How to avoid a looming staff shortage

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Despite government efforts to the contrary, the number of teachers entering the profession is dropping each year, while those leaving only ever seems to increase. We ask: can anything be done to avert the crisis?


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The number of people entering teacher training in 2014 fell short of predicted demand for the third year running, according to data released by the Department for Education. The figures showed that primary school training courses recruited only 93 per cent of their target last year, while secondary programmes recruited just 91 per cent of their target. In December last year, Ofsted warned that the number of new teachers has dropped by 16 per cent in the last five years, with 8,000 fewer trainees in secondary schools alone.

This concerning deficit comes in spite of a recent flurry of government initiatives intended to make the profession more attractive to potential trainees – including specialist training to help raise the quality of teaching in schools, schemes to attract more postgraduates (in particular maths and physics teachers), as well as researchers and career-changers, and extensive retraining for non-specialist teachers.

The scheme to recruit 17,500 maths and physics teachers alone has a hefty price tag of £67 million. But according to Brian Lightman, head of the ASCL, applicants are actually being put off a career in teaching due to the complexity of entry routes, with recent initiatives acting as a barrier to recruitment, rather than a driver for it. Could he be right?

A crisis of teacher supply

Currently, aspiring teachers can gain entry to the profession through five different routes. These are: School Direct, Troops to Teachers, Teach First, School-Centred Initial Teacher Training and the traditional post-graduate route. Confusingly, the training and methods of each option vary, although the entry requirements are all the same.

Mr Lightman said: ‘We recognise the value of having a variety of routes into teaching... Different people are suited to different approaches. But it is an issue at the moment that people have found it very confusing to understand how to go about getting into teaching, and it has not always been obvious to them where they should look for objective advice about all the different routes.’

The demand for full-time teaching staff is high, but the challenge for schools looking to recruit is not the vacancies – in fact, one company recorded a 200 per cent year-on-year increase in permanent education placements at the start of this academic year – but finding candidates of sufficient quality and experience to fill them.

Mr Lightman explained: ‘Many schools all over the country report great difficulties in recruiting trainee teachers of the right calibre, newly qualified teachers in specialist subject areas, and also recruiting people into more senior posts, especially heads of departments in core subjects.’

He added: ‘It is also particularly difficult to recruit people in challenging schools.’

And it gets worse. Record numbers of new teachers are leaving the profession within a year of qualifying, according to analysis of official figures by teachers’ union ATL. The latest numbers, for 2011, show just 62 per cent of newly qualified teachers were still in teaching a year later – a steep drop from 2005 when 80 per cent were still teaching after a year.

‘That's almost 11,000 qualified teachers never entering the profession – taking work elsewhere,’ said ATL general secretary Mary Boustead. ‘Work with better pay and reasonable workload.’

She continued: ‘Why are we losing the next generation of teachers - that new blood for the profession which should be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, full of promise and ambition? Is it, I wonder, because trainee and newly qualified teachers see very early on just what teaching has become and decide that they do not want to be a part of it? Is it that they learn as they work with exhausted and stressed colleagues that teaching has become a profession which is incompatible with a normal life?’

In 2014, it was discovered that 40 per cent of teachers leave the profession within five years – something Ofsted Chief Sir Michael Wilshaw described as a ‘national scandal’. In March this year, a survey by teachers’ union NASUWT found 76 per cent of teachers are ‘seriously considering’ leaving their job. Why? NASUWT cited stress.

Where can we find more teachers?

A source of contention within the Coalition, and a prominent issue during the election, was the Tory-backed scrapping of the requirement for teachers to be qualified in order to be permanently employed in schools.

In December, Labour education spokesman Tristram Hunt said there are now 17,100 unqualified teachers in state-funded schools – a rise of 16 per cent in the past year. In academies and free schools, the number stands at 7,900 – a rise of 50 per cent since Gove’s legislation in 2012.

Labour pledged to reverse this decision if they came into power, and even threatened to fire unqualified teachers if they hadn’t at least begun training for Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) by the end of the next parliament. We can assume however, with the Conservative majority, that schools will continue to be able to hire teachers without QTS to teach in their classrooms. At the moment, only 3.7 per cent of teachers are ‘unqualified’ – could, as Nicky Morgan suggests, ‘nuns, great linguists, computer scientists, engineers and other specialists that inspire their pupils’ be a viable option for schools struggling to recruit?

Another possible solution is to take advantage of the well-qualified, English-speaking teachers who want to work here and hire teachers from overseas. Teachers from the EU automatically have QTS status, although this does not necessarily make them a desirable hire – especially if their language skills will adversely affect communication or if their understanding of the UK curriculum is limited. As a result, some schools are reluctant to hire teachers from the EU. This is perhaps understandable from the schools’ point of view, but it does mean recruiters are having to recommend EU teachers take voluntary or TA roles as a way of acclimatising with the school system here.

Another spanner in the works is that agencies can no longer apply for work permits for non EU teachers – this has to be done by the school employing them, placing an even greater administrative burden on the school.

The upshot of all this is that if the full time placement doesn’t work out for whatever reason, then their right to work is revoked, and they have to go through the whole visa application process again – and meanwhile, the system loses a qualified and potentially experienced teacher.

What can we expect from the new government?

In their manifesto, the Conservatives recognised the need to attract more teachers to the profession. They promised to introduce bursaries for the most in-demand subjects, while also encouraging the growth of Teach First. They also recognised the need to keep the best teachers on board, pledging to cut time spent on paperwork, pay good teachers more, and further reduce the burden of Ofsted inspections (no specifics here as of yet).

Any initiative that makes teaching more attractive is to be welcomed – perhaps especially those aimed at reducing teacher workload and encourage a healthier work-life balance, which may serve to attract former teachers back to the profession. However, too many initiatives related to entering the profession will only serve to further confuse and alienate potential candidates. 

There are jobs out there to be filled, and providing clear, objective advice about the many routes into teaching, ensuring extended support to NQTs to get them through their first few years, and smoothing the way for qualified English-speaking teachers to work in UK schools would go a very long way to filling them.

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