Escaping the exam factory: why teachers are leaving

Dylan Moore fears that much-needed curriculum overhaul will be overshadowed by a data culture that distorts the purpose of education and demoralises students and teachers alike.

The headlines merely hint at thousands of individual human stories. ‘Half of teachers could leave the profession in two years’ (Telegraph); ‘Teacher shortage becoming a classroom crisis’ (BBC); ‘Teachers are leaving as government falls short on recruitment’ (Guardian); ‘More teachers than ever quitting classrooms’ (Sky News). And despite the diverging education systems on either side of Offa’s Dyke, these are not headlines relevant only to England. ‘Unmanageable workload forcing teachers to consider leaving profession’ (South Wales Guardian); ‘Recruitment crisis in the classroom as nine in ten teachers say excessive workload to blame’ and – in an echo of The Telegraph’s claim – ‘Almost half of Wales’ teachers thinking of leaving profession’ (Wales Online).

To redress this desperate situation, a report by the Social Market Foundation has recommended paying a premium to teachers who work in schools in poorer areas; here in Wales, Plaid Cymru’s election manifesto included a promise to give a 10% rise to teachers in a bid to enhance the status of the profession. The esteem in which teachers are held is certainly something that Government, teachers themselves and society as a whole need to grapple with – an issue finally and deservedly on the political agenda. Pay, to an extent, is a sideshow. Hardly anyone goes into teaching for the money.

Experienced teachers’ salaries, despite real-terms reduction over the last decade, remain competitive – and in actual fact it is only the good level of pay relative to other viable options that mean we have a recruitment and retention crisis rather than a total collapse of the teaching workforce. Many teachers’ mortgages, taken out on the strength of a decent and reliable salary, have trapped them in a job they have fallen out of love with. Nobody goes into teaching for the money, but sometimes it is an economic equation that retains people. However, more and more teachers are voluntarily opting for reduced hours contracts in an attempt to rebalance their lives and ward off mental health issues; others, like me, are opting out altogether.

I was attracted to teaching by the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the next generation. My first letter of application boldly stated that I was ‘answering the [UK New Labour] Government’s call for high quality graduates to seek a career in teaching’. My enthusiasm for literature as a vehicle for exploring life as well as improving literacy was matched by an educational climate that, while it had its problems, retained enough flexibility to allow for lessons in the library spent reading for pleasure, projects to publish anthologies of pupils’ creative writing and just enough spare energy to run theatre trips and a debating club. In those now far-off seeming halcyon days, there was even time to eat your lunch and chat to colleagues about the outside world.

Ask most teachers who have been doing the job for more than five years and they will tell you that the job has fundamentally, irrevocably changed. Some things are better. There has been a digital revolution, reflecting the changes in society as a whole. Important strands such as education for sustainable development and global citizenship have been seamlessly incorporated into curricula. Assessment for learning is now so normal that it is difficult to think of it as something that was once new.

But several large shadows hang over education – and I am not referring to those cast by the various ministers who have had a ‘mixed’ reaction from teachers in Wales and England as their reform agendas have been driven through the system at pace. Owen Hathway, Policy Officer at NUT Cymru, has summarised the situation neatly: ‘issues around workload and accountability are pushing excellent teachers out of the profession. Action is certainly needed to help empower the profession to maintain the dedication to teaching that attracted them to the role in the first place.’

On workload, I identify with all the usual touchstones of teacher-leaving-the-profession articles that appear on my social media timelines with ever-increasing regularity. Teachers are worn out by the unrelenting everyday demands of the job, preparing for, delivering and then following up on four or five all-singing, all-dancing presentations a day in front of a difficult audience. We are also mentally tired; the price of an unending cycle of deadlines and that nagging guilty feeling that nothing can ever be truly finished. But we are professional adults and plenty of people who work just as hard will be first to point out that teachers still benefit from generous holidays which go at least some way to compensate for the relentlessness of term-time. Any real guilt should be reserved for an acknowledgement of the fact we have allowed a Kafkaesque culture of bureaucracy to divert our attention away from students and onto spreadsheets.

