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Is the call for volunteers in schools just a paper towel?

In many ways, I have severe reservations about Nadhim Zahawi and the DfE’s plan to ask a volunteer army of retired teachers to return to the classroom. To start with I am very sceptical about the existence of such an army. The vast majority of those trained teachers, not currently in the classroom, are not teaching for a good reason and/or doing something else. They are not sitting around waiting to be called back into school!

For once I am not going to focus on the DBS and safeguarding concerns with this policy though these are significant. The underlying principle of the army of volunteers policy seems to be rooted in a lack of understanding and devaluing of the role of the teacher. It feels like an attack on teachers’ professionalism: a return to the adage that ‘those who can do do and those who can’t teach’.

Yes, this is a call for qualified teachers, but schools and teaching do not stand still. They are rapidly changing places. I seriously doubt how many of these volunteers would be able to do a good job. As a teacher in school, but rarely in the classroom, I am only too aware of how rapidly things are changing. The use of IT and the teaching of reading and phonics are just examples of this.

This policy is based in a belief that any body standing in front of a class, is better than no body. This is not knocking the many supply teachers who do an amazing job under difficult circumstances. Indeed, I know I learnt more about teaching as a supply teacher than at almost any other time of my career. That was because I was made aware of the difficulties of teaching without the relationships that are the core of effective teaching.

The call for volunteers ignores this. I suspect it is because Zahawi and the DfE do not understand or care about relationships in the classroom. They believe that adults are entitled to respect, to be listened to and trusted by virtue of standing at the front of a room. They are not an entitlement due to your position. These need to be earned. Forming the relationships that enable this to happen takes time, particularly when dealing with vulnerable children.

Relationships are a two way process, not only do children need to be able to trust the adults to learn from them. Equally, to deliver the curriculum effectively teachers need to understand the pupils in front of them. Simply to read from a PowerPoint and direct children to complete tasks may ‘cover’ the curriculum, but it will not support children to engage in or retain learning. This is the more subtle skill of the teacher that makes the difference. It is based in an understanding of the children in front of you and their needs.

The call for and belief in an army of volunteers as a way of solving the crisis in schools is part of a wilful disregard of what makes teaching effective. There are two crises here. One the short- term (hopefully) crisis of Covid and the longer term issue of staff retention in school. The call for volunteers feels the same as the response to the issue of ventilation in school which is fundamentally open a window. Both are like the standard primary school response to an injury ‘put a wet paper towel on it’. We know the paper towel works when the issue is a minor hurt, mostly of dignity, and a desire for attention. The paper towel does not solve or improve any major issue and worst sometimes it masks its severity. The issues of staffing require more than paper towels and volunteers. It needs a response based in an understanding and care of what makes effective teaching, not a cheap response that may fool some into thinking the issue is solved.

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