Why cuts to training bursaries are just shortsighted

The Covid surge in teacher recruitment has led the government to cut retention measures. This is a mistake, says Jack Worth
11th November 2020, 4:02pm


Why cuts to training bursaries are just shortsighted

Row Of Pound Coins, With Knife Slicing Off A Section

Before the pandemic, England's school system was facing a teacher-supply challenge, not least to meet the demand caused by growing secondary pupil numbers and high leaving rates. 

Incentives, such as high bursaries, were offered to attract people into the profession, and there was a focus on retention measures, pay and workload.

Covid-19 has brought disruption to all aspects of our lives. The recession-proof nature of teaching has led to a surge in the number of people applying to enter the profession

Coronavirus: Turning the supply situation on its head

Our own research highlights how this changed landscape has brought both opportunities and challenges for initial teacher training. Labour-market uncertainty has meant that accepted offers to primary and secondary courses are up 14 and 20 per cent respectively in 2020, compared with the previous year. 

Most noticeable and particularly welcome are substantial increases in accepted offers for shortage secondary subjects, such as maths, modern foreign languages and chemistry. However, the number of accepted offers in physics is only 6 per cent higher than at the same time in 2019.

Our teacher-survey data also highlighted that teacher retention is likely to be higher in 2020-21, effectively reducing the number of new teachers schools will need in September 2021. The proportion of teachers who were considering leaving in July 2020 was substantially lower than in June 2019: 15 percentage points for primary and secondary teachers alike.

Overnight, the teacher supply situation has been turned on its head. This seems to have influenced the government's recent announcement that it was cutting all teaching bursaries for arts, English and humanities subjects in England from 2021. 

There are still bursaries available for subjects including sciences, languages and maths, but the amount offered is substantially lower than it had been previously. 

Managing the teacher-supply pipeline

Bursaries have been used for many years as a tool to help manage the teacher-supply pipeline, as they are able to be switched on and off in response to changes in the availability of - and need for - teachers. Given the significant increase in applications to teacher training this year, the government has chosen to review its bursary arrangements. 

Removing bursaries for subjects that have typically recruited strongly - such as history and English - is not a big surprise, as recruitment to these subjects is likely to remain strong enough to meet demand. 

However, the strategy behind some of the individual subject bursary decisions is a little less clear. For example, there was the decision to significantly reduce the languages bursary, despite the fact that recent recruitment figures have been similar to maths and chemistry - which have seen only small reductions in bursaries.

An additional concern is the decision taken to limit the early career retention payments, which were specifically put in place to address the high numbers of early career teachers leaving within the first five years of qualifying. 

Premature and shortsighted

While the economic downturn has stimulated an increase in applications and teacher retention, we need to ensure that other aspects of the job - workload, flexible working and supporting new teachers to remain in the profession for the long term - remain a priority, in order to help stabilise teacher supply.

Cutting back on retention measures at this point could be premature and shortsighted. The wider labour market is likely to be in better shape in three to five years' time, so a retention incentive for shortage-subject early career teachers would serve as a useful strategy.

It will be crucial for the government to maintain its focus on delivering the teacher recruitment and retention strategy, in order to ensure that teaching remains an attractive career choice for those looking for more than just job security.

Jack Worth is lead economist for the National Foundation for Educational Research (NfER)

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