Nineteen seventy-four was a big year for education. Ken Barlow – yes, of Coronation Street – quit his job as an English teacher at Bessie Street School for a better-paid role as a warehouse administrator. The country was up in arms as 16 million viewers tuned in to watch him chuck in his profession for the want of £1,000 extra a year.
Later that year, the government decided to increase teachers’ pay by an average of 30 per cent. History has recorded the increase as a victory for the NUT teaching union. That’s partly true, but it was not the only motivation.
The other reason was that the school leaving age had just been raised to 16. As a result, the number of students staying in education increased by almost 20 per cent overnight. To cope with the increased number of students, the then education secretary – a certain Margaret Thatcher – needed to recruit and retain more teachers. The major expansion in numbers that followed was the most sustained improvement in the ratio of teachers to students either before or since.
It was also the year Damian Hinds started school. He is now going back to school, as the new education secretary – and history is repeating itself. The new minister faces his own teacher shortage. Figures released before the end of 2017 show the number of applications to initial teacher-training has dropped by a third compared with the previous year. Business leaders up and down the country are concerned that the teacher shortage crisis could have consequences for the pipeline of skills and – consequently – their companies’ futures.
Recruitment solutions required
In this era of fiscal restraint, however, the Department for Education does not have the option of simply increasing pay. The new secretary will be forced to look for solutions that are cost-neutral. This will not be easy, but there are some sensible steps he can take to tackle a problem that is already having an injurious impact on the British economy.
The shortage of people with the requisite skills is one of the biggest concern facing employers right now. Regardless of the size of a firm, or whether they export internationally or not, all employers need skilled staff able to do the jobs they create.
In many cases, the root cause of our skills gap begins in our schools. If left unaddressed, the shortage of teachers in key subjects including science and maths threatens to have detrimental knock-on effects for employers. If enough young people cannot study and do well in the subjects that firms are seeking most, it will stifle the growth of our businesses and inevitably harm the UK economy.
It is, therefore, paramount the new education secretary prioritises not only the recruitment of new teachers, but also the retention of those already in work.
Reduce the red tape
On the recruitment side, the sheer workload of teaching can be off-putting. It’s not just the volume of work, but the type of work that is the problem. The average primary teacher in England spends four days doing paperwork for every 10 days of actual teaching. Nobody goes into teaching because they love paperwork. Mr Hinds should consider what red-tape can be reduced, without compromising student protections. Ditching the multi-coloured marking, excessive data collection and micro-detailed planning would be a good start.
Hinds could also reconsider the practice of "naming and shaming" underperforming schools. At times, this serves only to worsen the crisis, as potential new recruits are put off from applying when they might otherwise have helped alleviate the problem.
Of course, the shortage of teachers is not just about attracting new people, but keeping the ones you already have. As with any industry, losing teachers is expensive and – as ever – a happy working environment is key to ensuring they stick around. On this issue, the DfE could also consider introducing a training scheme for line managers. A constructive working environment is fundamental to staff retention – and managers have an essential role to play in setting the tone. The UK economy struggles with this issue, but our schools could lead by example and set a lesson for the rest. Introducing a relatively small-scale training scheme could be beneficial to staffrooms across the country.
While viewers might have loved watching the drama of Ken Barlow resigning from his school, nobody wants to see these recruitment problems acted out in real life. The government has missed its own targets for teacher recruitment for each of the past five years. This cannot continue.
Seamus Nevin is the head of policy research at the Institute of Directors