Making it more appealing to teach disadvantaged pupils

27 September 2017

While reviewing the evidence and consulting over fifty school sector experts for Reform’s upcoming workforce report, it became apparent that currently there really isn’t a level playing field between schools when it comes to competing for staff – in three important ways.

Firstly, with some schools receiving over 50 per cent more funding than others, they are better-placed to offer recruitment bonuses or retention payments. Secondly, just over a fifth of schools have the considerable workforce advantages only possible in a close group of schools, with about 1,000 schools in federations and 4,586 academies in Multi-Academy Trusts. Thirdly, and the focus of this blog, schools with more disadvantaged intakes face greater workforce challenges.

Despite almost £2.5 billion being invested in the pupil premium this year, on some measures the gaps between disadvantaged students and their wealthier peers are growing. For instance, compared to a decade ago, the GCSE attainment gap between  pupils on free schools meals (FSM – a proxy for disadvantage based on a family receiving benefits) and other pupils has grown to almost two years. Similarly, the proportion of FSM pupils going into higher education is now 18 percentage points below that of other pupils. Good teaching has been shown to have a particularly positive impact on disadvantaged learners, who can gain a whole additional year of learning over those with poorly performing teachers. However, Ofsted has found that schools with more disadvantaged intakes are 27 percentage points more likely to struggle to recruit enough good staff, twice as likely to have temporary maths and science teachers, and twice as likely to have unqualified teachers.

Perverse incentives

The reasons why more disadvantaged schools tend to be less appealing employers are multi-faceted. Teachers of classes with more FSM pupils have been found to be 16 per cent less likely to say their pupils are well-behaved, spending more time on classroom management and less on teaching. Staff who wish to progress in their careers are currently incentivised to teach more advantaged students in better-performing schools. This could partly be due to the challenges of staff clearly demonstrating any ‘value-added’, beyond annual fluctuations in pupil intake, with almost two thirds of teachers saying they would take on a new job if they felt they could ‘make a difference’. Perceptions of high and potentially career-ending accountability can also deter staff from working in disadvantaged schools, especially experienced teachers wishing to progress to middle and senior leadership. Location matters too, as most staff opt for a well-performing school, in a sought-after area that has good transport links – especially if they have their own family to consider.

However, at present higher-performing schools tend to be the ones rewarded with early access to applicants, while those schools in greater need are shut out. For example, this is true of schools involved with School Direct, SCITTs, and those in receipt of subject specialism training funding. In all three cases, participating schools must be rated good or outstanding. All three programmes lack strong incentives or hard accountability for providing meaningful support to other schools. This includes sharing or referring staff, especially at the cost of their own workforce needs. This all contributes to a situation where the students that are most in need of the best staff, are the ones who get the last pick, if there are any left.

Interviewees shared examples of how the current recruitment market, for both new trainees and experienced school staff, favours some schools. They described how it encourages the ‘poaching’ of staff, undermining collaboration. For example, some school groups are offering free subject-specific continuous professional development (CPD) sessions to local teachers, then using them to identify and hire talent. Similarly, some school leaders are going into struggling schools to deliver CPD or support school improvement, and then hire the best teachers they meet. These practices even occur within groups of schools, illustrating strong loyalties towards individual school interests, rather than the school group or wider education community.

New incentives to teach disadvantaged students

So how can teachers be incentivised to move to, or stay in, more challenging schools? Time served in disadvantaged schools needs to become the norm, a standard part of all teaching careers. One opportunity to achieve this is through the soon-to-be-relaunched national professional qualifications for middle leaders, heads and executive leaders. It can also be a component of an updated National Leader of Education (NLE) title.

This should go beyond ‘high-flyer’ schemes only targeting some staff. Rather, the focus should be on fostering a culture among all teachers that as they progress in their careers, become more expert, gain responsibilities and attract more pay, they have both responsibilities and opportunities associated with teaching disadvantaged students. If the revised professional qualifications are to meet the Secretary of State’s desire for them to be the “gold-standard”, each one, as well as the NLE title, should be accompanied by compelling incentives for working in disadvantaged schools.

This could include fee waivers, fast-tracked progression, annual award schemes, and additional support such as mentoring, training and peer-networks. Careful piloting and iteration will be needed to find the most effective inducements at each career stage, but each award should be seen as an important opportunity to encourage more experienced staff to work in the schools most in need of their support.

Alternative approaches, which compel rather than attract staff, risk being counter-productive given the estimated shortfall of up to 19,000 school leaders by 2022. Once the supply of staff is more secure then it may be appropriate to explore making professional qualifications mandatory.

Only by systematically incentivising the best and most experienced staff to work in disadvantaged schools can the Department for Education get value for money from high-cost interventions such as the pupil premium, and help disadvantaged pupils have a fair start in life.

Louis Coiffait, Head of Education, Reform

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