Recruitment targets not met. Unsuccessful bursary schemes. Alarming retention rates. What can be done to answer the teacher recruitment and retention crisis?
Over the next six years, the Department of Education forecasts that pupil numbers are set to increase by almost twenty per cent. A 2017 report found that over the previous five years, the number of school children in classes of 36 or more pupils had trebled. Many schools across the UK regularly have classes of forty pupils or more.
Set amongst this bleak vista, only 80 per cent of the required number of secondary trainees were recruited last year. Make no bones about it, we are in the midst of significant teacher shortages.
The days when a teaching career was seen as amongst the most aspirational in society appear to be over. Today, the best brains go to banking, financial services and the like. This isn’t the case in every country, however. In other European countries, particularly those in the Nordic region, teachers are highly valued.
Few people would argue that school teachers aren’t vital to the future of our country. Arguably, teaching is the most important profession in society. For if we are to create future leaders, doctors, carers and teachers, we need the best minds training young people, from primary school to sixth form.
So why are we experiencing recruitment problems for teachers in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?
Do we need to pay teachers more?
One of the biggest issues for many teachers in the UK is the combination of a heavy workload and low pay.
To counter this, bursaries have been introduced. Since they were implemented in 2001, they’ve not had the desired impact. In almost every subject, we have fewer teachers than we need, especially in secondary schools. This situation is even more critical in STEM subjects.
According to a recent analysis of Department of Education Data, just 80 per cent of teachers awarded the highest bursaries of £25,000+ — awarded to graduates with a first-class degree in chemistry, computing, maths and foreign languages — entered the profession.
Even with an attractive bursary, a reasonable starting salary, and desire from schools to hire talent, the proposition of a career in teaching doesn’t seem to be able to attract the necessary numbers. A concerning prospect with pupil numbers on the rise.
Is the answer better salaries? According to the National Education Union, as teachers, we are £5,000 a year worse off today than we were in 2010. A 2018 Business Insider article exploring the best secondary education starting salaries, found that the UK wasn’t amongst the 17 countries listed. From Luxembourg to Costa Rica, teachers are paid more than we are here. Though teachers did recently receive a 3.5 per cent salary increase, it won’t make a huge difference for most.
It’s not completely clear that more money will attract more teachers, especially considering the impact of bursaries that we’ve seen thus far. Teachers working today still feel undervalued. Speak to teachers working today, however, and the main problem cited is not money, but workload.
Teacher workloads: wherein the problem lies?
As Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders states, the lack of new teachers is a “serious and urgent issue” caused by “high workload” and “unrealistic hoops.”
Though teaching is one of the most rewarding careers one can choose, teachers regularly bemoan unrealistic workloads. 82% of teachers say their workload is unmanageable. From league tables to Ofsted, marking to lesson planning, the reasons cited for workload pressure rarely come from unruly students or bemoaning parents.
Teacher-Voice Omnibus research from 2016 suggests that 47 per cent of senior leaders and classroom teachers felt that their school had done nothing to evaluate and reduce unnecessary workload.
As we struggle to attract new talent to the profession, logic suggests that we are likely to see class sizes continue to rise. This will only exacerbate the issue of teacher workload.
If a heavy workload is a primary reason why we’re struggling to attract talent to schools, what can be done to reduce it? When we spoke to some of the teachers who work with Celsian Education, asking what are some simple steps that could be taken to reduce workload, they expressed a wish for less repetitive meetings, more planning periods during the week, and better management when it comes to parent evenings.
Whilst this is the response from a tiny cross-section of teachers in the UK, it offers some suggestion that small changes could make a big difference. All three of those aspects could be implemented relatively easily.
But even with these in place, it’s unlikely to solve the recruitment and retention problem. Teachers are not only hard to hire, they’re also leaving UK schools in droves.
Teacher retention — the obstinate obstacle?
According to a recent YouGov poll, 53 per cent of teachers are considering leaving the profession. Teachers who have been in the profession for a number of years have a wealth of knowledge and experience to pass on to new entries, potentially smoothening the transition from trainee to teacher, which in turn could keep them teaching for longer.
Added pressure from changing curriculums and league table rankings don’t help either. Recent updates to the Ofsted system may make a difference in this regard, but in terms of exam results tables, rating schools against each other has a knock-on effect for teachers.
For example, an outstanding teacher in a school which underachieves at exam time inevitably places a portion of the blame on themselves. Even if they’ve managed to vastly improve teaching standards and methods in their lessons.
Stressed professionals do not equal productive or happy professionals, no matter what profession we’re discussing. And for teachers to provide the best education for our children, and to remain within the profession, they need to be content. 97 per cent of teachers believe a school should be as much about encouraging a love of learning as exam results.
If teachers are to create such an environment, they need to have less pressure, a reduced workload, and greater freedom to pass on their subject knowledge to future generations.