A recent report in the Guardian newspaper, describing how experienced teachers are fleeing a “broken education system” in England to find a better life working in international schools, struck a chord with many British teachers in Beijing.
England faces what’s been described as a “severe shortage” of teachers, with recruitment of trainees down by a quarter, and many of the most experienced and highly qualified staff leaving the profession. Around 15,000 teachers leave the UK every year to work abroad, of whom nearly half (47 percent) cite dissatisfaction with conditions at home as a reason, according to a survey by the Council of British International Schools (COBIS). 32 percent were considering leaving the profession altogether before making the move overseas.
“Not a chance I’d teach there again,” said Victoria Parr, who trained and worked in Manchester before coming to Beijing. “As much as I love my job as a teacher I would have to change career when we ever move back to the UK.”
She described deep-rooted social problems, which might surprise those who think of England as a wealthy country.
“Lots of kids with various issues and needs are not supported in the UK,” she told us. “One child in Manchester I had to give his medication every morning, because his parents wouldn’t take responsibility for him.”
These problems are not exclusive to inner cities, according to Claire Williams, who was a teacher and head of faculty for 12 years at a rural school.
“You were not just a teacher,” she told us, “but a social worker, a carer. The amount of times I brought food in or clothes for the kids because they had nothing… Often their only meal would be during the day at school.”
She talked about poverty not only in the material sense, but poverty of aspiration.
“They thought ‘nobody will give me a job anyway, so what’s the point?’ It went back generations, where their parents and grandparents didn’t have jobs. Trying to get them motivated, so that they believed in themselves, was a massive part of the job.”
Very often it was the teachers who would find themselves facing the consequences of these social problems.
“In the end it got to a point where I had been assaulted five times, and four of those were female students who were violent and aggressive, and I’d had enough,” Williams said.
As well as students with challenging needs, decades of political interference have left teachers dealing with a culture of excessive monitoring and box-ticking.
“On a weekly basis I would have a number of staff walk through my room and check on what I was doing,” Williams said. “It was constantly jumping through hoops. Every member of staff had to have the same Powerpoint at the start of their lesson. There had to be vocab time, reflection time… it was like a checklist.”
Parr contrasted this culture with her experience of four years at Beijing World Youth Academy (BWYA).
“In China you’re more trusted to get on with it and do your job. There isn’t the micromanagement and overt scrutiny. There are still classroom observations, but they’re more focused on personal development and improvement, not on what’s going badly.”
The bureaucracy in English schools creates an intolerable workload for teachers, both Parr and Williams told us.
“I would be in school any time between 7.15 and 7.30am,” Williams said, “and leaving school between 6 and 7.30 at night. Then after school it would be planning, preparation and marking, because I couldn’t do any of that during the school day.”
“People have the perception you get all these school holidays,” Parr said, “but realistically you don’t, because you give up every Saturday or Sunday because you’re catching up with work. You’re doing 50 or 60 hour weeks, so by the time that holiday comes, if you were in any other job it would just be time in lieu. Then all that happens is you end up going into work anyway, sorting your classroom or just planning. You don’t even take those holidays.”
“Once I sat and worked out what my hourly rate of pay would be, based on the hours I was actually clocking up,” she added. “My salary came in at significantly less than the national minimum wage! It was such a depressing exercise.
“Teaching in an international school your days are long, but you’re given time to plan and prepare, collaboratively with your year group. It’s a good standard of living and a good salary. Also as a parent, having the option of your own child going through an international education system is really huge. There’s no way we could afford for our son to be joining a private school when he’s school age, but here we’ll get that as part of my package.”
Williams pointed to other positives about working in the international sector.
“The experience of another culture, and the chance see lots of places, and travel, that’s a factor too.”
But both talked about a different attitude to schooling in China.
“Parents are more supportive and really value education,” Parr told us, while Williams said: “The students are far more respectful here.”
Photo: Jacob Botter via Flickr