As Albert Einstein never actually said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Last week marked another dispiriting milestone in the world of robotic repetition. For the sixth year running, the annual teacher-trainee census showed the government has missed its targets for recruitment to secondary school subjects.
This isn’t a near miss. Only 83 per cent of the target was achieved: 3,394 fewer trainees than required. And this follows an even more catastrophic shortfall last year.
Most alarmingly, only 47 per cent of the target for physics teachers was achieved, and only 71 per cent of the target for maths teachers. These are subjects that are already in desperately short supply. It is clear that the situation is set to become even worse.
And what are we to make of the fact that only a quarter of the target was achieved for design and technology teachers? A subject that teaches pupils exactly the sort of project management and creative-thinking skills sought by employers, but which has been squeezed to the margins of the curriculum by the English Baccalaureate, is suffering a sustained decline in both the number of candidates and teachers.
'It’s hard to get teachers'
But it doesn’t stop there. I’ve just finished a round of visits to Durham, Manchester, Taunton, Birmingham and London, meeting school and college leaders from across the regions of England. Those I meet invariably name the pressure on funding as being the biggest issue they face, with recruitment coming in at a pretty close second.
“You mean it’s hard to get maths and physics teachers?” I ask.
“No,” they invariably reply. “It’s hard to get teachers”.
And a glance at the teacher-trainee census confirms that the shortfall is not in two or three subjects only, but that it is widespread. The recruitment target was achieved in only four subjects this year and in only two last year.
Meanwhile, we await the recruitment and retention strategy from the Department for Education. The aim, apparently, is to publish it soon. We look forward to that and hope that it will produce some new thinking. Because the fact is that we currently seem to be stuck in a rut. What we would like to see is a strategy that looks with fresh eyes at what we are currently doing and what we are not doing. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts:
- Let’s review the current system of bursaries for shortage subjects. How well are bursaries working and to what extent are they assisting not just in recruitment, but also in retention once teachers have qualified? How can the system be improved?
- How well do we understand what graduates think about teaching? What attracts them to teaching and what are the barriers that may deter them? Let’s find ways of maximising the former and minimising the latter.
- How easy is it for graduates to navigate their way into teaching in a complex system with multiple routes? How can we make it simpler and are there any hurdles that can be removed? For example, we should surely review the requirement to sit literacy and numeracy tests given that candidates are already required to have passed GCSE English and maths at Grade 4 or above.
- It’s a shame that education secretary Damian Hinds’ recent remit letter to the School Teachers’ Review Body puts the emphasis on “affordability” in next year’s pay award rather than on determining what is needed to improve recruitment and retention. The Varkey Foundation’s recent Global Teacher Status Index report found that the starting salary of a British secondary school teacher is lower than in all the other major EU economies. We simply have to make teacher pay more competitive.
Whether or not the DfE’s recruitment and retention strategy grasps these nettles remains to be seen. What we hope is that it really is a strategy and not a list of piecemeal initiatives.
I’ve barely touched on the issue of retention in this column. But, of course, that is the other crucial part of the challenge in tackling teacher shortages. The most recent school workforce census showed that a third of teachers left the system within five years of qualifying. Any recruitment strategy, however good, is going to struggle to keep up with the demand created by the haemorrhaging of so many staff.
The DfE’s strategy is going to have to look at both issues as two sides of the same coin. Initiatives to reduce excessive workload, for instance, have the potential to not only keep more people in the profession, but also to improve the perception of teaching as a career choice among graduates. There is an opportunity to create a virtuous circle.
What is certain is that we can’t keep doing the same things expecting different results. The latest teacher-trainee census shows us that a fresh approach is needed. The DfE’s recruitment and retention strategy must rise to that challenge.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders