Stop worrying about grammar schools, teacher recruitment is the real problem

Those countries with the best education outcomes – from Finland to the Asian education powerhouses of China, South Korea and Singapore – have a deeply ingrained culture of respect for teaching

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The Independent Online

Rarely have debates on education electrified party conferences, but yesterday Theresa May won the loudest applause for her promise to “bring back the first grammar schools in fifty years.” Jeremy Corbyn won an equally giddy reception last when he told Labour conference that he would oppose it.

Though this is retro political comfort food for left and right, it is a distraction from the overwhelming education issue that has barely featured in the conference speeches: a crisis in the recruitment and retention of teachers. In the UK, half of schools think that the teacher shortage is affecting GCSE performance; according to a poll last month by the Association of School and College Leaders 80 per cent say the recruitment situation is “worse or significantly worse” than a year ago.

While shortages are damaging in the West, their impact in the developing world is catastrophic. Across Africa, the only region of the world with a growing school-aged population, 70 per cent of countries face critical teacher shortages at primary level, and 90 per cent at secondary. In Pakistan, Cambodia and Ethiopia – where class sizes already average 64 – attrition rates are so high that the total number of teachers is shrinking year on year.

Theresa May says grammar schools are why she and Jeremy Corbyn are in leadership

The causes of the crisis are not hard to understand. Throughout the developing world teachers are underpaid, undertrained and under-appreciated. In Kenya, teachers have been in dispute with the government over pay so low that they live a hand-to-mouth existence. Teachers’ wages across Africa are thought to be lower in real terms now than they were several decades ago.

In India the World Bank estimates that up to 40 per cent of teachers are regularly absent from class. One case emerged of a teacher who has been absent for 23 years of her 24 year teaching career. But teacher idleness is not generally the cause of absenteeism. More often, teachers are out of the classroom working in a second job because they can’t rely on their government salary being paid on time.    

At the same time, the population explosion in much of the developing world – combined with the (vital) efforts to get every child enrolled in school – is creating a huge additional demand for teachers. Many of those teachers already in the classroom are so badly trained that they cannot teach effectively. Too often they rely on rote learning and dictation from the front of the class, techniques that fail to inspire curiosity or critical thinking. In most countries, a teacher is never tested again or given further training once they have been recruited. In some cases, the problem is not just training but the education levels of the teacher at the front of the class. Just one in five teachers in Uganda meet the minimum proficiency standards in numeracy and literacy.

So how do we recruit and retain the army of well-trained, well-motivated teachers the world desperately needs? Firstly – whether in the UK or in Uganda – we need to raise the status of teachers. Those countries with the best education outcomes – from Finland to the Asian education powerhouses of China, South Korea and Singapore – have a deeply ingrained culture of respect for teaching.

In China, the public likens the status of teachers to that of doctors. According to the Varkey Foundation’s Teacher Status Index, three quarters of Chinese people would encourage their children to become teachers – far higher than elsewhere in the world. On China’s Teachers' Day pupils send flowers and write them letters to tell them how they are appreciated. The authorities even had to intervene to prevent parents proffering gifts of iPads and expensive perfumes.

Teacher pay has an obvious correlation with teacher status and recruitment rates. Higher salaries attract the best candidates into the profession and give them an incentive to stay. Research by the economist Peter Dolton shows that a 10 per cent increase in teachers’ pay tends to result in a five to 10 per cent improvement in a country’s educational outcomes.

Improving teacher quality has a far greater impact on educational success than other expensive investments such as changing the curriculum or even cutting class sizes. Given the stretched finances of developing world governments, the international community should prioritise helping funding good teachers’ salaries because it simply makes social and financial sense.

Yet international education aid has been falling since 2010 – even as spending on global health has continued to grow. Education once again has fallen down the political agenda. Shamefully, the number of children who are out of school is rising again in the developing world. Of those in school, half the children in South Asia and a third of children in Africa lack basic reading skills after four years of education. At current rates of progress, we will be 50 years late in meeting the Sustainable Development Goal commitment of a good education for every child – when today’s children will be long past retirement age.

But before despair sets in, we should remember that South Korea was, 50 years ago, in the same situation as many developing countries today, with similarly high levels of illiteracy. Now it is among the best education systems in the world. How? It recruited the best young people into teaching, trained them well and then showed them respect. As Education Secretary Justine Greening rightly said in her conference speech: “no other profession has the power to transform futures so much." Empowering teachers is the most important measure that ministers around the world can take to improve education - even if it isn’t a message that gets standing ovations in the conference hall.

Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation

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