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Teacher recruitment and retention: a question of identity?


Teacher recruitment and retention: a question of identity?

Dr Christian Beighton and Dr Zahid Naz discuss their research and debates around teacher recruitment and retention.

A recent report from the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) is providing grist to the political mill by arguing that teacher supply is in “a critical state” and represents “a substantial risk to the quality of education”.

Labour claim they will recruit 6,500 more teachers if elected but a history of missed targets, increased workload, poor pay and a lack of flexibility are, according to the NFER, driving the problem: before worrying about the quality of our kids’ education, there just aren’t enough teachers to provide it.

The crisis in teacher recruitment and retention is a familiar one, however: the number of empty teaching posts has doubled since the pandemic. Various cures have been proposed: might better salaries, more investment in infrastructure, early finishing on Fridays or more online provision attract more teachers into the role?

Our research into this area suggests that the problem is deeper and more complex than these quick-fixes suggest. Focussing just on Further Education, in several papers we have highlighted the exploitative nature of much provision as well as the potentially toxic inefficacy of artificial regulation systems.

In our most recent paper, we show the consequences of the fundamental instabilities that constitute everyday teaching lives, identities and environments. Instability can, theoretically, provide numerous possibilities for experienced, confident practitioners to express their professionalism in dynamic, expansive environments. But negotiating artificial, unsupportive and even threatening teaching spaces has exhausting implications. As anthropologist Marc Augé (1935-2023) would suggest, educational spaces which forego a sense of history, identity and relationality become increasingly nondescript, polyvalent “non-places” designed to facilitate transit. Learning and learners, teachers and teaching are empty entities to be channelled, transitioned and pipelined at the highest rate of possible. This “liquefied” lack of meaningful connections and identity in educational environments contributes to teacher dissatisfaction, exacerbating the critical state of teacher supply and risking the quality of education.

Indeed, our research suggests that these “non-places” erode not just identity but the possibility of developing a sense of who we are, at least at a professional level. The extent to which awareness of this issue is inflecting the debate about how to solve the recruitment crisis is, moreover, open to question. Developments in AI and online learning, for instance, should seriously consider the potential of online non-space to negatively modify behaviour. Following Augé, crude two-dimensional “learning” environments risk propagating the kinds of transitory behaviour (switching, scrolling, hopping) that many decry, citing “clear scientific evidence that digital tools impair rather than enhance student learning,”. Far from a reactionary attitude, as some claim, this is a call for more sophistication… or at least a basic recognition that the headlong rush to convert classrooms into anywhere/ anytime/ anything spaces is actually damaging the profession at its most rudimentary point: recruitment. If non-places are the educational future, we should listen to those expected to actually populate them.

Dr Chris Beighton is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Education Studies, and Dr Zahid Naz is a lecturer in Academic and Professional Education at Queen Mary, University of London.

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