Skip to main content

Opinion: 'The answer to the teacher recruitment crisis is clear. It might look like Estonia or Poland, but it's not'

Former schools minister Jim Knight, TES Global’s chief education adviser, has done a little desktop research exercise

News article image

Former schools minister Jim Knight, TES Global’s chief education adviser, has done a little desktop research exercise

The news this week that the Department for Education has “embarked on an exploratory Stem international recruitment programme” came as no great surprise. Despite claims that “there is no crisis”, the data I see suggests otherwise.

The retention levels of teachers in the profession remain high. The numbers attracted to teach abroad are rising. The numbers being recruited into initial teacher training have been below target year after year. It therefore stands to reason that there is a problem, and a logical short-term fix may be to recruit from abroad.

This begs a number of questions.

First, will the Home Office issue the visas to non-EU teachers? Anecdotal evidence says that there are examples where this is a problem, and joined-up government is normally more talk than action. But it would probably be OK.

Secondly, will the teachers want to come? The shortage subjects are in the sciences and maths. These are at a premium around the world, so why come here over other locations? And even if they might want to come to England, will they go to the parts of the country that are struggling to attract talent? English teachers are not the only ones attracted by English-medium private international schools. Will Australian teachers opt for a tough English coastal town over a private school in Dubai? 

Our schools are going to have to work hard to put together attractive incentive packages. 

Thirdly, I started thinking about where the DfE officials would go to get the teachers. I started with maths.

Logically, you would want somewhere that trains good maths teachers. It should be somewhere where they speak good English, and ideally where visas wouldn’t be too much of a problem. Then you might want somewhere where teacher satisfaction is low, to make the job of selling migration easier. Finally you would want somewhere close enough so that it is easy to nip back home to see the family.

So where does well in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) on maths; is in the EU; has budget flights to England; has pay satisfaction rates in the Teaching and Learning International Study (TALIS); and has a high standard of English?

Starting with PISA, there are 14 European countries doing better than the UK in maths. I assume we wouldn’t want to hire from weaker jurisdictions. Of these the stand-out performers are Liechtenstein (not big enough to make much difference), Switzerland, the Netherlands, Estonia, Finland, Poland, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Ireland, Slovenia and Denmark.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) also publish the TALIS relative teacher satisfaction data. So, of the high-performing maths countries whose teachers are the least satisfied?

The stand-out country is Estonia. This is a top 10 country for maths performance but where more than 30 per cent of teachers think the disadvantages of teaching outweigh the advantages. 

Poland is also worth a look for maths teachers. It is only three places behind Estonia in PISA, a much bigger country and where a quarter of teachers are more dissatisfied than satisfied. 

But is this the answer? Taking teaching talent away from our neighbours? Probably not. In some cases it makes sense – where there are signs of an oversupply of teachers. But ultimately we should go back to the evidence.

Last time there was a teacher recruitment crisis the solution was a big marketing budget – TV ads selling teaching and raising the esteem of the profession – but this was discontinued in 2010. 

If I were looking for a quick fix to the teacher recruitment “challenge”, I would start with Sir Martin Sorrell, M&C Saatchi and any other of the government’s friends in the advertising world. 

I would use them to sell the profession, sell teaching the shortage subjects and sell the tough-to-recruit areas. I would also look at converting teachers to be specialists in the shortage subjects, and look at how to train higher-level teaching assistants to be qualified teachers. Finally, I would invest in professional development to improve retention.

This research project was just a desktop bit of fun, but my conclusion? The answer is not in stealing talent from Tallinn. Instead, invest in training and celebrate teaching.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Latest stories