Independent Schools: Recruiting for a private army

Wages and resources are better for teachers in the independent sector.
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Headlines proclaiming teachers as Britain's unhappiest workers do little to help the Government's advertising campaign in cinemas across the land, calling on the nation's graduates to join the profession and inspire young minds.

Research published this month by Jonathan Gardner and Andrew Oswald at Warwick University into levels of contentment in the workplace revealed teachers at the bottom of the heap, with the squeeze on pay having a less significant effect on their misery than constant assessment and a tough working environment.

Such news will also discourage recruitment to secondary training courses, which last year fell below government targets by 4,700 places, representing nearly a quarter of all trainees required.

Independent schools are experiencing teacher shortages, as well as the maintained sector. However, confident that their staff are feeling relatively buoyant, the Independent Schools Information Service (Isis) is sending 21 of its brightest and most ebullient on a recruitment roadshow. This is advertising from the horse's mouth, as they tour the nation's top universities this spring in an attempt to draw people away from more fashionable professions such as law, marketing and finance.

Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, has been conducting his own roadshow, visiting the nation's independent schools to ask staff why they are attracted to the sector.

Michael Windsor, one of the Isis recruiters who has also taught in state schools, is unequivocal. It's to do with a feeling of professional self- worth and having a greater sense of freedom, he says: "Although we are constrained by exam syllabuses, we do have more say, more autonomy in the way we teach our subjects, and we're not so overwhelmed by paperwork."

Mr Windsor, who teaches modern languages at King's College School, Wimbledon, says staff at the school also have access to good facilities, a dining room, work spaces, photocopiers and IT. This access enables them to relax, take stock and prepare in some comfort.

"Being with young people can be demanding and difficult," he says. "Not every lesson is going to run perfectly or smoothly and pupils are not always going to overwhelm you with their gratitude, so it's important to be able to retreat from them towards your colleagues, to have a pleasant lunch, to snatch some time in relative comfort, and to have a quiet area where you can prepare lessons effectively. There's a lot of extracurricular stuff, but you are encouraged to do the things you like doing, and there is less red tape in organising school trips."

Mr Windsor, 30, who comes from a family of teachers, had avoided the profession when graduating from Durham University. Instead he went into publishing, but in the end he couldn't resist the call of teaching and signed up for a postgraduate certificate in education.

"I can see the financial temptation of those other careers, but I do think teaching has a lot more to offer. On the very first day you are given the massive responsibility of a class and people who are still young become heads of department. It's great to have a job where you can really fire people's imagination. The relationship with children sustains you; you learn a lot from the pupils."

He is aware that there are teachers in the state sector who feel just as passionately. Mr Windsor recalls a deputy head in a Manchester comprehensive whom he met on the roadshow: "That man was so dedicated, he loved the job so much, that he said he would do it without the pay."

Jane Lunnon was a successful marketing executive before following her vocation into teaching. Now, at 29, she is head of English at Wellington College, the public school in Berkshire. She tells undergraduates: "It's a pounds 26,000 starting salary, if you imagine you're paid for all the weeks you don't work. I'm paid like this to talk about books. I would do that for free!"

And it's not just pay. She says: "You get a free house, membership of the sports club and wonderful facilities on your doorstep."

Miss Lunnon also comes from a family of teachers, and her twin sister is in teaching. "When I was in marketing, my sister would ring me up and say `this is an incredible job'. It's certainly a lot more challenging than most. It's about management from day one. Your classes are your teams and you have to work out their strengths and weaknesses."

Bob Mardling, headmaster of Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield, and head of the professional development committee for the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), believes that small class sizes and good classroom resources undoubtedly contribute to higher morale in the independent sector than in maintained schools. He also believes that professional development and a sense of autonomy are crucial. "We do not have to suffer the same level of prescription," he says.

Moreover, HMC is increasing its range of in-service training at a time when opportunities for professional development in the state sector are constrained. Where once HMC only provided in-service training for headteachers, it now provides a whole range, for heads through to newly qualified teachers.

More importantly, Mr Mardling believes the greatest opportunity for professional development in independent schools comes through their own system of inspection, which has recently been licensed by the Office for Standards in Education. The independents fought long and hard to maintain their tradition of training practising teachers to carry out inspection on other schools.

"This approach is highly valued," says Mr Mardling, "because our teachers pick up good practice through being inspectors which they can bring back to their own schools, and it is also more supportive. It tends to pull staff together and gives a feeling of coherence."