Alternatively titled: ‘How do we get the best teachers to Prestatyn and Great Yarmouth?’
“Come To Sunny Prestatyn
Laughed the girl on the poster,
Kneeling up on the sand
In tautened white satin.
Behind her, a hunk of coast, a
Hotel with palms…”
So starts ‘Sunny Prestatyn‘, by Phillip Larkin. It was a bleak but accurate depiction of the Welsh seaside town. I visited not-so-sunny Prestatyn as a acne-laden teenager, alongside visits to the English equivalent – Blackpool. Larkin’s metaphor of the idyllic advertisement being “slapped up in March” seemed to capture the faded charm of such seaside settings with cruel accuracy.
The decline of these seaside towns has been well documented. Many of these seaside towns, including Prestatyn, Great Yarmouth, Blackpool, Skegness and Clacton-On-Sea, suffer from above average deprivation. The Office for National Statistics has shown that such towns experience issues with health, disability, employment and income in comparison with other parts of Great Britain. The north/south divide and the inequalities in British society are clear.With such stark deprivation, the difficulties faced by schools in such seaside towns are obvious.
Despite their best days being behind some of these seaside towns, they retain something of their hedonistic past. Teen pregnancy rates are high – low paid jobs are relatively easy to come by. The combination can prove toxic. Transience can hit such towns and their schools. A singular sunny holiday can attract a family looking to escape their down-trodden conditions elsewhere, only the heights of the ‘holiday’ are never realized and further moves are undertaken. School populations are destabilized further.
Issues of familial and student deprivation are compounded by teacher recruitment problems in these places. You can argue about the ‘truth’ of a lot of evidence that attends education, but everyone is surely agreed that having the best teachers leads to better outcomes for students. However, having enough teachers is the crucial first step to having the best teachers. Not only that, Duncan Spading notes that those key staff, such as teaching assistants and office managers, are also thinner on the ground in coastal schools. It is common for teaching assistants to move onto teachings positions, so even the less obvious recruitment channels are blocked up, stifling improvement.
Philip Larkin himself lived and worked in the northern outpost of Hull. He was a stark anomaly. A famous writer living outside of the established literary set in London. Now, Larkin revelled in his outsider ‘hermit status’, but for every famous poet living in Hull there were fifty more scribbling away at their pentameters in London and the ‘big cities’. This issue is mirrored in the teaching workforce. The population drains away from the seaside, with a huge majority channelling its way to London:
(Image sourced from Sam Freedman – who came up with the ‘best teachers to Great Yarmouth’ question too – thanks Sam)
‘Challenge’ programmes, modeled after the successful ‘London Challenge‘ programme, will no doubt be rolled out to coastal towns in an attempt to manage school improvement, but with the brain-drain of professionals and teachers to the city, attempts to make sustained improvements are likely remain a thankless struggle.The schools in metropolitan cities such as London, and to a lesser extent Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester, find teacher recruitment a much easier task than their seaside town counterparts. The rich get richer…
Local authorities in London populate the top of results league tables; whereas the bottom are populated by LEAs like Portsmouth, Blackpool and Sothend-on-sea. For one, half of their school catchment area is submerged in salt-water. There are therefore fewer teachers to draw upon. People, particularly new, young teachers, are more willing to move to the bright lights of the inner-city – pockets of deprivation and all. Simple economies of scale apply.
Governments and schools have long been aware of such issues of course. Each successive government has grandiose policies to solve these systemic problems. There is the ubiquitous ‘Super-teacher‘ or ‘Super-head‘ solution. Draft in successful school leaders, and to a lesser extent teachers, and pay them a fistful more for a short, revolutionary stay by the sea. Only last week the latest such initiative was announced, with one hundred such Heads being drafted in – see here.
Of course, this method lacks the sustainability required.
Successful school cultures are most often sustained by leaders with a deep and rich understanding of the local community and its unique context. Trust in such ‘Super-heads‘ is surely in shorter supply than a local alternative. It is the short-term solution, if a solution at all. Much better to see successful and innovative head teachers already in place, like Stephen Tierney in Blackpool, to have more of a hand in leading the next generation of local head teachers.
Another solution is to commission successful Academy chains into such marginal seaside towns, bringing their own brand of school improvement policies, complete with extra staffing capacity from their existing schools. Such actions trigger a catalogue of arguments about ideology and the impact of such school chains. Local communities often struggle to embrace such change. Stories of tough, league-table damaging students being summarily turfed out for other local schools to deal with compound the resentment. And yet some academy chains have simply incontrovertible success with deprived cohorts – their expertise could well help.
