Stem the tide

18 March 2016

stem.jpgSchool and college leaders need to take the initiative and accept collective responsibility for the recruitment and retention of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teachers before it’s too late, says Sir Michael Griffiths.

Stop moaning about others and do something yourself.” This mantra was instilled in me in my youth by my parents and throughout my career as a teacher and headteacher, I’ve followed their wise words. I’ve always believed that we, as senior leaders, are the architects of our own destiny. We need to take full responsibility for addressing challenges that come our way, rather than looking to place the blame on others.

I was reminded of this advice again in relation to the current desperate issue of teacher supply, especially in the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths. Responses to the ASCL survey, in which members were asked to rank a list of what would ‘solve’ the very real crisis in the supply of maths and physics teachers, almost exclusively targeted what someone else (usually the government) should do.

But it is simply not good enough to make demands just of government. We all agree that the government needs to make headway in this area and we are pleased that ASCL is lobbying on our behalf. However, we as leaders cannot wait. We need to be doing whatever we can in each of our schools now to alleviate the problem for the future. We must act now, and take collective responsibility for the dearth of good teachers.

As leaders, we should be asking ourselves: what are we doing to increase the numbers of teachers now and for the future? Moreover, what more could we do?

There are seven simple actions that we could all take to help address the teacher shortage. If we all followed at least some of them, we could be some way forward in helping to solve this issue ourselves.

The PROMOTE strategy

1 Promote teaching as a career
You and your teachers are role-models, in particular for those students who may aspire to be the next generation of teachers. Are you all positive about teaching as a job? Do you provide careers talks and fairs in your schools? Is teaching one of the careers you actively promote? Do you tell the older students what a great job this is, and why you came into it? You and your staff need to be advocates for teaching as a career – and mean it.

2 Raise the profile of stem subjects
Review the STEM subjects you offer students and see how they can be improved. Do you offer exciting and inspirational lessons in these subjects? In addition, all schools could offer double science as a minimum and encourage at least 50 per cent of students to study triple science. After all, if we do not encourage uptake of STEM subjects in our schools, how can we expect to recruit future design and technology teachers and physicists? In addition, you could offer extra-curricular STEM clubs and activities and invite experts into school to talk to students about STEM careers to encourage students to undertake undergraduate study in STEM subjects. We will not have STEM teachers if we do not have STEM  undergraduates.

3 Opportunities for older students
Do you provide opportunities for older students to engage with younger pupils at your school? Do you provide students with leadership opportunities? A house system can provide pastoral support and advice networks as well as  opportunities for older and younger students to work together on drama festivals, music extravaganzas, debates, quizzes and a host of sporting and other competitive events.

Older students could ‘give something back’ to the school community by helping youngsters with reading difficulties or numeracy. The possibilities are endless. Older students will grow to realise the excitement of helping others to learn and while doing so will develop their own personal and social skills. Providing such opportunities could encourage more of them to become teachers.

4 Maintain contact with ex-students
Do you collect email addresses of your departing students? Providing exam certificates in exchange for contact details is one way of doing so and it works. It’s easy and cheap to use modern technology to keep in touch with your undergraduates. You can send them encouraging messages and tell them about the joys of teaching when they are in their second year and beginning to wonder what they may do with their lives.

5 Organise teaching taster days in your area
If you do not have a school centred initial teacher training (SCITT) programme in your school, approach another school in your area that does. Together you can organise teaching taster days. Offer to pay for ex-students’ travel expenses, make a fuss of them and get them to talk to existing trainees, newly qualified teachers and to some older and experienced ones, too!

You could also work in partnership with others through maths hubs and science learning partnerships organised through the National STEM Learning Centre and Network. Promote the message that teaching is a great profession and that your school is a great place to start your career – in a location students know with friends, family and other support networks – and end the day with a fun social activity.

6 Target former students
Over the summer, where possible, employ former students for small jobs around the school, such as decorating, assisting in landscaping projects, fixing ICT things or crunching data. Employ them as learning support assistants (LSAs) and cover supervisors. You may be surprised at just how many of them may be attracted to such posts while they’re ‘thinking about a career’.

Some of them may even apply to your local SCITT. Appointing former students as teachers or in support roles has huge benefits: they know the ethos, the expectations, the structures and the little foibles exclusive to your school, including who to contact and who to avoid.

They will almost certainly help with extra-curricular activities; after all, they are most probably the students who engaged in that side of school life themselves.

7 Enhance your teachers by providing high-quality professional development
Do you provide excellent training opportunities for young teachers at your school? They need to feel valued and many will want to enhance their careers and progress higher. Exploit providers such as the National STEM Learning Centre and its bursary payments for professional development (see more at www.stem.org.uk/bursaries).

Finally, ask yourselves: if you were starting out on your teaching career, would your school be one you would choose to work in? Make it so. To simply spend time complaining about the actions of others just isn’t good enough and won’t change things.

Instead, promote teaching and put all your efforts into building local alliances and developing practical strategies that you can do in your school. And believe me, they work.

You and your teachers are role-models, in particular for those students who may aspire to be the next generation of teachers. Are you all positive about teaching as a job?

ASCL Teacher Reruitment Survey

About 500 ASCL members completed a survey on how to boost the number of maths and physics teachers. The most popular idea was that the government should consider paying off student loans for maths and physics graduates who become teachers to encourage more of them into the profession. See the survey results here: www.ascl.org.uk/surveyideas

Sir Michael Griffiths is a former Headteacher of Northampton School for Boys and past president of ASCL. He is also Chair of the Steering Group of the National STEM Learning Centre and Network.