How speed-dating on the Isle of Sheppey might save education

In last week’s Education Select Committee, an issue was raised regarding the spread of highly effective teachers. Loic Menzies raise the point that teaching in London schools serving the most disadvantaged pupils is commonly rated as good or outstanding. Schools serving disadvantaged populations elsewhere in the country, however, have much lower rates of good or outstanding teaching.

Now, highly effective teachers might be a different thing to highly effective teaching. But I’m making a leap of faith and assuming most teachers who bring about good results will do so in any environment. Yet, if that’s true: why are there more highly effective teachers working in London than elsewhere?

A further twist to this puzzle was added at the committee by Graham Stuart MP. He noted that even with the extra cash tacked onto wages, London teachers are relatively poorer because of the high cost of living and the higher median gross income of professionals in the city. With this in mind it then seems extraordinary that London would is attracting “the best” teachers given that they could be economically better off elsewhere.

This would be extraordinary except that education has a “2-body” problem or as Becky Allen called it:

Most teachers are in relationships with a partner who is not a teacher. If that non-teacher partner works (which they are likely to do, especially when couples don’t have children) then there is a need for the couple to live somewhere offering good employment opportunities for the teacher and the non-teacher. Given that teachers also tend to be well-educated, and well-educated people tend to be in relationships with other well-educated people, it is likely that the non-teacher will want some kind of ‘professional’ or graduate-level employment. The likelihood of getting this sort of employment in many rural, coastal, and even some suburban, areas is quite low.

This is a common problem faced by new TeachFirsters sent to work in a small town. I know this because I lent my parents to a few of them. Though no schools in my hometown employ TeachFirsters, some schools in St.Helen’s do (St Helen’s is about 3 miles from our doorstep). Now, as much as I heart St. H (it’s my mum’s hometown) there aren’t many graduates who decide it is the ideal place from which to forge a professional career. Hence, when TF sends its handful of intrepid teachers into the area, those graduates often move there with no friends, no family and a boyfriend or girlfriend who may struggle to find a career in the area so decides not to come along for the ride and instead jets off to a big city. (Hence, I lend out my parents, for tea and sympathetic listening).

While most participants make a valiant effort to get through their two years, there is then the lurking issue of a long-distance relationship, or an itchy-footed partner, or the friends and families calling from elsewhere meaning that Year 3 almost always involves a move elsewhere. And remember, this is in St. Helen’s, which at least has Liverpool or Manchester within an hour’s reach. When the school is in Accrington, or Halifax, or the Isle of Sheppey, you’ve got an even bigger problem.

And before anyone starts to suggest that this is a TeachFirst specific problem, or thinks that I am saying only TeachFirsters are excellent teachers, that’s not at all my point (I’m just using TF as an illustrative example because it’s neat and it’s what I know best). First, this issue haunts all graduate pathways. People who leave smaller communities and go off to university tend not to return home to teach in their home towns. Bright students who go to Northern universities still have an annoying tendency to schlep South (sometimes stopping at Manchester or Birmingham, if we’re lucky). Secondly, while there are many fantastic teachers in ‘non-metropolitan’ communities, there simply aren’t enough of them. Because of this the suggestion is that teachers can be spread around like confetti. To my knowledge, TeachFirst is one of the only programmes that (somewhat randomly) assigns people all across the country so knowing why its participants rebound back to cities is useful before we replicate its approach.

So, what are the solutions to the uneven spread? Golden handshakes and handcuffs have been tried in the past, but cost tends to outweigh benefits. There are also limited benefits of helping people buy homes, or building professional associations, or promoting teachers in these areas quickly and supporting them into management. And the reason why these don’t work is clear: it doesn’t resolve the 2-body problem.

Which really only leaves the one solution proffered by @xtophercook on Twitter this evening: Maybe it is time to get them all to go speed-dating?

Hmmmm…. any other ideas?!

I wrote a book! With Drew Povey (from Educating Manchester)! It’s called The Leadership Factor, and it’s short, and cheesy, but funny. Get it here.

10 thoughts on “How speed-dating on the Isle of Sheppey might save education

  1. And here lies the answer to why WWCB are failing – the small towns (and I am thinking Folkstone, Clacton etc) do not offer anything for me as a teacher with a civilian (non-teaching) husband; no jobs for him but in reality no jobs for the local community either outside of local government. How do you rally and inspire children to achieve and aim higher when there isn’t a labour market for young people to enter once they leave school? And keeping them in until 17 years old and timetabled to 5pm isn’t the answer either.

