The Covid-19 recession has reignited interest in the teacher training sector – with a 35 per cent year-on-year increase in applications between March and August, new research shows.
The overall number of postgraduate teacher training applicants up to mid-August 2020 was 16 per cent higher than at the same point in 2019, and 14 per cent higher than the 2017-19 average, according to a report published today by the National Foundation For Educational Research (NFER).
But interest only started to pick up after the lockdown began. The report, which analysed applications to postgrad teacher training in England and Wales, found that the number of applicants was "very similar" to the past two years up until mid-March, after which it underwent a sharp increase.
The number of new applicants between March and August was 35 per cent higher in 2020 than the number of new applicants between March and August 2019.
Coronavirus: Increase in teacher training applications
According to the NFER, the Covid-19 recession sparked such an increase because "teaching is seen as offering secure employment when unemployment is high".
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent leap in applicants, England faced "an increasingly severe challenge" of recruiting enough trainees, the report says.
"While primary ITT [initial teacher training] entry has generally been meeting the numbers needed, entry to secondary ITT in England had been consistently below target for seven years in a row," it adds.
"While the overall number of secondary trainees has risen over the last few years, the numbers recruited have not been enough to meet rising demand due to increasing pupil numbers and high teacher leaving rates."
Heads have said the coronavirus-related recruitment boost is a "relief", but warn that current working conditions in schools – such as an "eye-watering level of accountability" – are "not conducive to teacher retention over the long term".
The report suggests a "plausible alternative explanation" for the surge in applications could be the pay rise promised to new teachers from September 2020, with starting salaries set to increase to £30,000 by 2022.
"However, the timing of the increase in applicants, from mid-May onwards, strongly suggests that the recession is the main explanation for the applicant surge," it says.
The NFER found that the boom in interest between March and August 2020 was greatest among younger people – with a larger increase in applicants in their twenties, compared with those in their thirties and forties.
And this variation was also true for accepted offers.
Overall, the number of accepted offers to secondary courses was 20 per cent higher in 2020 than 2019 – while the rise for primary courses was 14 per cent.
And, between March and August 2020, the number of new accepted offers was 54 per cent higher than in 2019 for those aged 21 and under, compared with only 22 per cent for those aged 40 and over, the report says.
Based on a nationally representative survey of 1,782 teachers in July 2020, the NFER also predicted an increased retention rate "in the short term", in the wake of Covid-19 recession.
"The data shows that the proportion of teachers that are considering leaving in July 2020 is substantially lower than in June 2019, by 15 percentage points for primary and secondary teachers (58 and 50 per cent, respectively, of the 2019 proportion)," the report says.
But despite the overall increase in interest and likely boost in retention, the report warns that "teacher supply gaps are unlikely to close fully this year".
"Accounting for increased recruitment and an increase in teacher retention rates, it is likely that trainee numbers in almost all subjects will meet the school system's need for teachers in September 2020, as estimated by the Department for Education's Teacher Supply Model (TSM)," the report adds.
Teacher shortages 'will remain in some subjects'
This includes closing under-recruitment gaps in shortage subjects such as mathematics, MFL and chemistry.
However, demand will likely continue to outstrip supply in physics and design and technology, according to the NFER's analysis.
Meanwhile, recruitment in subjects such as history, geography, English and PE, and at primary level, "is likely to be substantially higher than estimated teacher need", the report says.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "It is sad that the surge in teacher training applications has apparently been driven by the grim circumstances of the Covid crisis.
"Nevertheless, it is a relief in helping to address the persistent problem of severe teacher shortages, and testimony to the resilience of teaching as an enriching and rewarding career option.
"The challenge now is to ensure that we retain these prospective teachers in our schools.
"Far too many teachers currently leave the profession early in their careers and we have to do better. The government is improving early-career salaries, and introducing an enhanced package of support and training. These are welcome steps.
"However, there are systemic issues which need to be addressed. Government underfunding of the education system has left schools having to do more with less, and this drives up pressure and workload. Schools are also subjected to an eye-watering level of accountability and we think this is deleterious to welfare.
"These conditions are not conducive to teacher retention over the long term. While the government is now investing more money in schools, it is not enough to reverse the cuts that have already taken place, and this has to be addressed. The accountability system also urgently needs reviewing so that it is more proportionate and less punitive."
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “There has been national recognition of the incredible work of teachers during this pandemic. Teaching has always been an attractive career but it’s good to see a continued surge in the number of people looking to enter the classroom.
“To further attract the most talented to the profession, we’re introducing the biggest pay rise the since 2005, with above-inflation rises to the pay ranges for every single teacher in the country, bringing us one step closer to a £30,000 starting salary by 2022. We are also continuing to work with schools and ITT providers to address the challenges they are facing as a result of Covid-19, including working with the sector to support schools to host trainees.”