Time Up for the Times Ed?

The Times Educational Supplement

Relaunched as a magazine this week, the once essential read for teachers has a fresh new look but can a makeover save the day?

Time was when the aspiring teacher was instructed to read the TES each week. Before I started teacher training, I bought it religiously for a year, following slavishly the standard advice to read it and get up to speed on educational issues. And read it I did: cover to cover, national and international news, features, reports, numerous pieces on educational philosophies and the politics of schools, teaching tips, reviews and, of course, page after page of job advertisements.

Then something went wrong. How long ago, I’m not sure, but grew and grew it did before becoming unwieldy: two or three magazines, a mountain of job supplements, pull outs and badly divided sections. Something had to be done. But successive attempts to improve this once venerable institution seemed to fail miserably, and changes of owner, with the paper leaving the News International fold, actually saw it worsen. A new magazine seemed to have more white space than solid journalism. Gossip and ‘human interest’ replaced serious debate. The paper was cut in size, too far most would say. And, gnawing at the back of the mind, was the increasingly pertinent question – why actually read it when most of the jobs are advertised online anyway?

With such a thin level of content, it is not surprising that the circulation plummeted. A report in The Independent in 2006 claimed that the TES‘s circulation was declining by 10% each year (and suggested that in ten years time it might be a magazine) and reported that over £1 million had been invested in a relaunch, targeting young, female readers. Five years later and the paper still seems to smack of desperation for readers: my current subscription costs less than a pound a week; I struggle to see how such low sums can even cover costs, let alone add to profits. And, grammar school teacher that I am, I am always aware of a Guardian-type bias to its coverage.

This week, following TES Scotland, the English edition of the TES  has been launched as a glossy magazine. My initial impression is good: it is well designed, focused, modern yet aware of its heritage. Photographs are used less wastefully; the wider page format allows for a clean and clear layout. Inevitably production constraints caused by the move to magazine format seems to mean more features and less news. Inside, a pull out section of a smaller size – supposedly for keeping – coverAssessment for Learning, claiming it is now ‘here to stay’: as a format, this section works; as a topic, it feels tired. Jobs continue to be in a tabloid newspaper format, in the confusing array of supplements.

Which is not to say that in many ways the new format is not a real feast for teachers. Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas and panellist on Radio 4’s The Moral Maze, writes provocatively about our summer of riots; Bernard Trafford, an independent school head, attacks the move to make Maths compulsory post-16; one well written feature, over several pages, analyses how under-performing teachers can be best dealt with. Deal with the politics – or rather the all too often one sided nature of the politics – and there’s the making of the Times Educational Supplement returning to its glory days. Indeed, whatever its flaws, it needs to be on every teacher’s reading list: even the quickest of glances saves the reader from the insularism which too often characterises schools.

But, as with any newspaper or magazine, will it still be here in twenty years’ time? Or even ten? A paid ipad app and a decent website, funded by a small subscription, might actually be what’s needed. Teachers tend to have access to IT both at work and at home – it’s pretty much an essential of the job these days – and most searching for a change of job head straight for the website, particularly if under the age of forty. Web publication is not as easy as initially predicted, but perhaps, given that the current website receives 1.5 million hits a week, the owners of the TES should have been just that bit more radical, stepped out into the unknown, ditched the paper edition and invested in a decent online version which will last another hundred years.