The direction in which education has moved, on both sides of Offa’s Dyke, has been driven by a culture of ultraaccountability. What is valued today – by governments, by inspection bodies and exam boards, and, sadly, by many senior leadership teams within schools – is the measurable. And what we know instinctively as teachers, working every day at the so-called ‘chalkface’, is that what is most valuable in education is immeasurable. We came into the job to inspire young minds, to fire pupils’ interest and ability to learn. It may sound hopelessly idealistic, but perhaps we need a reminder of our true vocation: to light a spark of interest in a subject that will last somebody a lifetime. On many days, our greatest achievement will be to turn a scowl into a smile, or to help somebody realise that they can, or to offer a listening ear missing elsewhere in a young person’s life. All of these successes are results. And yet, in today’s increasingly tortuous edu-speak, results means only one thing: turning Level 4s into Level 5s, Ds into Cs, As into A*s. Numbers and letters on more and more virtual pieces of paper and labyrinthine databases expanding like the universe into infinity.

The way things are currently organised, most days it feels that actual children are in the way of the running of a school. Being a teacher today means submitting to a rolling programme of deadlines; poring over datasets in order to prove that you are doing what you say you are doing, which by the time you have finished make you realise you have lost the time you would need to do what it is you are trying to prove you are doing. Actual lessons seem like something to get over and done with. Even the verb we now choose to describe what goes on in classrooms betrays the politico-corporate takeover of our ‘learning environments’. We no longer teach; we deliver lessons.

Of course, regular assessment and progress checks are vital in ensuring we keep tabs on where pupils are at in their learning. Examinations, tests, parents evenings and annual reports have been a feature of the educational landscape for as long as anybody can remember, and rightly so. But rather than being milestones, ‘continuous assessment’ has become exactly that. Quality continuous assessment – the encyclopaedic formative knowledge all good teachers have in their heads about their pupils – has been devalued and replaced by raw, often meaningless or misleading, data. One quality school report a year allows meaningful engagement with parents and a genuine reflection of progress; the requirement to measure student progress against prior data that has been incrementally inflated by the student’s previous teachers, all of whom were under extreme pressure (read: professional coercion) to make sure she was ‘on target’ creates a nonsensical mountain of paperwork that serves no purpose other than to waste everybody’s time.

A report commissioned by the NUT earlier this year, looking at the impact of accountability measures on children and young people in England, is titled Exam Factories? The question mark is entirely unnecessary, and its findings apply as much to Wales as to England. Negative impacts of the hegemonic data culture were recorded across issues as important and as various as the breadth of the curriculum, teacher-pupil relationships, pupils’ emotional health and wellbeing, and students’ perceptions of the purpose of education. In other words, the entire point of education is being undermined and undone by its own internal systems, with the added implication of long-term, untold and serious knock-on damage to individuals and to society as a whole.

Between us (I include teachers as well as politicians, examination bodies, the media and the wider world in this), we have created a vicious circle. Quite apart from its soul-sapping pointlessness, what the endless emphasis on data generation and analysis ultimately betrays is a fundamental lack of trust. Relying on predictive algorithms and graphs that assume linear progress means we are running schools like sausage factories, and children – if you’ve ever met one you will know – do not behave like sausages. Variables at play affecting our frontline education workers’ ability to ‘deliver results’ include family breakdown; the weather; the lack of a breakfast; a missed bus; drug abuse; the time of day; a fight at lunchtime; fancying the boy at the back or the girl at the front of the class; junk food and Xboxes. If you give it too much thought, you realise it’s an impossible job. Without the requirement to quantify everything, it’s a challenge to relish; in the current climate, the still rich rewards are heavily outweighed.

The irony is that in making pieces of paper the end goal, we further devalue learning. It is, actually, deeply dissatisfying to see students who have been endlessly drilled in a narrow range of skills and taught to pass a test receiving ‘excellent’ results that outstrip those of others who have a more genuine aptitude for and love of a subject, but whose idiosyncratic approach might place their answers outside of ever-narrowing criteria. It is even more soul-destroying to be a part of that system, to feel yourself becoming – rather than an inspiration – just another brick in the wall.

Our children’s futures depend, in many ways, on the quality and enthusiasm of the teaching workforce. We need teachers with can-do attitudes who encourage open-mindedness, allow mistakes, promote creativity and are positive about their job. We have thousands of people who fit the bill already in schools. But we are in grave danger of losing many good, experienced teachers as enough becomes enough. I am – actually – optimistic about the opportunities arising from Donaldson, especially given that teachers themselves will be leading new curriculum implementation. My concern is that data-and-accountability culture will cast its long, dark and troubling shadow over Welsh education’s bright new dawn.

Dylan Moore is Comment & Analysis Editor at the IWA. He taught English in Welsh comprehensive schools from 2002-16. This piece first appeared in the latest issue of 'the welsh agenda'.

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