Sam Freedman
Sam Freedman

Why it may take a recession to halt the teacher recruitment crisis

Sam Freedman outlines the bleak reality that reversing the decline in teacher recruitment numbers may rely on economic shocks
13th May 2022, 4:41pm
Recession, recruitment, crisis


Why it may take a recession to halt the teacher recruitment crisis

When I was appointed an adviser at the Department for Education (DfE), I went and spoke to lots of people who'd done the job, to get their tips.

A particularly wise former adviser to a Labour secretary of state said to me: "There are very few things in education that will create enough of a storm to get your minister fired. One is an exam screw-up. The other is not being able to recruit enough teachers."

It's perfectly possible we'll get an exam crisis this summer, as grades drop precipitously. But we are definitely on the verge of a teacher recruitment crisis.

Jack Worth at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), the guru on all matters workforce, has calculated that we are currently on track to recruit just 15 per cent of the target number of physics teachers this year. That's the worst number - but every secondary subject bar drama, history, Classics and PE is set to miss the target too.

Languages and computing are also well under 50 per cent. Overall numbers are 28 per cent down on last year and 11 per cent down on 2019.

The retention problem

This would be a problem in itself but it's being exacerbated by a lot of people leaving teaching at the same time. We don't yet have data for this year, but headteacher after headteacher that I speak to is saying they are really struggling to keep people and recruit.

One of the small silver linings of the pandemic was that very few people left, owing to the uncertainties in the labour market, but numbers quitting were already rising fast again by the end of last year. Now employment levels are at record highs, it seems like it's worse than it was before.

As ever, this problem is biting hardest in areas that have always found recruitment more difficult: the "left behind" parts of the country without universities and with few graduates; exactly the places the government claims to wish to level up. A number of small school-led teacher training providers have had to close owing to a lack of demand.

But it's a problem everywhere: even London schools are seeing far fewer applicants and are struggling to recruit trainees.

WATCH: How can teacher training solve the staff retention crisis?

In this free webinar, Tes editor Jon Severs chats with key stakeholders in the education sector to discuss how ITT could be key to solving the teacher retention crisis:

A perfect storm

There's no single reason this is happening.

Clearly the pandemic took a toll on the school workforce and many people are feeling exhausted and burned out. Workload was already a challenge and it's now exacerbated by the ever-increasing amount of time schools, particularly those in lower-income areas, have to spend providing pastoral support.

With poverty rapidly rising, and Camhs unable to cope with the rise in mental health problems among young people, this is only getting worse.

But analysis from the NFER in their annual report on the teacher labour market shows that teachers are not more stressed and anxious than those in other similar professions. They do work longer hours, on average, but have a slightly higher life satisfaction level and similar anxiety levels.

So, while this is a factor contributing to the recruitment and retention issue, it's probably not the biggest one.

Pay problems

Where there is clearly a big difference is on pay. Wages in similar professions to teaching are in roughly the same place as they were in 2010, taking inflation into account.

Teachers are earning 10 per cent less than they were back then. This differential is growing even larger this year due to higher settlements in the private sector, off the back of very high inflation, while spending in the public sector remains highly constrained by government-set budgets.

In a competitive labour market, this is killing recruitment and making leaving the profession more attractive. Teachers don't necessarily go to higher-paid jobs but they do tend to go to jobs that pay more per hour worked. And those jobs are getting easier to find.

Pay constraint means that it's also becoming increasingly challenging in parts of the country to recruit teaching assistants as it is at the lower wage sector of the labour market that we've seen the greatest increases elsewhere.

Being a driver for Amazon or similar is becoming increasing remunerative relative to minimum wage posts in the public sector.

A bleak solution 

The DfE is aware of the problem - it has restored some of the bursary provision for new trainees that was rather naively removed during the pandemic - but they don't have a lot of room for manoeuvre.

We will see pay go up significantly for new entrants when the next pay review is announced, in line with the manifesto pledge to shift the starting salary for teachers to £30,000. But this will be at a cost of keeping increases low for more experienced teachers and flattening pay across careers.

The best hope is, rather depressingly, that a recession kicks in early next year and pushes unemployment up, reducing opportunities elsewhere.

It would be much better to have a positive plan to make teaching more attractive. Ultimately, Nadhim Zahawi may find he needs one if he wants to keep his job.

Sam Freedman is a former senior policy adviser at the Department for Education and a senior fellow at the Institute of Government

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