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‘Everyone knows there's a recruitment crisis. The consensus breaks down on what we should do about it'

Ahead of a special conference on teacher supply organised by Policy Exchange and supported by TES, the thinktank’s head of education asks whether anyone has a solution to the problem of recruitment

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Everyone from the shadow education secretary Lucy Powell down seems to be vocal in their protests that, as Shakespeare almost said, there is something rotten in the state of teacher supply. Even the government’s line has now shifted from describing it as a “challenge” (the word du jour a couple of weeks ago), to an open acknowledgement from ministers that they recognise it is a problem, and that remedies are being discussed on the assumption that the labour market statistics aren’t telling the whole story.

However, the common consensus breaks down when different people give their proposed solutions. For many in the profession, the answer is an insurmountable workload driving teachers out of the classroom – something that the government has acknowledged with its ongoing Workload Challenge. Others blame the accountability system for loading these burdens on to teachers and school management teams. Some argue that pay has fallen behind comparable graduate careers in recent years. Some cite pupil behaviour as the issue.

And this is where the problem lies. The longer that the issue remains at the centre of political debate, the higher the risk of what is known as the politician’s fallacy occurring: “We must do something; this is something; therefore let’s do this.” In other words, solutions are proposed – potentially expensive and disruptive solutions – which may not actually get to the heart of the issue.

At its simplest, we can conceive of the teaching workforce as a collective unit of supply. If England’s classrooms require x teachers, then to make sure we keep x people in teaching, we need to keep steady both entry, or inflows of new teachers, and exit, or outflows of teachers. But knowing what to do when x starts falling below a certain level depends on whether this is caused by inflows drying up, or outflows increasing, or both. Knowing whether we should be increasing recruitment, or increasing retention, is important, because it is unlikely that many schemes would do both (to take a practical example, announcements on increasing bursaries for training may address recruitment but won’t touch retention).

And this simple illustration doesn’t begin to get close to the real-life issues that actually need to be addressed, which include questions like: what type of teachers are leaving (by age, or by subject, or by region)? And once they leave, are they likely to come back at a later stage? If fewer graduates are entering teaching, then why? And is this consistent by phase of schooling or by subject? What can we do to make sure not only that sufficient individuals are applying to become teachers but also that they have the capacity to become excellent teachers? And how do we make sure that teachers in schools aren’t just staying but are developing and improving and having stimulating careers?

To try to unpick some of these debates, Policy Exchange and the Association of School and College Leaders are jointly hosting a half-day conference on 19 October in central London, in partnership with TES. This will bring together experts from within the profession – and no politicians – to explore answers to three main questions:

  1. What is the overall macroeconomic picture affecting teacher supply?
  2. What might be done around initial teacher education, CPD and professional learning?
  3. And how, within a flexible labour market, might teachers be incentivised to go to the areas and schools that need them most?

We will then publish a short collection of essays with practical suggestions for what the government, schools, universities and others with an interest in education might do.

For details about how to get free tickets for the event, please go to the Policy Exchange website

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