Great teachers: attracting, training and retaining the best - Education Committee Contents

Annex 1: Note of the Committee's seminar with outstanding teachers, 26 October 2011

This note offers a record of a seminar held by the Committee with fifteen outstanding teachers from across England. The seminar was the first session of the Committee's teacher training and supply inquiry, following the receipt of written evidence, and was held in private at the House of Commons. The Committee identified a number of schools— primary and secondary, urban and rural, maintained and independent, from Devon to Durham—which were either outstanding performers or had significantly improved in recent years. Headteachers were then invited either to attend themselves or to nominate an outstanding practitioner from the school to attend instead.

Members in attendance: Graham Stuart MP (Chair), Neil Carmichael MP, Pat Glass MP; Damian Hinds MP, Ian Mearns MP, Tessa Munt MP, Lisa Nandy MP, Craig Whittaker MP


After an initial introductory session, teachers were divided into three break-out groups, and MPs into another three. All groups then circulated between three discussion rooms, looking at the three key areas of the inquiry:

  • How to attract outstanding candidates to the teaching profession
  • How to train and develop our teachers
  • How to keep the best teachers in the profession.


Teachers at the seminar came from a range of professional and personal backgrounds. Some had been teachers since graduating from university; others had studied for degrees in later life after successful careers elsewhere (ranging from office management to banking to fishmongery). There was consensus that having teachers with experience of other professions was an advantage to a school's staff room mix, and that ways to encourage career-changers into teaching were valuable, and should be developed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, teachers at the seminar had many reasons for choosing their own particular pathway into teaching. One teacher, a participant on the Teach First programme, explained a preference for a practical training route, which enabled a candidate "to get to where I wanted to be much quicker than a more traditional route". Others explained why they preferred a PGCE, either school- or university-led, or an undergraduate degree in education. One teacher said that school support staff (such as teaching assistants), and other youth workers or volunteers, becoming teachers was a pathway to be encouraged.

However, there were more common reasons for joining the profession overall. Several teachers described it as a "family business" which they had decided to join early, or recalled being inspired by a teacher of their own. Despite suggestions that most teachers had had positive experiences at school, however, a number of delegates said they turned to teaching for precisely the opposite reason: one said she simply wanted students to have a better experience than she had. There was also considerable consensus over what made a good teacher. Subject knowledge was seen as valuable (although that wasn't seen as translating into degree class), but was not raised as much as other themes: the need to enjoy working with children (one delegate, a former engineer, explained that children "are more challenging to work with than adults"); a desire to help and support young people; a desire to reflect on and improve one's own performance; an ability to communicate; resilience; and a passion for teaching itself (the word 'vocation' was used a number of times).

Marketing the profession to potential applicants was seen to be important. Teach First was praised by some for having an on-campus presence, which one teacher described as lacking when she joined the profession; others argued it was important that candidates knew about the workload and demands of the profession in advance of joining it. There was a view that people were not aware of the different routes into teaching. The suggestion arose for 'taster' sessions, where interested parties (perhaps at sixth form or college) could experience something of a teacher's role before deciding to apply for full training. Some careers advisers, it was argued, needed to be better informed about teaching as a career, including the different routes into it, which it was felt were not widely known about: only the PGCE was advertised on some websites and the GTP was usually found out about only through contact with a school.

Central advertising campaigns were seen as a good thing, although there was agreement from several delegates that these should not focus too much on the potential for leadership, but rather on the classroom. Teaching, some said, was a 'low status' profession, and needed re-branding to an extent; it was seen as "looked down on" and untrusted by the Government.

Delegates did not see pay as a major factor in recruiting teachers, with one pointing out that Teach First pay, for example, was very considerably below the average graduate starting salary. On the other hand, some good people were being lost to other professions because they could not afford teachers, in one colleague's experience. Lack of career progression and development opportunities were cited as a turn-off for potential trainees. Better, or more structured, career paths would, it was suggested, have a positive effect on recruitment.

Some teachers expressed concerns that, currently, too many 'wrong' candidates were being allocated training places, and that basic standards of literacy and communication were sometimes poor.


The training received by participants at the seminar was very varied. One independent school teacher said he had never had a day's training in his life.

