Few in education will be surprised by today’s Education Policy Institute report on teacher recruitment and retention challenges. It is useful to have the scale of the issue staked out so clearly, and especially that it affects certain school subjects and specific regions of the country in different ways.
The report recommends a national programme of bonuses for science and maths teachers in particular, since these are the subjects most in need. Citing evidence from programmes in America, the report suggests it is possible to enhance overall retention of such teachers within a school system, as well being a useful tool to direct the qualified teachers we do have towards our most deprived schools.
These are interesting proposals, and a particularly good case is made in the report for funding these retention inducements from the money currently spent by the DfE on bursaries to induce people into the profession – the evidence of the long-term impact of bursaries is not especially strong, given their cost.
That said, I think these proposals will have a rocky ride: differential pay is not popular with the classroom teacher unions, and anecdotally this would seem to be an area where they are closely in tune with their membership.
Moreover, the stated aim of the policy is to overcome the gap between teacher salaries and those in other professions which degree-qualified mathematicians and scientists could enter. This seems likely to be an arms race teaching can never win, given the demand for quality Stem graduates – even when teachers’ salaries were receiving historic increases under New Labour, recruiting in these subjects was tough.
It is estimated that teaching would need to recruit one in five of our universities’ graduating cohorts in maths and physics to meet training needs, which seems unlikely even with these bonuses (and may also raise questions about where else in the economy was losing such graduate talent).
As such, if this money were to be deployed, it needs to be while seriously re-examining the school system’s assumptions about how many degree-qualified science and maths specialists we expect to see in any given school, and how their expertise can be effectively deployed to support those teaching these subjects without the relevant degree.
Now Teach, the organisation I work for, recruit and support for experienced professionals entering teaching, and we have had significant success in drawing very well-qualified experts from Stem industries into teaching, but we know that they represent only a small proportion of the total teaching force.
The key to unlocking the transformative potential of these career changers and other Stem-qualified entrants for all schools lies in building professional development strategies for the whole teaching profession that allow them to expand their subject expertise, even in a subject that may not have originally been their specialism, and resourcing them adequately to teach well, whatever their background.
That will require some hard-thinking by system leaders, both in schools and government, to enshrine the right to this kind of quality professional development in teachers’ busy schedules and to make the necessary training for it a reality.
John Blake is director of policy and strategy at Now Teach, the recruitment and support service for experienced professionals entering teaching