Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. He is a retired head teacher and a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street.
There is a simple solution to the current row and strike action by teachers over pay and workload. It is a solution that does not require any extra spending and, what is more, it could well lead to an uplift in pupil attainment.
This solution derives from an inconvenient and little recognised fact about our schools – the majority of staff are not teachers. This is made clear in the government’s most recent statistics for the school workforce. They relate to November 2021. Out of a total workforce of 968,079 only 465,526 – that’s 48 per cent – are teachers.
So, who are the 502,553 non-teachers? They are ‘support staff’, including 275,812 who are teaching assistants.
Many of these non-teachers play an important, even vital, role in the running of a school; not least the secretarial, catering and caretaker staff. Do we, though, need more support staff than frontline teachers?
The solution to the question of teachers’ pay surely lies in reducing the number of ‘support staff’ and, in particular, in reducing the number of classroom assistants. This would have the added advantage of putting an end to some ineffective teaching methods because without these teaching assistants such methods would no longer be sustainable.
Enter any UK primary school classroom and you are likely to see children sitting around tables. Many will have their backs to the teacher. This arrangement is commonly justified in terms of it being a ‘child-centred’ approach to education. It is based, in part, on collaborative learning from round-the-table ‘discussion’. Across the country it is sustained by an army of teaching assistants. The role of the teacher is to be, as a Local Authority education official once told me, ‘the process manager of the learning process.’
Enter any classroom in the Asia Pacific super-star education systems such as Singapore, South Korea, Shanghai or Taiwan and you are likely to see pupils sitting in rows, facing the teacher. The teaching methodology employed will mostly be ‘teacher-led’ and somewhat didactic. Our educational establishment is inclined to regard such teaching as old-fashioned, uninspiring, and boring. ‘We want happy children, not robots,’ is the common refrain. How ironic, then, that we in the UK recently topped an international league table for unhappy children.
For what it worth, from my own 35 years of school teaching, at all ages and abilities in both maintained and independent sectors, children are most happy when they are making progress. So, imaginatively presented, even teaching that incorporates aspects of rote learning can be an enjoyable experience for children. Really!
Too many of our pupils are continuing to make insufficient progress, especially in basic skills, even if record-breaking exam results would have us believe otherwise. Failure at school is a sure recipe for lifelong unhappiness and social alienation. Small wonder our prisons and institutions for young offenders are so full of the semi-literate or illiterate and the semi-numerate or innumerate.
Many parents know instinctively that their children need at least an element of time-honoured, traditional teaching. They are paying for their children to attend the ever-popular, Japanese-style, out-of-school, Kumon clubs for maths and literacy, at the end of the school day. Even the Government is now becoming more open-minded with regard to teaching methods that work. A mathematics teacher exchange with China aims to encourage teachers in English schools to learn from East Asian practices.
In the 19th century we used to send Christian missionaries to China. They are now returning the favour by sending educational missionaries to us.
It is a sad truth is that overloading our schools with teaching assistants, not uncommonly with two in a single class, can be an impediment to effective teaching. It allows for, even imposes, a child-centred, round-the-table, teaching methodology that is much less effective than the whole-class teaching, with all children facing the front, that is the norm in the Asia-Pacific and, indeed, in parts of Europe where educational standards are high. In recent years the relative decline of educational attainment in Finland has been associated with a move towards more child-centred learning.
Classroom assistants can play an important role in school classrooms, especially in giving support to individual children. A switch back to more effective, whole class teaching methods, however, would require only half the number. The savings made would fund a very generous pay offer for good teachers – based on merit.
In other words, we can fund a teacher pay rise within the existing budget for schools and, at the same time, improve the quality of teaching. UK governments should be asking themselves why schooling in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland is so expensive but so much less successful than in poorer countries of the Asia Pacific, such as Vietnam and in former Soviet-bloc countries in Europe such as Estonia and Poland.
Would teachers accept a 50 per cent cut in the number of teaching assistants ‘supporting’ them in return for a pay rise that is substantial enough to recruit, motivate, and retain the best? They should certainly be asked. In any case, local authorities and academy trusts already have much discretion over pay scales. For government, of course, a ‘within budget’ solution to the pay dispute should be a ‘no-brainer’. And the pupils would make more progress, too.