How could teaching become the foremost career in England?

Il Principe

It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, and nothing more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institutions and merely lukewarm defenders in those who should gain by the new ones.

Niccolo Machiavelli, 1532


“Our greatest challenge is to make teaching

the most sought after profession in society”

Lord Andrew Adonis, 2012


From controversy to consensus: that is how Lord Andrew Adonis, architect of the academies program, describes the first decade of the twenty-first century in English education. Confronted by ‘scepticism on all sides,’ in the first five years of the New Labour government from 1997-2002 just three academies opened; by the summer of 2000, Adonis says, ‘I felt I was working on a 500-piece jigsaw with only a few patches complete and most of the pieces still a jumble.’ But by 2012, over 2,000 academies existed, double the previous year. David Willets, the Coalition’s Minister for Universities, said ‘I am more authentically Andrew Adonis than Andrew Adonis is.’ Antony Seldon, headteacher at Wellington School, called Adonis ‘the most effective education minister we have seen in Britain in recent years.’ Whether you agree with academies or not, you have to agree that Adonis’ policy is leaving a lasting legacy.

Anyone who’s heard Andrew Adonis speak will have been impressed by how clear and convincing his ideas are.  I’ve heard him speak at the Times Festival of Education, at the Teach First RSA debate and the London Festival of Education, and I’ve met him twice, at the Institute of Education and at his office in Westminster. His book, Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools, summarised here, articulates his ideas with the same concision and conviction. In his words ‘largely forward looking, it sets out a manifesto for change for the next government to give England a truly world class education system for the many not the few.’

Combining radical goals with pragmatic means, he issues a rallying call to make teaching the foremost profession in England. To achieve a national objective of 90% of 16-year olds attaining 5A*-Cs including English and Maths, he believes, ‘transforming teacher recruitment is the most urgent priority’. To this end, he has seven policy priorities – what he calls a ‘new deal for teachers’:

1. Expand Teach First by 500 a year to reach 5,000 a year by 2020, supplying half of all new secondary school teachers in schools in disadvantaged circumstances.

2. Entrust national teacher training to the best Universities only (instead of the current eighty providers) with a National Teaching Trust to commission training and set standards.

3. Allow schools rated outstanding by Ofsted to recruit trainees directly.

4. Pay teacher trainees a salary and take University courses in their holidays.

5. Increase starting salaries for target groups of teachers in Maths, physics, chemistry and IT to £30,000 outside London and £35,000 in London, for new headteachers to £100,000 (£115,000 in London), and if they help transform teacher recruitment, extend them more widely.

6. End nationally determined salary increments to put pay progression at the discretion of individual schools.

7. Ensure that teachers and headteachers on these higher starting salaries are subject to longer probationary periods of three to four years.

As a package, would these recruitment reforms transform the status of teaching? In the world’s best education systems, as we have seen, teaching is one of the most respected and prestigious careers in the country. The question is how we achieve that level of prestige here. Raising starting salaries, scaling up successful entry routes like Teach First, and restricting provision to the most selective Universities – what evidence are these policies based on?

I just want to focus on Adonis’ top policy recommendation, expanding Teach First from the agreed 2,000 places in 2015 to 5,000 places by 2020. The questions we can ask of the policy are simple: is it feasible – is there enough demand from schools and prospective trainees? Even if it is viable, is it desirable – would it have its intended impact? Teach First ambassador Laura McInerney’s critical questions help here: What precise problem is it trying to solve? Why would this particular solution solve that particular problem?

Adonis is convinced, not only that expanding TF to 5000 is feasible, not only that it’s desirable, but that’s it’s essential for achieving Teach First’s 10-year vision of closing the gap between wealthier and poorer pupils in primary and secondary academic achievement by 2022.

