Why does no one want to be a teacher?

Teacher supply shortages, specifically in STEM subjects, remains a well-documented and growing issue. However, the Government has been reluctant to accept that there is a problem with recruitment and retention; ministers have frequently denied that insufficient numbers of new teachers are being trained, with £700 million a year spent on teacher training, and have even argued that ‘there has never been a better time to be a teacher’.

In spite of the confidence from the Government, the Department for Education (DfE) has reported that targets for recruitment to Initial Teacher Training (ITT) were missed this year for the fifth consecutive year, with nearly all targets for specific secondary subjects being missed. Barriers to reaching these targets are manifold. The impossibility of reconciling public sector pay – which will increase as the 1% cap is set to be lifted – with the competitive wages present in the graduate labour market is a key hindrance to recruiting top graduates. Arguably, the lack of a centralised application system is another deterrent to prospective teachers and leads to inefficiencies in placements. Although the Conservative manifesto proposes to implement a free-to-use, online national portal to advertise teaching vacancies, some schools may identify advertising costs as a notable burden at a time of financial hardship.

In recent years there has been a shift from higher education-based ITT routes to school-led ones such as School Direct and Teach First which have struggled to attract and retain candidates. School Direct programmes have consistently missed their recruitment targets since their introduction. Teach First may have proved successful in attracting a number of graduates who may not have considered the profession, but retention is low, with 60% leaving the profession within five years, it also costs £14,000 more per trainee than any other route.

Interventions from the DfE to boost teacher supply have been limited; and those that have materialised have been largely unsuccessful. Aside from the money spent on training new teachers – including £15,000 bursaries in STEM subjects – the DfE has introduced schemes to encourage retirees, former service personnel and women who have taken career breaks, to enter the classroom; all small programmes that have had minimal impact on the market. It also attempted to create a National Teaching Service last year, intended to secure high-quality teachers for schools in areas of the country where recruitment and retention has proved most challenging. The programme was abandoned when the pilot scheme resulted in just 24 teachers accepting placements. Crucially, none of the interventions outlined addresses the fundamental issue of the supply and demand problem and have been focused almost exclusively on recruitment.

Such a strategy is akin to sticking a plaster over an amputation. The real issue is retention.

The profession has an exceptionally high churn rate. Approximately a quarter of teachers who have trained between 2011 and 2015 have left the profession. When looking at those who trained in 2011 alone, 31% have left. In 2014, 73% of those leaving went to other jobs rather than retiring, a proportion on the rise according to the National Audit Office. The teaching unions have been forthright in their view that the “toxic mix” of increasing workloads, stress and the 1% pay rise cap is causing the increase in drop-outs from the profession (Dr Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers). Workloads are growing due to pressures from Ofsted, tasks set by school leaders, working to local or school-level policies, and the recent succession of national policy changes according to the Government’s response to Nicky Morgan’s ‘Workload Challenge’.

Whilst improving retention rates is evidently a cost-effective way to manage teacher supply shortages, how to achieve it is another question, and one to which the Government does not currently have a clear answer. Justine Greening has spoken of the need to improve professional development for teachers – a key recommendation of the Education Select Committee’s work – but a comprehensive strategy for improving retention appears still to be some way off. This is due to a failure to collect enough granular data on retention rates by region, subject or recruitment route and thus the Government cannot inform any effectual investment or intervention strategies.

The teacher supply shortage has occurred not only in the context of the difficulties set out above, but also as schools face financial constraints that are almost unprecedented in recent history. A growing population means that demand for teachers is growing, but the Government’s decision not to provide real-terms protection for per-pupil school funding means that increasing numbers of pupils have stretched resources. When the forthcoming national funding formula is thrown into the mix alongside the structural changes that have occurred in the school system over recent years, with a sharp growth in the number of academies and multi-academy trusts, there are now widespread concerns that schools are struggling to manage their finances effectively and make efficient procurement decisions.

Until the Government is prepared to grasp the nettle on recruitment and retention, there will be a need for agencies, advertisers and others in the recruitment market to help schools ensure that they have the right teachers in place.

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