Case study: the Stem teacher crisis

The UK is suffering from a chronic shortage of teachers in science, technology, engineering and maths. As headteachers struggle to plug the gaps, Zofia Niemtus looks at the problems this is causing in the classroom and what is being done to fix it

Zofia Niemtus

Stem Crisis

There are several factors at play in the UK’s teacher shortage. For starters, the student population in the country is increasing (from 8,098,360 in 2010 to 8,735,098 in 2018). Meanwhile, the government is missing its targets on teacher training places, with a 5 per cent drop in applications for 2018 compared with the same time last year. Teachers are also leaving the profession at a higher rate than ever before, particularly early in their careers – in 2017, only 67 per cent of teachers remained in the profession five years after training.

But these problems are even more pronounced for science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem). A new report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) puts the five-year retention rate for shortage subjects, such as maths and physics, at only 50 per cent, while the three hardest-to-recruit-for subjects in 2017 were computing (which filled only 66 per cent of spaces), physics (68 per cent) and maths (79 per cent).  

A battle to fill roles

Simon Mallett, headteacher of Erdington Academy – part of Fairfax Multi Academy Trust in Birmingham – is acutely aware of the Stem shortage. His school’s Stem departments are fully staffed this term for the first time in five years, he explains, but this will be the case only until Christmas, when a member of staff is due to leave and the recruitment process will begin again. Mallett is not hopeful.

“Sometimes we’ve had to advertise two or three times to get a suitable candidate,” he says. “We have interviewed in the past and not appointed, as applicants have not been up to the high standard we expect, or other times there are no applications at all.”

The current fully staffed status is down to what Mallett refers to as “creative staffing”; putting non-specialist teachers in charge of teaching shortage subjects. It’s a practice that’s becoming increasingly common across the country. The EPI report states that in deprived schools outside of London, only 17 per cent of physics teachers have a relevant degree, along with 37 per cent of maths teachers and 45 per cent of chemistry teachers.

Maximising contact time

In Erdington Academy, Mallett explains, they work to bridge the knowledge gap with additional CPD sessions for non-specialist staff, but recognise that the situation is not ideal.

Mallett explains that he took steps to maximise student time with the staff they had; sometimes classes have been joined and taught in the school hall, with two specialist teachers and a member of the leadership team. At other times, staff would carousel around different classes, enabling students to have three or four sessions with specialists and one with a non-specialist. But there have been knock-on effects nonetheless.

“It’s been pretty difficult,” Mallett says. “Our science results are pretty good for combined, but it’s triple science that’s taken the hit. If we had the staff, we’d be able to give those top-end students extra time after school. But we had to do additional sessions with other classes who didn’t have a specialist teacher. There’s only a finite amount of time and staffing.”

Mallett advises schools experiencing shortages to focus on honest and open communication with students and families about the challenging environment they are working in.

“We don’t get much push back, mainly due to our communication through parents’ evenings and forums,” he says. “They are aware of the issues and they are happy with what we are doing in a difficult situation.”

The knock-on effect

The wider repercussions of the country-wide shortage make for gloomy predictions. Unfulfilled potential at GCSE is likely to mean fewer Stem graduates and a deepening of the UK’s Stem skills crisis, in which almost 90 per cent of Stem businesses say they have struggled to recruit qualified candidates in the past year.

The government is offering recruitment incentives in an attempt to draw Stem graduates into teaching: biology, chemistry, computing and physics trainees can apply for £26,000 tax-free bursaries, while maths trainees can get a £20,000 tax-free bursary. But there’s little reliable evidence that this approach will fix the issue.  

The EPI report points out that the UK government is trialling a scheme that will offer £5,000 bonuses to maths trainees after three and five years. It also highlights research from the US, which consistently finds that salary supplements of around 5 per cent can reduce the amount of teachers leaving the profession, sometimes by up to 20 per cent. But Mallet is sceptical. 

“The ‘golden hellos’ don’t have the desired impact,” he says. “We’ve had trainees in the shortage subjects who didn’t necessarily want to go into the profession full time. They do a year, take some of the money to pay off debts and don’t actually go into teaching. If you’re going to give that sort of incentive, it needs to be re-thought rather than being paid once they finish their training.” 

Although the number of specialist Stem teachers is dwindling, they do exist. And finding a teacher who lives and breathes their subject, and has actively chosen to teach it, is more likely to result in a long-term appointment. This means that fine-tuning your recruitment process and becoming very targeted in how you recruit is key – it’s a diminishing pool but you need to try to cast the most compelling fly. Although this involves more investment up front, finding staff that are more likely to stick around means spending less in the long term.

Zofia Niemtus is a freelance writer

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