Let’s start with the blindingly obvious. We are currently failing to recruit enough teachers for the number of pupils in the school system and we are failing to retain enough of the teachers we have. This is a terrible waste of talent and – unless we get it sorted soon – the consequences for the nation’s children and young people will be disastrous.
Because over the next six years the number of children in secondary schools is expected to increase by an eye-watering 419,000, as a bulge in the number of pupils in primary schools moves through the age range.
This would be a massive challenge at any time. But it is particularly so given that the government’s target for recruiting trainee teachers in secondary subjects has been missed for the past five years in a row, and retention rates have worsened with 33 per cent of teachers now leaving the profession within five years of qualifying.
On top of that is the impact of severe funding pressures, which have forced schools to cut staffing numbers, thereby increasing teacher workload, which itself becomes the main reason that people quit.
The consequence is crystallised by a stark fact: in 2017, the total number of teachers in England’s schools fell at a time when you would expect it to be increasing.
This week, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) published an important report which emphasised the need to place a much greater focus on teacher retention.
Retention really has been something of a governmental blind-spot. Besides anything else, it is deeply inefficient to have a system in which a third of the staff who have been trained at considerable public expense then leave within five years.
We simply have to get better at keeping our teachers – and that is a job for both the government and the profession itself. But we are also going to need some quick fixes for the immediate future.
How to boost teacher recruitment and retention
So, here are five suggestions, on both fronts:
First, as a matter of urgency, the government could make it easier to recruit teachers from non-EU countries by putting teaching in general on what is known as the shortage occupation list. This is the goal of the excellent #LetThemTeach campaign run by Tes. It would be straightforward to do, demonstrate a new sense of leadership, and – most important – bring new teacher talent to the nation’s classrooms. This could be built as a priority into the Department for Education’s forthcoming recruitment and retention strategy.
Second, in the longer term, government needs to ensure that the Brexit deal doesn’t place obstacles in the way of recruiting teachers from overseas, both EU and non-EU. It is vital that schools are able to continue to recruit easily from EU countries after Brexit, because this provides a vital supply line of modern foreign languages teachers. These subjects are already under pressure and there is often great difficulty in recruiting teachers. It would be a disaster if the supply line from the EU was impeded.
Thirdly, government should ensure that we are better able to retain teachers by listening to those in the system urging an urgent rethink around what it means to be a teacher in the 21st century. We need a much clearer sense of long-term career development, built-in professional learning, plus part-time and flexible working patterns that technology should make easier to put in place. This will keep more good people working in our classrooms. But be warned: flexible working in itself is not the solution to teacher retention. As a goal, we must make full-time, not just part-time, teaching a manageable, rewarding family-friendly career. And, for that, work-life balance has to be a central goal of school leaders, for their staff, and for themselves.
Which leads directly to my fourth point. It’s predictable but has to be said. We need a more humane accountability system, better pay and reduced workload. The raft of changes of recent years, combined with pay austerity, mean teachers are expected to do more for less. No government can really be surprised that recruitment and retention has suffered as a result. And the level of funding for schools and colleges has to be improved so that they can actually afford to employ the teachers they need.
Finally, let’s be careful about policies that might make matters worse. Both the NFER, and the Education Policy Institute in a report earlier this year, have suggested paying more to teachers in subjects like maths and science, where there are acute shortages. That would be terribly unfair on teachers in other subjects who are working just as hard and have just as much responsibility. It would damage recruitment and retention in those subjects. The reality is that there are already shortages in many subjects and pay needs to be improved in general, not just in some subjects. This year’s settlement was an improvement on previous years, but many teachers still received a below-inflation increase.
So, yes, the challenges over teacher retention are immense. But there are real opportunities here, too.
Increasingly, I meet people who are restless to see teaching reinvented as the uniquely human, rewarding and life-enhancing career that it ought to be. As the cartoonist Frank Tyger said: “Progress is not created by contented people." It’s time to channel that restlessness into action.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders
Tes has created a parliamentary petition to stop non-EU international teachers from being turned away from Britain. If the petition hits 10,000 signatures, the government is obliged to formally respond to it. If it hits 100,000 signatures, the issue will be considered for a debate in Parliament. To sign the petition, click here.