There was general concern about the Government's policy on requiring a 2.2 degree to receive financial support towards the cost of training. Attendees agreed that it was necessary to have a good grounding in a subject but several present had 3rd class degrees or knew some excellent teachers in that position, although there was agreement around the necessity for teachers to be degree-level qualified. A higher degree class could, however, raise the status of teachers and make it more competitive to enter the profession. However, this would not address the key issue of personality: teachers, it was argued, did not need to be academic but needed a passion for teaching and an interest in children.

It was seen as a myth that you needed to be able to hold a class to be a great teacher; it was possible to teach someone how to manage behaviour if they had other strengths. The difference between a good teacher and an excellent one was the relationship they formed with the children, and this was missing from teacher training. When recruiting teachers, participants always ensured that they saw candidates with the children in order to judge their ability to form relationships.

There was much discussion about whether school-based training or university theoretical training was to be preferred, with general agreement that the former was more relevant. One participant had previously trained as a nursery nurse and claimed she had learnt far more on that training (two years of week on / week off alternating between college and placements). This was because placements threw you in at the deep end. "University is not the real world", one teacher said, and argued that some lecturers have not been in schools for a long time.

Another issue raised was that the NQT year after a PGCE was very difficult because that was when the real skills had to be developed; the theory aspect of a PGCE was "important but useless" because the most crucial thing was how children react to you. No delegates disagreed that more time was needed in the classroom during training. The comment was also made that a six week block was not enough time to give support to a student and that a class could suffer significantly in that period.

Generally, a three-year course was seen as better preparation as it allowed a lot of time in schools and enabled students to learn what the job was really about. PGCE teachers were often "stunned" by their first year of teaching. However, one participant had undertaken an on-the-job PGCE which did not involve the extra expense and time of a further year at university and allowed her to build on her experience. She felt that she got a lot more out of it this way than by going back to university. A mature entrant also felt that he would not have come into teaching if it had taken longer than a year to qualify, although he accepted that there was a problem in facing a class on only six week's experience.

One head suggested that his GTP staff coped better than those from more traditional routes. Another teacher agreed that GTP produced much better, more rounded teachers who were much better equipped for teaching. Others expressed similar views. A minority view was that universities could provide superb training. Lecturers had changed a lot over recent years and there was a lot of movement between university and schools. Even here, it would have been better to do the course over three years as one year gave too little contact time with schools.

The point was also made that student teachers were never in school in the first week of term to set things up. Students did not learn the day-to-day responsibilities and tasks of teachers. There was a suggestion that training should include a compulsory element of being involved in the whole of school life, including outside the classroom (e.g. break duties). In addition, students did not have time to spend simply observing other teachers. All participants agreed that more emphasis should be placed on observing colleagues for the continuing development of all teachers. It was also noted that in a teaching school a trainee only took a group and not a whole class. This led to the observation that teachers should be taught how to manage other adults in the classroom e.g. learning support assistants. There could be conflict where new teachers are young and teaching assistants are older.

The concept of teaching schools was generally welcome. One participant commented that universities were finding it hard to persuade students to take students and had a deficit of 40% of places. However, schools in different areas were very different and teachers needed to gain wide experience whilst training, for example through varying placements.

A particular issue was raised with regard to provision of training for SEN teachers. People move in from the mainstream rather than being taught to teach SEN from the start.

One participant argued that we underestimate how much children invest in teachers. A poor student teacher could set them back a long way. It was very hard when a university gave a final year student a good grade but the school found them not up to the job. Universities seemed reluctant to fail students. Such people would not get to this point if they had more experience in the classroom and knew what it was like.

Continuing development depends on individual school leadership teams. In general participants felt they had plenty of opportunities, although local authority cuts were leading to a reduction in the courses available. There were various patterns for arranging CPD: before or after school, inset days, before and after the end of term, and so on. Training also took place in school clusters. The issue was raised of pressure on budgets if teachers do courses during the day (e.g. supply teachers and fees for training courses). Several schools had a policy of encouraging those who had been on courses to feed back their experience afterwards so other staff benefitted as well. Views on the Australian long leave system ranged from fabulous to indifferent: CPD was seen as more important. Teachers were changing jobs less now than in the past. Education moves so quickly that the existing workforce needed to keep up with developments. Teachers having a personal budget for CPD was seen as a 'nice idea': they need time to reflect on their own skills, to move forward where desired and to get new ideas.

The improving schools programme was seen to be very good. One personal experience had led to significant improvements at a school through a tutor working alongside a teacher. The one to one model was very impressive.


