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More young people are interested in teaching than we might think: we need action on both recruitment and diversification

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 20 December 2023

Secondary school students in dark blue uniform jumpers holding up hands in class.Emily MacLeod

Earlier this month, the Department for Education (DfE) posted its 2023/24 Initial Teacher Training Census, revealing that only half the required secondary postgraduate teachers needed were recruited into teacher education in the last year. This marks the tenth time in the last eleven years that England’s overall new teacher recruitment targets have been missed. These dire statistics on recruitment have made headlines and call into question the effectiveness of policies to address this problem.

So, do people really not want to become teachers? My doctoral research indicates that it’s not all doom and gloom. I found that many more young people are more open to pursuing teaching than is indicated in teacher recruitment data. However, as for the profile of the existing teacher workforce, those who think they might want to teach most often identify as White and as women. With this in mind, it seems that recruitment efforts should not only focus on increasing the number of teachers, but more work must be done to make teaching attractive and accessible to those who are underrepresented in the current workforce.

Despite a wealth of research into why existing teachers chose the profession (such as applications of the FIT-Choice scale), to date very little research has sampled those who have yet to decide on their career. In my study, I analysed over 60,000 survey responses from the ASPIRES research project here at IOE, which has tracked young people’s career aspirations from age 10/11 to age 21/22. Especially given that England’s teacher workforce is amongst the youngest in the world, these young people – many of whom were yet to embark upon the world of work – are what I call ‘potential future teachers’.

First, I found that, on average, 5% of young people between the ages of 10/11 and 21/22 surveyed for the ASPIRES project reported that they aspired to become a teacher when asked to write what job, or jobs, they wanted in the future. These analyses represent the first known examination of who is interested to become a teacher at different ages in England, and paint a potentially promising picture for teacher supply. These data also suggest, however, that many young people who aspire to teach do not pursue teaching as a first career.

Strikingly, I also found that more than one third (36%) of the young people surveyed between the ages of 13/14 and 21/22 agreed or strongly agreed with the statement ‘I would like to work with children or be a teacher’. This suggests that many young people are open to the idea of becoming a teacher, even if it is not their explicit aspiration. In this way, I suggest that teaching is a common backup, or second-choice (or third or fourth choice…), career aspiration for many.

On one hand, the apparent popularity of teaching as a backup career is bad news for those of us interested in increasing teacher recruitment. It demonstrates that those who could help to plug the need for more teachers would prefer to first try their luck in non-teaching careers. On the other hand, there is promise in these data. It suggests that young people represent a pool of potential teachers, if we can make teaching more attractive and accessible to them.

So who should recruitment efforts be targeted at? When analysing these data by gender and ethnicity, I found that young women were significantly more likely than boys and young men to be open to teaching at all ages between 13/14 and 21/22. I also found that young people who identified as White were significantly more likely than respondents who identified as Minoritised Ethnicities to be open to teaching at ages 13/14, 15/16 and 17/18.

This patterning of openness to teaching by gender and ethnicity is perhaps unsurprising given that 76% of England’s teacher workforce identify as women, and 85% of the workforce identify as White British. Nevertheless, it highlights a secondary issue relating to England’s teacher shortages: that of diversity. In particular, although teaching aspirations are not necessarily predictive of becoming a teacher, this patterning indicates that the teaching workforce is likely to remain dominated by White women in the future unless there are targeted efforts to change this status quo. At present, policy efforts focus on increasing recruitment by subject area rather than aiming to diversify teacher recruitment. It is good to see the Commons Education Committee highlighting this issue in the terms of reference for its ongoing inquiry into teacher recruitment, training and retention; hopefully the recommendations it makes can add impetus to diversification as well as more effective policy on recruitment.

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