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The workforce crisis in schools: evidence isn’t enough

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 3 April 2023

Teachers carrying NEU flags and placards reading "A wet paper and towel won't fix it"; "I don't want to be the next extinct species".

NEU demonstration in Norwich, February 2023. Credit: Roger Blackwell via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

by Sal Riordan.

Teachers are in the news, striking for better pay and working conditions. Whatever you think about the rights or wrongs of that—at the start of the action a slim majority of Brits supported it — it’s hard to ignore the country’s teacher workforce crisis. National Education Union (NEU) members have just rejected the government’s pay offer, triggering two further days of strikes.

This is as the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has again highlighted high vacancy rates in schools. In the same week, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) invited research proposals on teacher recruitment and retention, a funding call that was supported by an evidence review conducted by the Centre for Teachers and Teaching Research (CTTR) here at IOE. By the end of the week, the Commons Education Committee had opened an inquiry into teacher recruitment, training and retention, asking for evidence on the challenges and impact on pupils to be submitted in a short time-frame.

It is an issue of importance and urgency to us all in education, researchers, practitioners and policy-makers alike: there are not enough teachers in schools. But this isn’t obviously an issue of evidence. Each round of data publications brings little surprise in educational circles, while the challenges of teacher recruitment and retention have been well-evidenced and understood for some time.

A well-known and evidenced problem

It is a long-held political mantra that the quality of an education system rests on the quality of its teachers and their practice; seasoned readers will remember the oft cited 2007 report from McKinsey. But in England we have been failing in the very first step of putting and keeping teachers in classrooms.

A third of teachers leave the classroom within five years of qualifying. Once gone, teachers don’t return (there is estimated to be around 350,000 trained teachers not in service). The result? A greater use of non-specialist, less experienced, unqualified or temporary teachers, larger class sizes, and reductions to curriculum options. There are regional and subject variations (the East Midlands, East of England and West Midlands, STEM subjects and modern languages fare worst), and additional challenges for schools serving disadvantaged communities or with low Ofsted ratings. Even in schools finding teacher recruitment the least difficult, over 25% have non-specialist teachers covering Physics and Maths and 14% for MFL.

Many research projects and partial solutions have been dedicated to exploring these challenges. As just one recent example, at the CTTR we have been evaluating a programme to keep early career physics teachers in the profession. As a result of projects of this kind, there exists a mass of information regarding the situation prior to COVID-19, and the growing crisis that it has snowballed into since.

Reaching crisis point

As there is not a ready supply of other sources of teachers, the pipeline of student teachers directly affects schools’ supply of teachers. Targets to recruit trainee teachers have been missed for years. Since 2015, the only exception to this was the ‘COVID bump’ of 2020/21. The consequences of training insufficient teachers over many years have been accumulating. For the 2022/23 school year, recruitment of trainee teachers fell to 29% below target overall, 41% below target for secondary, and an eye-watering 83% below target for physics. Teach First has just signed up its smallest cohort in four years.

On top of this, a new pressure is about to be unleashed on teacher recruitment. There is a risk that the net impact of the government’s Market Review of ITE provision is a loss of training capacity. The Education Policy Institute (EPI) has crunched the numbers, noting that 68 organisations have lost their accreditation to train teachers from 2024. These providers are currently training 4,491 teachers, 16% of this year’s cohort and including 605 STEM teachers. Depending on how the new system, including newly accredited providers, beds in, the loss of these established providers risks creating geographical ‘cold spots’ for teacher training, including in the East of England, an area that already struggles the most to recruit teachers.

Meanwhile, the number of vacancies in schools has also hit new highs. Data collected by TeachVac, a teacher job board, shows that schools posted almost double the vacancies in the last school year in comparison to before the pandemic. COVID-19 has played its part in this crisis in numerous ways, not least because teachers report they are dealing with more challenging pupil behaviour.

What it is like to be a teacher

Teachers are asking for more pay and better working conditions. We know lots of ways in which teachers’ working lives can and should be made easier. Teachers’ pay is lower in real terms than in 2010/11 and has lost competitiveness, especially for experienced teachers. Workload for teachers in England is high: on one measure teachers’ working hours stand at 46 hours per week compared to 41 hours for equivalent professionals. In another study, full-time teachers and middle leaders reported working 52.9 hours in the week surveyed. Reducing workload, increasing autonomy, improving progression opportunities, increasing respect, and more flexible working conditions have all been reported to the Department for Education as ways to make teaching a more attractive profession. Recently, the government introduced a new two-year professional development programme that was intended to provide new teachers with a better start to their career. It was the right idea, but the reality of teachers’ working lives is not something we can change with any one such intervention alone, and interventions can too often be too fleeting or too weak. All these aspects of an appealing working life for teachers—respect, autonomy, good pay, fair workload—might be naturally and already embedded in teaching if wider societal attitudes to accountability, exams, and the role of a teacher were different. This perhaps requires all of us—policy-makers in particular—to understand what it is like to be a teacher. We should pay more heed and credence to the evidence we already have and to what teachers are saying about the realities of being a teacher.

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2 Responses to “The workforce crisis in schools: evidence isn’t enough”

  • 1
    Rosemary Davis wrote on 3 April 2023:

    While I don’t lIke to see teachers striking, I understand what lies behind it. Pay rises have been awarded but the cost taken out of a school’s budget, resulting in further loss of teachers and morale.
    Good teachers work many hours longer than their contracted hours. Again, this contributes to teacher burnout and loss of morale.
    A better funded system needs to be found

  • 2
    Mary Kerr wrote on 5 April 2023:

    Be assured, teachers don’t like to see it either – no one wants to strike. Unfortunately this is the last step of a long string of negotiations which have failed to get through to governments