Besa director Patrick Hayes isn't convinced by the government's new-found discovery of edtech 

One of the most surprising aspects of the Department for Education (DfE) White Paper "Educational Excellence Everywhere" was its bold announcement that it had decided to move into educational technology.

Evidently tackling the teacher shortage and transforming every school into an academy on a shoestring budget wasn’t seen to be a challenge enough; the DFE seems to think it has the bandwidth and expertise to get on a par with some of the finest companies from Silicon Valley and, of course, London’s own Silicon Roundabout.

The White Paper announced not one, but two edtech projects. First, the launch of a free national teacher jobs board aimed at “transforming the current system”. The second was the launch of a new Parent Portal, a “one-stop-shop” that is aimed at helping parents, “support their child’s education and navigate the schools system”.

Investment required 'would be truly substantial'

Neither would be a straightforward task, and I write from experience about the challenge ahead of them with the first one, having until recently spent the best part of a decade at TES Global, which provides the market-leading jobs platform for teachers in the UK. The amount of investment that would need to go into the development of a cutting-edge platform that would meet the standards that both schools and teachers of the “LinkedIn generation” expect would be truly substantial.

picPatrickHayesBesa's Patrick Hayes: the Government is 'fiddling while Rome burns'Not only that, but it would also require significant expenditure to engage with 25,000 schools day in, day out; it would need to provide high levels of customer service to ensure it fulfils the crucial task of ensuring there are sufficient volumes of teachers in the classroom when the next term begins. Especially when they usually hand in their notices during short, defined windows of time throughout the year.

With a whole ecosystem of innovative platforms operating alongside TES Global, including Eteach, Talented Teacher Jobs, Education Support Professionals (ESP), TeachVac, Schools Week and the Guardian to name a few, it would take the development of a really ground-breaking product to stop teachers from visiting sites they’ve gone to their entire careers to find jobs. It would also require that the DfE signs off an astronomical marketing budget to get them there in the first place!

This decision also makes you question the historical memory of the DfE, as they have tried to launch a jobs platform before and fallen embarrassingly flat on their faces. The Schools Recruitment System (SRS) was launched in 2009 by the then schools minister Vernon Coaker MP in the final years of New Labour (see “New online recruitment 'will save £30m a year’”).

In language eerily similar to the White Paper, Coaker claimed at the time, “This is a watershed in how schools recruit staff. Too often recruiting staff takes up far too much time and is a costly, long-winded process. This harnesses innovative online technology to make it a painless, speedy and more cost efficient exercise.” The SRS cost an estimated £350,000 to build and, while it won a prestigious “Government Computing Award” soon after launch, it failed on two crucial fronts: it didn’t attract teachers, and schools didn’t post jobs on it.

Previous Government teacher jobs website only offered 40 jobs

Writing at the time of its closure, Education Investor observed that the platform typically had around 40 jobs on it; a drop in the ocean compared to the 70,000 teaching jobs that are advertised in the UK each year. The platform finally closed down in May 2012. The comment from the DfE at that time was striking. “As with lots of other policies, we no longer see it as the Government’s job to run this sort of centrally run service,” a spokesman said. “There might well be a continued online recruitment service for schools but it will be provided by the private sector or through councils.”

This was a statement made during the Coalition Government, when the Tories were tempered in their preferred approach of finding market-driven solutions by their Liberal Democrat partners. So it’s all the more surprising that, having explicitly rejected such centralisation during the Coalition Government a mere four years ago, the DfE should now decide to announce a return to such a centralised approach. Has Jeremy Corbyn managed to surreptitiously hijack the White Paper?

One of the most worrying aspects of this proposal is that it is being made at a time when the worst teacher shortage in living memory is having a severe impact upon UK schools. Year after year the government has missed its recruitment targets, with graduates increasingly choosing to take jobs in the private sector instead now the economy has picked up.

And why wouldn’t they? The DfE, up until recently, had frozen the starting salary of new teachers so that it now stands at an average of £5,000 less than other jobs in the market, and that only comes after a year of training. This saddles aspiring teachers with further debt on top of the student loans they can barely hope to pay off by the time they retire.

'Teachers are leaving the profession in unprecedented numbers'

Furthermore, existing teachers are leaving the profession in unprecedented numbers. A Guardian survey of more than 4,000 teachers recently found that 43 per cent of state-school teachers in England plan to leave the profession in the next five years. A total of 98 per cent say they are "under increasing pressure" and 82 per cent reportedly describe their workload as "unmanageable".

These teachers aren’t looking for new jobs because they don’t know where to search for them online. They are, often deeply reluctantly, exiting the profession because they simply can’t handle the workload. It’s this issue that the Government urgently needs to address; dabbling in edtech with the launch of a jobs board should be way, way down its priorities list at the present time.

The fact that the idea of a centrally run jobs board is being revived so soon after the miserable demise of its predecessor, suggests that there is a worrying element of fiddling while Rome burns. We simply cannot afford for this to continue at a time when we need decisive action to prevent the teacher shortage becoming ever-more pronounced.

Patrick Hayes is director of the BESA (the British Educational Suppliers’ Association). You can follow Besa on Twitter – @BesaTweet     
www.besa.org.uk