The freshness and enthusiasm of a younger leader can raise everyone’s performance, but the circumstances must be right
The age profile of the teaching profession has become significantly lower in recent years. A recent Teaching and Learning International survey by the OECD noted that England has among the youngest teaching workforce of all developed countries. Consequently, teachers are promoted through middle management positions earlier and earlier in their careers. Britain’s head teachers are the youngest they have ever been – recent DfE data show that over 100 schools have appointed school leaders in their 20s.
To understand if the culture of early promotion is good for schools, we have to understand why young teachers are being promoted. Is it due to their performance, talent and drive backed up with extensive professional development? Or, is it, as the National Education Union (NEU) speculates, because schools have hollowed out costlier, experienced staff and turned to younger, cheaper ones? Additionally, why are young teachers accepting new roles? After all, the majority of teachers enter the profession because they want to teach children, and promotions reduce time in the classroom. Many promotions on the way to head come with fanciful titles, minimal responsibilities and little remuneration for a great deal of extra work. A promotion to associate assistant vice-principal for PSHE, seconded to the SLT, doesn’t mean you can put down a deposit on a house.
Evidence suggests that schools promote younger teachers because they are prepared to do more for less. According to the DfE’s Reducing teacher workload document, new teachers work significantly longer hours than their more experienced colleagues. While older employees are motivated by freedom and work-life balance, young teachers thrive on challenge, training and new opportunities. Teachers who take on multiple extra responsibilities with abundant energy are noticed by head teachers.
In turn, British classroom teachers want early promotion because life at the bottom is not good, as Ian Stock puts it in a recent article. He observes that ‘many who enter the profession seem to be making a decision either to climb the ladder as rapidly as possible […] or get out after just a few years.’
On the other hand, early career teachers may want promotions simply because they are enthusiastic about their subject. Accepting leadership roles such as head of department is one way to ensure their subject is well taught.
Younger teachers are not only enthusiastic, but have up-to-date subject knowledge
Promoting keen young teachers can mean their enthusiasm rubs off on colleagues, leading to improved teaching for all. Albert Bandura introduced this concept in the 1990s and called it collective teacher efficacy. He defines collective efficacy as ‘a group’s shared belief in the conjoint capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given levels of attainment’, and he found it had positive effects on student academic performance. Moreover, as middle leaders also teach, they gain credibility from their colleagues who see their leaders in the trenches with them struggling with classes on a Friday afternoon.
Younger teachers are not only enthusiastic, but have up-to-date subject knowledge because their university days were recent. There is no doubt that a teacher’s subject expertise is a big aid to pupil learning. Therefore, the first downside to promotions is they take good teachers away from teaching.
Great teachers are not all great leaders
Another downside is that great teachers do not always make great leaders. Promotion decisions can focus too much on traits such as enthusiasm, drive and willingness to work, and too little on leadership skills. ‘We see this often in teaching — the best teachers getting promotions because they get good results,’ says assistant head teacher Ben Gordon, from Montgomery Academy, Blackpool.
Ben, who is newly promoted and in his 20s, points out that ‘there is a danger we turn an expert […] into a potentially novice coach [or] manager if effective training is not given.’
There are too few career progression opportunities for teachers who want to stay in the classroomDepartment for Education
Quick promotion without appropriate professional learning and development can lead to long-term career damage. New teachers lacking in knowledge and denied or unaware of appropriate CPD can struggle in post and become another worrying statistic for the continuing recruitment and retention crisis. New leaders also need mentors to turn to for advice, reassurance and understanding.
However, early promotion, as long as it comes with focused and specific CPD, seems to produce sustained benefits both to teachers and schools. The aim, according to Ben, should be ‘to retain [young teachers], grow them and hope that the gains we make from taking them out of what they are effective at – teaching – can be multiplied via the leadership of other colleagues.’
The future of promotion
The DfE acknowledges the disconnect between promotion and teaching. Through the new recruitment and retention strategy and Early career framework, the DfE seems to have recognised ’there are too few career progression opportunities for teachers who want to stay in the classroom’; and ‘too few opportunities for more experienced teachers who cannot access part-time or other flexible working opportunities’.
The DfE has introduced a ‘golden thread’ from early career to senior leadership. The thread is intended to allow people entering and moving through the teaching profession to choose and pursue clearer career pathways that meet their interests and expertise. This will continue to include traditional leadership routes, but also the ability to develop specialisms and professional knowledge while remaining in the classroom. Pathways are backed up by high-quality professional learning, and the Early career framework couples evidence-informed practice with professional expertise.
If this is implemented successfully and backed up with attractive pay packages, the DfE’s plan could see a seismic shift in the culture of promotion out of the classroom. It could lead to a reduction in the amount of management in schools and a return to leadership by example. Ultimately, that should all lead to high-quality teachers in every classroom. It will also mean that promotion is available to all teachers, building on their reasons for entering the profession, and available to all within a well-balanced working life.
Phil Naylor is assistant director at Blackpool Research School and expert adviser at the Teacher Development Trust