Let’s start with feasibility. There does seem to be sufficient demand, both from schools in tough areas, where staff turnover can often exceed 50% a year, and from graduates and career changers. Adonis points out that in 2011, almost 20% of Harvard’s graduating cohort applied for Teach for America (p177), so there is no reason why England’s most selective Universities could not be in the same league. In 2011, Teach First only accepted 150 of 530 Oxbridge applicants in 2011, an example which gives some indication of the graduate demand. Teach First overall gets 7 applicants per place. To maintain a consistent ratio for quality, 35,000 graduates and career changers would need to apply. Even if only graduates applied from a single cohort, without any career changers whatsoever, with 350,000 graduates annually, and 50% earning 2:1 degrees, of those 175,000, far less than 20% would need to apply. As at Harvard, this is not impossible. Personally, I think it’s possible for Teach First to increase quantity whilst maintaining and even improving quality of trainees, given that their CEO admits their training program could still be improved and still has a lot to learn from Teach For America, established a decade before. I agree with Andrew – the policy is viable.

But is it desirable? The problem is clear: while the best school systems manage 10 applicants per place, England as a whole manages only 2 – according to Adonis, ‘not nearly good enough – state school teaching is still barely a selective profession.’ Perhaps controversially, he says that top graduates are ‘exactly the people we need in the toughest schools’ – although they do not necessarily make better teachers – but Adonis cites McKinsey research that the best school systems recruit only from top graduates – the same research I summarise here. If Teach First are to achieve within a decade their ambitious goals of closing the gap in primary literacy and numeracy, secondary GCSE results and tertiary graduation rates, then increasing the number of their trainees in schools is crucial. It is harder to determine beyond anecdote whether Teach First is changing perceptions of the teaching profession, and empirically whether expanding the route will accelerate this process.

In any case, Adonis is a trustee of Teach First, and when I asked him whether other trustees agreed, he said the board ‘are not discussing whether or when, but where it should happen – primary? Wales? South West?’ The policy is not just a recommendation –  it is happening.

To be fair, Adonis’ ideas for recruitment reform are just one part of his broader policy blueprint. Whenever I hear Lord Adonis asked how we can improve education in England, his response is always short, sharp and snappy:

As he pithily puts its, ‘get those things right, and we’ll have a decent education system in this country.’ It’s hard to argue with that, although there is little unanimity and much complexity about what makes good teaching and a good curriculum.

Heedful of the 500 year-old advice from 16th century Renaissance Italy with which Lord Adonis starts his book – that nothing is more doubtful of success than the creation of a new system – I’ll be posting on what makes good teaching, school leadership, curriculum and assessment on this blog over the coming months.


Clearly a disclaimer is required in that I actually trained as a teacher through Teach First, so I cannot objectively evaluate whether its expansion will improve the status of teaching, and I’d like to hear your thoughts.

An optimistic endnote: it is a good start that teaching is perceived as both the least boring and the most trusted profession, if not yet the most prestigious:

Teachers Trusted

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to How could teaching become the foremost career in England?

  1. Pingback: What we can learn from Teach First? | Pragmatic Education

  2. Hello Joe – What I’m personally pushing is the most simplistic policy I’ve been able to imagine, “Teach all kids to read and succeed.” From this success I have begun to see the realization of some of the 7 policies: teaching the underserved to read and succeed academically, trust, training, accountability. Great stuff.

    Thanks, Rory

  3. Karina says:

    Although a participant of Teach First, I don’t think expanding Teach First is necessarily the only or best way to attract more top graduates to teaching. The fact is, as you identify, teaching is not seen as a prestigious path for top graduates. This is what needs to change. In my mind there are 2 key things that need to be dealt with to change this. The first is pay. PGCE fees are £9k and teachers’ salaries are notoriously poor. So to train to be a teacher graduates are being asked to expend money with very little promise of monetary return. If you compare that with other top graduates jobs, grads are either being paid straight away (consultancy, banking, grad schemes) or are paying to train but with the promise of a potentially enormous salary after (lawyers). The attraction of Teach First is that you get paid while you train. Why cannot all teacher training be done this way? Paid training, the way a pupillage is for a barrister?
    The second issue that needs to be addressed is the portrayal of teachers in media and popular culture. “Those who can do and those who can’t teach” is still far too present in the subtexts of many articles I read about educators. Teachers are portrayed as lazy, incompetent unionists. Of course many top graduates are not being attracted to a profession where they know they are going to be lambasted by the media all the time with very little monetary remuneration for their hassle.

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