There was general agreement that teaching was a vocation. Most attendees said that they were passionate about working with children— and that it was this passion that kept them in the profession. Most saw themselves staying in the teaching profession for at least several years and, in many cases, until retirement. When asked at what point a teacher should leave the classroom, one attendee responded "when the passion goes". One attendee reported that he had entered teaching primarily due to a love of his subject and that being paid to work within his subject area was an important factor in keeping him in the profession.

The reason most often cited for leaving the profession was increased workload and pressure. One attendee cited an example of an outstanding teacher he knew who had left the profession because, as a perfectionist, he could not do everything to the level he wanted. There was general agreement that being able to prioritise and that "learning to live with the system" was essential if one was to stay in the profession.

Several attendees commented on disheartening perceptions among the public about teachers' short working hours and long holidays. There was widespread agreement that the reality is very different, with several attendees citing an average working week of about 50 hours. "9 to 3.30 is half of what we do", commented one attendee.

Attendees agreed that the introduction of Preparation, Planning and Assessment time (PPA) had helped but that the time had become taken up with increased demands: "PPA gave us time to juggle two balls, but then we were given ten".

There was a perception that teachers in England had a high number of contact hours compared to those in other countries and it was suggested that this was an area which the Committee might explore in its inquiry, comparing contact hours both internationally and historically in England. However, there was general disagreement with the idea that the cost of a reduction in contact hours could be offset by an increase in class sizes. Attendees felt that although large class sizes would work with some children who had the required learning and behavioural skills, they would present serious challenges with many others. Several suggested that larger class sizes would inhibit their ability to form effective relationships with pupils which they considered vital to doing their job well.

There was general agreement that (easing pressure on) time was a bigger factor than money in retaining teachers, although several attendees expressed reservations about proposed changes to teachers' pensions, particularly the rise in the retirement age. One attendee (in her late fifties) commented on how physically and emotionally demanding teaching is and how it would be difficult to sustain well at age 68.

A good head teacher was cited as important in helping to retain staff in several ways: by allowing innovation, encouraging teachers to use their creative skills and judgement, by thinking of the career development of individual staff members and by acting as an effective filter for workload.

Prospects for promotion were also considered to be important in retaining teachers, although it was generally agreed that promotion prospects tended to be limited in many primary schools, particularly in rural schools with low staff turnover. One primary teacher reported that she had responsibility for literacy at her school but that she received no extra payment for this due to constraints on the school budget. In contrast, secondary teachers generally expressed content with their prospects for promotion, citing opportunities on both the pastoral and academic side. Several attendees expressed an interest in progressing to deputy headship but no further. Promotion, it was felt, whether to headship or an advisory role, would involve moving out of the classroom, and away from the job for which they had trained.

Other factors which were suggested as issues in retaining teachers were frequent changes to examination syllabuses creating extra work; being asked to complete paperwork which served no useful purpose; and the pressures generated by the accountability system. The latter was felt to be especially acute in year 6 of primary school, where pressure on teachers to get results often led to a concentration on maths and English to the exclusion of other subjects and to a culture of "teaching to the test".

Several attendees commented that a lack of meaningful Continuing Professional Development (CPD) was also potentially a factor in retaining teachers. One attendee described CPD as often a "bolt on" rather than an integral part of a teacher's career path. Reactions to suggestions of an entitlement to a 6 month sabbatical after 10 years in teaching, similar to that offered in some other countries, were mixed. Some attendees felt that it would help to raise the status of the teaching profession, giving the message that teachers' experience was valued and recognising that activities pursued (such as participation in inspection or subject research) could help enhance teaching skills. Others expressed concern that such a scheme might be considered too disruptive and difficult to implement in some settings, particularly in further education and sixth form colleges, where pupils are often on two year courses.


Following the group discussions, all delegates and MPs participated in a short plenary session where each sub-group was asked to list the key themes and top concerns which had emerged. These were:

  • general appreciation for as much practical training as viable;
  • the need for greater peer-to-peer learning and observation;
  • workload as a key factor in recruitment and retention, both perceived and actual;
  • a scepticism about the Government's cessation of funding for trainees with lower degree classes;
  • a need for greater clarity about the profession for potential applicants, perhaps achieved through 'taster' sessions;
  • the importance of good literacy and numeracy skills for all teachers;
  • the importance of a diverse workforce, including career-changers;
  • a desire for better career structure, especially in primary education;
  • a call for a more meaningful CPD system.

Following the plenary session, the Chair thanked all participants for their time, and the event closed.

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