"Oh, God, not another one!" shrieked my friend, draining her drink in what should probably have been two gulps.
I'd just told her, very tentatively, that whilst I hadn't considered teaching seriously as a career when I was younger, I can now see its appeal. Actually, I'm not convinced that it's for me, and I'm also lucky (unlike many) to enjoy the job I have. But her dismay at the very suggestion that I might consider it spoke volumes. This is largely because the friend in question is a teacher - I suspect a pretty good one - and she's decided to stop.
Having graduated in the mid to late noughties, many of my acquaintance seem to be experiencing what could be loosely described as a "five-to-seven year itch". In the past few months, the number of people getting engaged, moving house or, most likely, swapping career has been pretty high. Of course, Life Changes 1 and 2 noted above are (hopefully) as much about love or location as they are about getting itchy. But there's a very real sense that, job-wise, a number of people have simply had enough of what they're doing - and teaching crops up a lot as a possible next step.
What seems to be stopping a number from taking the plunge into the world of timetables and GCSEs and inspiring young minds is that, whilst they might see it as a great job or a vocation or even a calling, they're not sure it's a career, and I think they're onto something. In most of the professions which my friends are thinking about leaving, there is a real pathway which can if you so wish take you, if not from cradle to grave, then at least from College to Crocs. No doubt this is part of the reason that many stay in those professions: whenever you think about leaving, there's a promotion lurking which brings more money, more responsibility, more challenge, more power. In teaching those opportunities are far fewer and further between.
This is less of a problem in further and higher education, where the sheer size and complexity of institutions means that promotion opportunities are thicker on the ground. It is, I think, possible in many colleges or universities to follow a genuine 'career path', taking on different roles in various guises, and finishing several rungs up from where you started. Clearly, though, this is a lot harder in schools, particularly primaries, where the entire staff team might consist of just a handful of people. Of course, moving institution can be part of the solution, but it's not a whole answer (and it's also not ideal for the students). For those who - like another very talented friend I saw recently - have been made heads of department or senior managers very early on, a lifetime of similar roles (even when moving school) isn't always something to look forward to. And for older teachers, the challenge can be, to paraphrase a family member, "how on earth to keep the same stuff fresh for forty years".
Furthermore, changing institution doesn't solve the problem for those whose talents and interests lie in classroom teaching rather than management. The family member in question is a great example of that: someone who would have been an excellent headteacher, but simply didn't want to go that way, or even, really, to be a head of department. The result has been a very rewarding career but with virtually no change in responsibility, role or (critically, and let's not pretend it isn't) wages. She's stayed, but many others - like my drink-draining friend - are leaving, despite loving the day-to-day teaching work, not least because of the lack of progression.
In Singapore, which I was lucky enough to visit with a group of MPs in 2012, the system has come up with a creative, popular and practical solution. Teachers can enter one of three pathways - Teaching, Leadership, Specialism - each of which offers a number of promotions, each bringing new responsibilities. Built into that structure is flexibility to move between branches (if, for example, a Master Teacher decided they did want to be a head after all) and a variety of opportunities for secondments (to other institutions, or to the civil service). By admission, the leadership track is sometimes viewed as the most valuable, but the teachers we met liked the system and the way it didn't shoehorn anyone into a particular route, whilst still ensuring opportunities for genuine progression (not least in pay).
On return to England, the committee of MPs put the suggestion to various groups of trainees and teachers, and were met with almost unanimous support for such a structure. Witnesses to the committee's inquiry argued the case as well, with one noting that she became a head largely because she was "forward-looking" and "ambitious", without necessarily wanting the job. "Having a route for teachers, other than headship and management" was, she concluded, "really important".
As my friends get itchier and itchier, the lessons from Singapore have resurfaced in my thoughts, and it seems to me that there's a very strong case for a similar range of pathways here. Indeed, the committee of MPs recommended it to the Government in their final report, though the suggestion wasn't taken up. The committee concluded, moreover, that whilst there would be some complexities in getting the system up and running, it would reap huge benefits. For my part, the lack of career structure is certainly a factor in putting me off teaching, just as it's the reason some really talented people leave the profession, and some equally talented ones are reluctant to sign up. As manifesto season draws nearer, political parties wanting to do something genuinely innovative and valuable for the teaching profession (as well as win its votes?) could do a lot worse than look at this simple and effective way of giving it the parity of esteem with other graduate professions which it deserves.
Some quotations are taken from 'Great teachers: attracting, training and retaining the best', a report by the House of Commons Education Committee and published in 2012. The report, which offers further details of the Singaporean system and how it might work here, is available at
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmeduc/1515/151502.htm.Suggest a correction