Maths teachers - a growing shortage. Is it a sign of things to come?

Miren Jayapal
14th October 2015 at 17:20

Subject Genius, Miren Jayapal, Shortage of maths teachers

In the ten years I have been a maths teacher I can think of only one where my department has not had to fill a vacancy. There are straightforward reasons for this. People move on, take promotions. They are typically also large departments, so more likely to be affected by staffing issues. However, recently the situation has grown significantly worse. My department has had to advertise for at least two teachers every year of the last few. In the previous academic year we had four vacancies to fill. This is not indicative of our school - most other departments do not have the same problem with hiring. Nor is it, I hope, us as the maths department putting people off. Most other schools in the area have at least one maths position filled by supply teachers.

This academic year has seen one of the biggest shortfalls in trainee teacher recruitment, across most subjects. Figures published for maths show an 11% disparity between the projected number of qualified teachers needed and those who have actually commenced a maths teacher training programme. Not included in this figure is the growing number of maths teachers who leave the profession after one or two years, which makes the situation even bleaker.

A simple reason for this has been commented on many times. That whipping boy we reserve a special brand of invective for in the staffroom, too often justly so: The Government. In the last five years they have made a profession, once deemed as one to aspire to, appear increasingly unattractive. Their pay cuts - freezes to ministers who conveniently forget about hundreds of years of inflationary theory - and attacks on pensions have been damning. So too have been ill-considered changes under the banner of ‘reform’ and the actions of a controversial education minister. We did well at the time to get our voice heard to the extent we did, but it is only really now that the full impact of this has come through in our staffing. Who knowingly wants to enter a career where you have to work longer and harder for less, being frequently maligned by the very people who should be upholding your profession?

For a subject like maths, that often struggles to staff properly aside from these influences, this is particularly acute. The repayment of student loans scheme for teachers of shortage subjects attracted many to the profession. A new generation of teachers emerged and maths departments across the country felt the impact. Sadly, this scheme only lasted three years and it was not long until the brief respite afforded by it was gone.

At a time when leading universities in the UK are bemoaning the lack of grounding in mathematics that undergraduates have, it is not surprising given the fact many schools struggle to appoint. If this trend continues it is likely that increasing numbers of pupils will be taught by non-specialists, who have not had the support or training to develop the rigorous mathematicians needed by our universities.

It would be interesting to know whether there is a difference between recruitment in urban and rural areas. As a teacher in London I have always been surprised by the shortage that exists in a city that attracts so many. Perhaps there is a straightforward explanation. Schools are in close proximity to one another, all vying for the same candidates. The wide variety of professions in London also means that qualified graduates have many options here. But there remains a sense that something else deters people, even those that dip their toe into teaching.

All too often decent maths teachers leave the profession after one or two years. The pressures outlined above do not inspire enough to consider it as a career. For those who depart wishing to stay in education there is the increasingly lucrative market of private tuition. Here they can teach their subject without the vast majority of demands made on them in the classroom and are largely impervious to the attack made upon teachers by the government. This is circular. The reality is that, in the role as a private tutor, they benefit from the shortage in schools. Parents who can afford to can turn to tuition to compensate for a perceived lack of decent teachers, feeding the cycle even more.

The process of filling a vacancy in the state sector illustrates the situation perfectly. Multiple rounds of advertising are needed to find one teacher. The concept of shortlisting viable candidates is becoming increasingly alien to maths departments. Frequently, there is only a handful of applications returned. Schools are forced to resort to long-term supply agencies, who in turn are becoming bolder in how they offer credible candidates to schools. Some attempt to incite bidding, asking for incentives that most schools cannot afford to give.

This shortage does affect independent schools, though is considerably more serious in the state sector. Independent schools have previously had less restrictions on who they employ. They can take on teachers without QTS and many have their own in-house versions of the Graduate Teacher Programme, which is sadly no longer an option for state schools. Some have strong links with universities and have the avenues to approach final year students and graduates directly for on-the-job training. They can also afford to pay generous starting salaries, that easily compete with other careers and that eclipse the state equivalents.

Many industries do well at graduate fairs in attracting candidates; their attractive salaries, internships and glossy brochures pique interest. No doubt there is a DfE stall for teacher training, but far more needs to be done to persuade suitable graduates to train as teachers, when faced with this competition.

Recently there has been a move to create more financial incentives for trainees. As a maths trainee a candidate will be given a bursary. Those in other shortage subjects are too. Whilst this is a step in the right direction, it is missing the point. The next academic year’s shortfall of qualified teachers illustrates that these incentives are not enough to overcome larger concerns people have about training.

As an ineffective DfE seeks to further denigrate schools in the years to come, people do not want to join an industry that has decreasing funding and ever harsher conditions imposed on it. Failing to have this situation considered with the gravity and scope it demands, we will see first-hand how pupils suffer in our schools as more and more subjects struggle to recruit.

There is the possibility that nothing needs to be done; that there is a tide of teachers waiting to enter the profession in the next few years. I fear not. The bottom line is that until teaching is perceived to be an attractive profession it will continue to suffer. The underlying shift of how it is valued needs to come from above. It should be treated as the esteemed and worthwhile career that it is.


Miren Jayapal is deputy head of maths at a school in London.