  2. Although I work with research, my opinions here are purely anecdotal… My husband is a teacher, who ‘trailed’ me after I got a job in the civil service in London. He previously taught in a poor performing school in Sandwell – and wasn’t sure he wanted to continue teaching after receiving little support, working in a school which was put into special measures. London schools have completely changed his outlook; he loves his job, has had 2 promotions in 4 years, has a really supportive network of peers who now teach in a range of different schools. He’s clear that the teachers and the students (however deprived) in London are very different – and much as we loved living in Birmingham, which has great museums and culture; the students he taught (5 miles from the city centre) had very different life experiences than his students in inner London.

  3. Since one of the top reasons teachers report leaving a school is dissatisfaction with the administration, we need to provide the speed dating service to administrators first. Instead of importing administrators to crack down on teachers and shake things up in failing schools, maybe it would be better to attract administrators from successful schools by setting them up with some good-looking locals who can lead them to fall in love with the area instead of blowing in to use the area as their professional stepping stone.

  4. Hi Laura
    Thanks, this is interesting, I hope you don’t mind if I get my metaphorical red pen out. It’s all meant in good heart.
    There are a number of issues with this. Firstly, I think you need to tighten up some of the claims and assertions you make. Just as an example, what do you mean by ‘good and outstanding teaching’? Recently there have been more doubts cast over Ofsted lesson observations as a mechanism for assessing teaching; it might be more meaningful to consider the school and its leadership and culture as a whole.
    Secondly, there’s a terminology issue. Using both ‘2-body problem’ and ‘trailing spouse’ to describe personal relationships is problematic, for various reasons that I won’t go into here but hopefully are apparent. There’s also a risk (which I’m sure you didn’t intend) that older, more experienced teachers working anywhere but London are presented as deficient. Your blog title doesn’t help.
    I absolutely take your point about the difference between urban and rural lifestyle and opportunities. A quick search suggests, however, that this is a very common and persistent issue across the world:,,contentMDK:21706317~pagePK:64168445~piPK:64168309~theSitePK:4783066,00.html
    The last one, about Romania, is particularly interesting and I’ll come back to it.
    Where am I up to? Thirdly or possible fourthly, you say this isn’t about Teach First specifically, and I acknowledge that it’s a phenomenon common amongst young professionals, but I think this is something which is a particular issue with Teach First, and it goes to the heart of the programme, which is based on a mission and therefore its participants take on a ‘missionary’ aspect, in the sense of being sent off ‘into the wild’ to do good things, to various parts of the country without much control. I interviewed a Teach First mentor in the North of England, she felt TF participants were until more pressure than other trainees as “they will just send you anywhere in the country. I find myself saying to people that they can’t have a life or any kind of baggage, because [with Teach First] life can’t get in the way.” This links to another issue with Teach First, which I won’t go into here except to suggest that the programme has something of the ‘sugar-fix’ solution about it, rather than a Dutch land reclamation strategy. Maybe I’ll explain that slightly bizarre mixed metaphor another time.
    As for solutions, I don’t like the speed-dating idea. For one thing, you can’t legislate for love. But perhaps, like the article about Romania, you can do something about the quality of support (mentoring, management, school leadership) that young teachers get; provide greater opportunities for CPD and peer-to-peer professional networks (which you mention); and ultimately, building the capacity of the young people in that region to become teachers in their own communities…? It’s a bit like MPs – you’d rather have someone who is part of the social fabric than someone who’s been parachuted in. What do you think?
    Thanks Laura

  5. Yes, this issue was raised also at a CFBT Education Trust seminar on Why London schools are so successful, by Tim Leunig, an adviser to David Laws, who is married to a Graduate ,who happens to be a qualified Actuary. His employment plans are informed by whether there are any suitable jobs for his spouse in a particular area . It may come as a surprise to some but there is no great demand for Actuaries in certain areas of the country . Given that London is wealthier than most other areas and has more job opportunities for the professions,London can , more easily attract a pool of good teachers and Heads, including of course trailing spouses .. You need a critical mass of good teachers, mentors and leaders to drive through reforms. It would seem doubtful that some areas and cities (without mentioning any names) could act as such a magnet -so that might be a factor that works against ,for example, using the London Challenge model to drive system wide improvements in other areas as Professional Capital may be in short supply . Its also worth noting too, in relation to context, that the Challenge was given ring fenced funding and the deprived Boroughs that were initially targeted were getting wealthier throughout the period the Challenge was in operation…..

  6. I love this post Laura – great to see the under-recognised (but genuinely very important) issues being addressed too. Dating is the best solution I can see so far, but I’d love to hear more.

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