A bursary and training support eased my transition into teaching, but the work-life balance after two years made me look elsewhere

At more than the current average wage, a £28,000 tax-free scholarship* to train to teach is certainly an attractive package.

The scholarships were extremely attractive three years ago let alone now. However, new recruits will still find themselves on the bottom rung of the teacher pay scale the year after, particularly as further cuts squeeze schools’ salary budgets.

Empty scales, weighed down on one side

Source: zendograph / shutterstock.com

In my opinion, the balance is wrong somewhere. The workload versus paycheque for those first few years in teaching is not right and needs to be addressed if the government wants to improve retention.

As a past recipient of a Royal Society of Chemistry teaching scholarship, I do think training incentives, not just financial, are important. The tax-free bursary made it a comfortable transition from being a research scientist to the training year. The welcome pack and additional training that came with my scholarship were extremely helpful. It included books that helped me plan fun practicals and that gave great insights into common student misconceptions. The mentors were a huge help too. Seeing how well they have succeeded at teaching while maintaining their enthusiasm brought hope during those dark hours that every trainee has.

I loved the training. I loved (most of) the kids I taught, enjoyed the school environment I was in and was really quite impressed with the senior leadership team, despite the usual grumbles from a few members of staff. Most of all I loved the benefits that came with teaching, like a school trip scuba diving in Mexico!

But, at the end of the scholarship the jump down to a standard newly qualified teacher (NQT) wage was a financial shock. And after two years’ teaching it became more difficult to justify the work-life balance every time I looked at a pay slip. So, I jumped back into research this summer. In the end, the slow climb back to a respectable salary was just going to take too long if I stayed teaching, for the amount of work that is needed.

A hard grind

No other job I’ve done is as draining, but rewarding, as teaching. You put everything you have into the job, and it exhausts you. The workload is stacked against any NQT because you haven’t taught most of the curriculum before, particularly in science where you teach three different GCSE subjects (and I hadn’t experienced any biology since my GCSEs). You have to learn on-the-job and prepare endless supplies of suitable resources. In my second year I found myself working almost as hard as my first, especially as it coincided with new GCSE and A-level curriculums.

I was also lucky with my school. I don’t know where I would have been without the robust behaviour policy that the school’s leadership rigorously enforced. I’ve been reliably informed that behaviour in the school was one of the best in the area (although it’s hard to believe that when fights did kick off in the classroom on the odd occasion).

I got the impression school management were keen to save money wherever reasonable. I was very aware pay increases would always be kept to a minimum as I saw several very good teachers denied their applications to the upper pay scale using questionable contract loopholes. Realising it would take me at least another four years of working over 50 hour weeks to simply return to my wage before teaching wore me down and eventually I started looking elsewhere.

What’s needed to keep us

In think an increase in starting salary, a greater level of support or a slower increase in timetabled teaching hours would all give NQTs a better buffer into their new choice of career.

Greater support would be useful in the form of more required, external continued professional development (CPD) throughout the first couple of years. External CPD sessions allowed me to talk to other teachers in a way that sometimes isn’t possible within your own school. It gave me the perspective to realise how well my school manages some things, and allowed me to vent about others.

At present, NQTs teach 90% of a full timetable, but even that is a big step from the training year. If there were a further reduced timetable in the first year, followed by a 90% timetable in the second year, it would just give the breathing space a new teacher needs to build up resources, gain confidence and get to know the ins-and-outs of their subject(s).

I honestly think that if the workload were more in line with other jobs I have experienced I would have stuck with teaching despite the smaller wage. I hope for the next generation of NQTs the government does find a suitable balance between seductive, short-term packages and long-term retention commitments.

Ross Colman was a teacher and past recipient of a Royal Society of Chemistry teaching scholarship. He recently left teaching to research new magnetic shape memory alloys at Charles University, Prague, and the Czech Academy of Science.

*Teaching training scholarship for chemistry in England, 2018-19