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'The "march of the machines" and the teacher recruitment crisis together make for a disastrous cocktail'

On World Teachers' Day one educationist argues that in an automated world post-Brexit we are going to need our human capital to rise to the challenge

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On World Teachers' Day one educationist argues that in an automated world post-Brexit we are going to need our human capital to rise to the challenge

Today is World Teachers’ Day and in the coming years, we will rely on teachers more than ever. Without their guidance, the UK workforce will not be equipped to face their greatest challenge since the industrial revolution – the unrelenting march of the machines.

A recent review by Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane concluded that automation would threaten up to 15m British jobs the next few years – around half of the total. This could be solved – assuming that we could fill the resulting employment gaps with new or existing industries not susceptible to automation, such as technological or creative industries. Such restructuring can be a normal part of an economy’s evolution when carried out at a manageable pace. But this restructuring requires a workforce with a deep and flexible skills base. And unfortunately, our two methods of supplying such a workforce – education and immigration – are about to fracture.

Just at the time that we are reducing migration, we will need skilled workers more than ever before. The UK economy is reliant on immigration from healthcare and agriculture to the creative industries. EU citizens account for around 7 per cent of the workforce at both the high- and low-skilled end of the labour market. However, immigration figures for this year so far show a fall of 43,000, with a comparable rise in emigration. The resulting net migration total of 248,000 is a quarter lower than before the Brexit vote.

Net migration was just 5,000 for Eastern Europeans – the lowest since these countries entered the EU in 2004 – and many employers are already experiencing difficulty in filling vacancies. At a minimum, we will need to fill vacated jobs – and new roles – with qualified UK citizens if we are not to see a failure of the labour market in critical industries. But it is not just about the replacement of foreign-born workers. As more jobs become automated – from driving and manufacturing to previously immune professions like law and accountancy – new high-skilled jobs will be needed to replace them.

Not enough teachers

Politicians across the spectrum are united in proclaiming that education is the answer to automation, skills training, and retraining for those whose jobs will disappear. But new data suggests that we simply don’t have enough teachers to teach these new skills that the country will need. As the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported in their latest global report on education, released last month, UK teachers are facing stark pressures, leading to ever-increasing numbers leaving the profession.

This was echoed by a National Audit Office report, which showed that the total number of secondary school teachers fell by five per cent between 2010 and 2016, and that, compared to five years ago, more teachers are leaving the classroom for reasons other than retirement.

Meanwhile, acceptances for teacher training courses dropped by 10 per cent this year. Many new recruits into the profession are also giving up: 30 per cent of newly qualified teachers leave within the first five years, and nearly half of England’s teachers plan to leave teaching in the next five years. Perhaps this is unsurprising given a salary fall for teachers in real terms between 2010 and 2015 of around six percent. The Local Government Association claims these factors, along with a surge in pupils, are about to crash the secondary system.

The result is that while many countries face an ageing teacher population, the UK has the opposite issue. In 2005, 32 per cent of teachers were 50 or over. Today the figure is 20 per cent, reflecting a reduction of 37 per cent in this group, the largest such reduction in the OECD.

The UK is losing its more-experienced teachers. If these trends continue, our education system may be incapable of preparing its students for an uncertain economic future in which they will have to draw on a wide range of technical and creative skills. So what can be done to turn the situation around?

UK lagging behind

The reasons for poor teacher recruitment and retention are complex – from work-stress to onerous non-teaching duties – but one of the most important factors is the low status of teachers, both in the UK and worldwide. This, in turn, may mirror the gender imbalance within teaching: around seven out of 10 teachers are women, although this drops closer to 50 per cent at tertiary level (traditionally viewed as higher in status). Men, who are generally found to value the status of professions more, are not being drawn to school teaching.

All the international evidence – from Finland to South Korea – shows that it is impossible to create an excellent education system without well-motivated, well trained and fairly rewarded teachers. For Britain to succeed in an automated world post-Brexit we are going to need our human capital to rise to the challenge.

Unfortunately, the World Economic Forum Human Capital Index released last month shows that the UK is currently lagging behind many of its European counterparts, including Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. Automation and a crisis in teacher numbers – together with Brexit – could converge in a way that will have a catastrophic effect. How well we treat our teachers may ultimately determine whether we can turn this human capital crisis around and emerge successfully through the most tumultuous period since the war. 

Vikas Pota is chief executive of the Varkey Foundation

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