lower salary scale. Their responsibilities would be to roll out the pre-planned lessons and deal with the majority of pupils who don’t require specialist care.

The doctor-nurse model is an interesting concept. It certainly optimises the efficiency of the teaching process and there are other benefits too:

Specialisation – the model recognises the need for specialisation in education. Just as doctors specialise in specific areas of medicine, the core group of highly qualified teachers would focus on handling the complex cases. For instance, they would focus on designing lessons for advanced or specialised subjects, addressing students with special needs, or handling challenging behavioural issues.

Delegation – the model promotes the delegation of routine tasks to educators with a lower qualification barrier. This allows the highly qualified teachers to focus their expertise on cases that require more attention and specialised care. By dividing responsibilities, the workload can be more effectively managed.

Efficiency – the doctor-nurse model aims to increase the overall efficiency of the teaching process. Specialised teachers can dedicate more time to developing innovative teaching strategies, staying up to date with the latest research, and addressing the unique needs of individual students. This approach can potentially improve student outcomes and teacher satisfaction.

Career progression – the model provides opportunities for career progression, as educators who initially start in operational roles with lower qualifications can aspire to become specialised teachers. This creates a clear pathway for professional development and allows educators to build on their skills and knowledge over time.

We all recognise that the implementation of any new model in education requires careful planning, evaluation, and consideration of various factors such as teacher training, recruitment, resource allocation, and student needs. The success of this model would depend on the specific context, available resources, and the support provided to educators in both roles. It would require effective collaboration between the highly qualified teachers and the day-to-day educators. With internal consultation often cited as a weakness within schools, this model relies on crystal clear communication channels and a shared understanding of the goals and expectations.

It’s easy to envisage that fewer hours would be worked by the teacher, thereby their salary could be reduced accordingly. However, by being supported by part- time teaching assistant(s), this may well offset the savings in salary and may even add to the wage bill, but many schools deduce that they have few options remaining available to them. This year has seen catering and service costs heading skyward, and with maintenance, estates management and administration costs stripped back to a bare minimum, there’s unlikely to be additional budget for the part-timers.

Thought must also be given to determine the most efficient method of recruiting this new breed of teacher. Gone are the days where staff are happy to muck in and help at any level. Those academic teachers fresh into the sector already perceive their specialisations as being of higher value, and are already questioning the reasoning of expending time on subjects in which they have little or no interest. Returning to the doctor- nurse analogy, we can draw a comparison to the situations many GPs currently find themselves in, where the time spent doing the job they have trained for and are so passionate about, has reduced to such an extent that many are choosing to leave their profession.

There’s a concern too that removing duties from teachers, taking away the task of lesson planning and distancing them from the majority of pupils, could in essence make teaching harder. By the very nature of the job, teachers are the ones who are responsible for pupils’ learning. By removing their ability to plan and flex their lessons, they could lose those important nuances of teaching style that delivers the difference between good teachers and great teachers. With fewer teachers, schools may start to lose the ‘family’ feeling, which many cite as their unique selling point. Parents recently attending school speech days, may have noticed the nods and smiles exchanged between pupils and their teachers, the obvious pride in both having shared a successful learning journey. Could these influential and irreplaceable relationships be lost?

Shared resources with neighbouring schools, lessons to maximise specialist teacher time for subjects with a low take up, larger classes with more reliance on teaching assistants are also considerations. Nevertheless, they do bring with them the threat of unsettling parents at a time when schools are looking to emphasise the added value of an independent education. Parental expectation of fee increases is that there should be better quality teaching delivered with them, and the new structure may prove to be a tough sell. Reducing the range of specialist topics available is also a key consideration, with greater focus returning to core subjects. Yet for those schools that have been banging on about their broad offering and fancy pants subject spread, a sudden subject strategy U-turn will be difficult to justify to those parents who selected that school for that very reason.

However you cut it, independent schools are having to become far more commercially minded, far more creative, and are faced with challenging their traditional teaching methods. With that comes change – change to the types of people they are recruiting and a fresh approach as to how those changes are communicated, both internally and to their customer base. New staff recruitment will be key, securing staff with the ability to manage and, more importantly, securing those who are prepared to step back from day-to-day teaching to spend more time planning. This will signal a sea change and create a race to secure staff already in the market who demonstrate the right characteristics. The next few years will prove fascinating, and a time of frustration and failure for those who have yet to get their strategic game plan up to speed. Much like our doctors and nurses, weathering the crises faced by independent schools will be wholly dependent on whether we can encourage enough of the right people into the job, and whether there is enough cash in the coffers to pay for them.

Tiffany Fleming is a director at independent school consultancy Headspace Academics.

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