There is a lot to be said for improvements in the British economy – if you are on the right side of them, of course.
Unfortunately, it seems, schools are not.
Education secretary Nicky Morgan told the Commons Education Committee on Wednesday that the recovering economy was one of the reasons for what she described as “challenges” in teacher recruitment.
The official Department for Education line, as explained to TES in July by schools minister Nick Gibb, was that “there is no recruitment crisis”. There might be a challenge, he said, but the DfE was managing it.
So we could all relax. But then two things happened during the summer holidays. First, Charlie Taylor, the chief executive of the National College of Teaching and Leadership which oversees initial teacher training, left for a new job (Nicky Morgan neatly sidestepped the committee’s question of whether he will be replaced at all). Shortly after that, the official teacher training figures revealed that there were still shortages in many subjects including geography, design and technology and English.
Only PE, history and languages are likely to have enough trainees in the pipeline for 2016, predicts John Howson, senior research fellow at the University of Oxford and an expert on teacher recruitment.
And then – to top it all – economic growth in the UK was revealed to be holding steady and the Bank of England said it was confident that the recovery was on track.
So what can the government do? Should it encourage teachers stop to buying stationery – thus reducing the billions flowing into the privately run sticky-note industry? Or perhaps tell teachers to start buying more stationery – thus prompting suppliers to raise prices and cause an uncontrollable spiral of inflation?
Perhaps the DfE should, like the rest of us, not use the economy as an excuse but instead try to find ways to create an environment where graduates aren't “tempted” into teaching only when there aren’t any other jobs.
In June 2011, the coalition government published a review of the impact of the wider economic situation on teachers’ careers decisions – with a note that the report was commissioned by the previous government. In it, Merryn Hutchings, emeritus professor of education at London Metropolitan University, points out that yes, applications rise during a recession because teaching offers secure employment when unemployment is rising.
But she also points out that although you might think that a higher-than-normal number of applications would result in better teachers – because of the larger pool – this is not necessarily the case. And those with higher qualifications are more likely to leave again once labour market conditions improve.
But the correlation isn’t just about job security. Relative wages also play a part – more people want to teach when teaching pays well compared with other similar jobs. Low comparable salaries are a deterrent.
In addition, potential teachers could well be put off by facing a further £9,000 loan to train to work in a relatively low-paid job – which, with the advent of performance-related pay, no longer holds the promise that your starting salary will quickly rise.
And it isn’t just the money. Why is teaching seen as a fall-back profession at all? The status of teaching isn't helped by government announcements that there is not much they can do about staff shortages when the economy is on the way up.
Teach First dared to reverse this assumption. It told high-flying graduates that teaching wasn’t just a fall-back but something that was valuable, that could be aspirational, that was worth doing.
Teach First is not a training method for everyone, but what it does do, it does well – it sells teaching on its values, the very thing that is at the core of the profession.
Recruiting graduates to become teachers during an economic upturn is possible. But why chase after graduates who would really rather be accountants, lawyers or talking up their selling skills on The Apprentice?
Surely we should be going for the ones who hold the idea of teaching dear. The graduates who value aspiration, perseverance, teamwork and seeing their efforts result in success for others. Then tell them you want them – advertise. Show them you value them – through decent pay and a sensible workload. And don’t forget to point out that it's a job in which you get to laugh at children’s jokes every day. Now who wouldn’t want to do that?