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Nicky Morgan has had it easy – until now

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Politicians are more likely to do what is urgent than what is important, said the high priest of Pisa, Andreas Schleicher, at the Robert Bosch Stiftung international education conference in Berlin last Friday, as the UK woke up to a surprise Tory majority in the general election.

Nicky Morgan, reappointed to her job as education secretary the next day, will, however, need to do both.

Not being Michael Gove gave her a pretty easy ride up to 7 May; just smoothing ruffled feathers and whispering nice things about workload to a relieved teaching profession did the trick. Post-election, she’s still not Michael Gove, and neither should she now try to be.

Ms Morgan would be wise to go easy on some of the Conservatives’ election pledges and resist the urge to tinker even more with a system that is now one of the most fragmented in the world. She has bigger fish to fry, fish that are important but unsexy (more dab than Dover sole): pupil places and teacher recruitment. Against a backdrop of a fiscal crisis for schools, which are facing funding cuts as high as 12 per cent, it’s getting hot in that particular kitchen.

The big recruitment challenge has been caused by a number of factors: rising school rolls; a decline in the number of entrants to teaching; the introduction of new types of school; a recovering economy; and the pressure, via inspection, to raise standards, which has impacted on senior staff. 

The growth of British schools abroad, with their attractive tax-free packages, is adding further strain: the Council of British International Schools estimates that 150,000 extra teachers will be required in these institutions over the next 10 years, as well as some 1,200 headteachers.

In the primary sector, school rolls are on the rise, fuelled by a booming birth rate: there will be too few places in two in five parts of England by 2016, according to Local Government Association data. This will increase to more than half of local authorities in 2017-18 and three in five in 2018-19. The problem is also starting to hit secondaries. After an earlier decline, pupil numbers are on the up: over the remainder of this decade and into the early 2020s, the total population will rise by 800,000-900,000 pupils.

Teacher supply is the biggest mess. Half of all main-scale vacancies each year are filled by new entrants, with the rest taken up by returners or teachers changing schools. But here we have huge problems: we are failing to meet targets for the numbers entering teacher training, and the switch to School Direct, with its salaried and fee-based routes, is having some unintended consequences as well as causing confusion. 

Owing to over-allocation of places, School Direct’s fee-based scheme is now in competition with the very university-based scheme it was effectively designed to replace, despite using a common admissions system. Add to that the upturn in the economy making teachers more bullish about switching careers, as well as the disincentive of another year of tuition fees for potential new entrants, and we have something that is unarguably a crisis.

The key phrase of Nicky Morgan’s previous tenure was “I’m listening”. Now, as a despairing sector looks for solutions, it’s the rest of us who are all ears.

To read more, get the 15 May edition of TES on your tablet or phone, or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents. 

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