Perhaps drafting in Academy chains will prove a successful strategy in the long-term, as such chains do have a history of success with schools in deprived areas, but their impact in deprived city areas may well not transplant to successful teacher recruitment on the coasts easily. It is an unknown, but I expect some notable successes and some less laudable failures – like the the existing variation in Academy chain quality. Of course, changing the ‘type’ of school does not have a consistent history of driving educational improvement. Changing the label of the school in the past has too often failed to translate to the whiteboard-face of classroom practice.
It was widely reported in the national news that TeachFirst (celebrated and demonized in equal measure it would appear) is to expand into poor rural and seaside areas. Indeed, the inspiration for this post came from listening to a talk from TeachFirst Head of Research, Sam Freedman, and he kindly shared his resources. Regardless of criticism, TeachFirst has had significant success in recruiting teachers into the profession, which, in a time of transition for initial teacher training, is frankly a must to avoid a country-wide recruitment crisis. Therefore, I see this expansion as a necessary measure to help ease the recruitment issues in such seaside areas.
It isn’t without its problems though. I see TeachFirst without the vitriol often reserved for it. I have problems with the notion that teaching is a worthy stepping stone to a job pushing shares in the city or such like (call me a romantic, but the intrinsic rewards of working in the public sector, for children and local communities does it for me), but this caricature isn’t the whole truth. Retention amongst TeachFirst isn’t far short of the conventional training routes for teachers. The notion of TeachFirst is an advertisers hook in an age of glossy recruitment. A necessary evil. Their expansion, in a time of recruitment uncertainty, is a necessity.
That being said, in the best of all possible worlds we would not need TeachFirst to exist at all – as a charity or otherwise (sorry Sam!). The long-term solution to recruiting teachers to the coasts of England and Wales is to have the teaching profession held in such esteem that there is vibrant competition for all teaching courses and positions. The stark reality is that we do not live in such a society and such an esteemed cultural view, exhibited in countries like Finland and Singapore, takes a generation to be established. So, for now and the foreseeable future, TeachFirst is part of the solution. It would be positive to recruit many ambitious students to return to their home-towns and wanting to make a difference there.
The bigger issue that which route teachers enter the profession is that too many teachers leave the profession in the first five years full stop. Regardless of how they entered the profession, retention of good teachers is poor. Until we remedy this issue we will forever be looking for short-term measures to manage the problem of having the best teachers in our seaside towns, or elsewhere frankly.
Solutions to the Teach Beach Issue?
The issues appear intractable. Solutions, such as drafting in Teach First, ‘Super-heads’ and successful Academy chains, appear to be solutions that are done unto schools, whereas sustainable change most often merges locally and from the bottom up. Some balance is required.
Lessons from the ‘London Challenge’ can be learned, but local problems are best solved by local professionals who know the unique context. The lessons from the ‘London Challenge’, such as better practitioner-led development; and, in particular, leadership and collaboration between local leaders and networks, are common themes of school improvement and they are also at the heart of better recruitment. Organisations like TeachingLeaders have a part to play in attracting potential school leaders in these deprived areas in a more sustainable fashion than the ‘Super-head’ method.
The simple, but incredibly difficult truth is that schools in these areas need to grow their own and, as Dylan Wiliam states, “love the ones we are with” in teacher terms. There needs to be better continuous professional development – with the requisite investment. There needs to be expertly coordinated and networked leadership programmes (Teaching Leaders may prove the nexus). There needs to be a targeted funding programme to support schools in seaside deprivation, connecting that investment explicitly to local job commerce and innovation (as the saying goes: it takes a village to educate a child). There needs to be a systematic shining of a light on the highly successful schools in such areas, growing them before deferring to external school chains.
Of course, these approaches apply beyond seaside towns as plain good practice, but their need is explicit and urgent at the beachfront. It won’t come for free and with the inequity dividing north and south; city and coastal/rural towns, it will be rock hard.
Whether the government has the commitment to the coastal ‘Teach Beach Challenge‘ like it did with the ‘London Challenge’ remains to be seen. I hope for a return to picture-postcard success.
Thank you to Stephen Tierney, Sam Freedman and Duncan Spalding for their invaluable contributions to this blog post.
Leading Schools in Coastal Communities. Prof Brent Davies (Suggested by Stephen Tierney)