The government has spent as much as £123 million on bursaries for teacher trainees who did not then go on to work in state schools, Tes can reveal.
More than 11,000 trainees who qualified between 2009-10 and 2015-2016 were not working in state schools by November 2017 – despite collectively receiving between £67 million and £123 million in tax-free bursaries.
The minimum amount revealed through Tes' detailed analysis is at least a third higher than previously reported.
The Department for Education has now made it impossible to calculate the money wasted in later years by changing the data it publishes.
When asked by Tes to state the amount of money it has spent on bursaries for trainees who did not go on to teach in state schools for 2016-17 onwards, the department did not provide a figure. Experts say there is "no reason" to believe the problem has been resolved.
Geoff Barton, Association of School and College Leaders general secretary, described them as "ghost trainees".
“It seems completely misguided if bursaries are being given out without any sense of people then having set foot in a classroom over a certain period," he said.
“Teacher training bursaries are well-intentioned but it is infuriating that there are no conditions attached to them and that trainees can waltz out of the classroom after a short period of time, or not enter it at all, without incurring any financial penalty.
“At a time, particularly, when the government has quite rightly been reminding us to spend public money properly, it’s pretty galling [to see] the amount of money that has been spent on trying to recruit people into the classroom who have never set foot there."
Exclusive: DfE cancels data on wasted teacher bursaries
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said the figures amounted to a "stupendous waste of money" by the government, and showed how teaching was seen as an "unattractive profession".
Teacher trainers say the investigation should prompt a rethink into who should qualify for a bursary.
Trainees in sought-after subjects such as physics and chemistry are eligible for bursaries worth up to £26,000, while primary education graduates are entitled to a maximum of £6,000 – but only if they specialise in maths.
Overall, the government spent a minimum of £484 million on bursaries for 101,060 postgraduate teacher trainees who were awarded QTS between 2009-10 and 2015-16.
Of these, 11,460 (11 per cent) had not taught in a state-funded school by November 2017.
Tes calculated the amount spent on these "ghost" trainees using DfE analysis that divided all the postgraduate trainees between 2009-10 and 2015-16 into six separate bursary brackets, according to how much they received.
This shows these trainees would have received £67.4 million in tax-free bursaries if they all received the lowest amount for their bracket – worth 14 per cent of the minimum total bursary spend.
However, the cost would be higher – up to £123.6 million, or 25 per cent of the minimum total – if they all received the maximum amount for their bracket.
Dr Bousted said the reason that so many graduates appeared to be deserting the career they had trained for came down to the fact that they see teaching as an "unattractive profession".
"Clearly what is happening is these people are sufficiently motivated to train, but then decide not to enter the profession," she said.
"And actually, people will say, ‘Oh well, they just want another year of study,' but teacher training is really hard. So I don’t buy it that these are people who are just taking the money. I don’t think that’s right.
"I think a much more likely explanation is they do want to be teachers...They experience the stress and pressure in schools; they look around them; they look at their colleagues who quite often look exhausted and are often very stressed; and then they say: ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’"
None of the DfE's recruitment tactics will work "if it remains the case that teaching is an unattractive profession", she added.
Last year, the DfE announced that some newly qualified teachers would receive early career payments of up to £9,000, in addition to bursaries of £26,000, in an effort to boost retention.
However, this only applies to newly qualified teachers specialising in chemistry, languages, maths and physics – just four of the 16 subjects for which trainees can claim bursaries.
The department had previously trailed a scheme whereby maths teachers received retention payments of £15,000 in high-needs areas, with lower bursaries of £20,000, but this was later scrapped.
James Noble-Rogers, executive director of the Universities’ Council for the Education of Teachers (Ucet), said the figures revealed by Tes were “a cause for concern", and there was "no reason" to believe the problem had been resolved in recent years.
“We’ve only got anecdotal reports, but there’s no reason that behaviours would have changed since that data was published," he said.
“We need bursaries – it’s just the added value of the very high ones is open to question.”
Mr Noble-Rogers added that money spent on larger bursaries should be redirected to trainees who are currently ineligible for any amount.
This included "those on primary ITE [initial teacher education] programmes and secondary PE, who are often struggling financially and dropping out of programmes as a result", he said.
The funds should also be used on retention incentives and a hardship fund for training providers "to help retain teachers across all subject areas and phases," he added.
Emma Hollis, executive director of the National Association of School-Based Teacher Trainers (Nasbtt), said the government could cut down on wasted bursary funds if the money was “distributed more fairly” across different subjects.
This would provide better support for teachers with a true passion for their subjects, who were more likely to stay in the job for longer, she said.
It would also avoid talented trainee teachers dropping out of their studies for financial reasons. "We do not believe that lack of finances should be a reason to lose a potentially great teacher from the profession at a time when retention and recruitment are so fragile," she said.
The DfE data is based on the number of graduates found in a teaching post in state schools at any time between the award of QTS and November 2017 – taken from employment data held by the department at the time of publication.
Dr Bousted said ghost trainees were still a problem. “Nothing’s changed," she said. "The issues that are driving teachers away have got more severe. So I can’t see any reason that later figures would be better.”
A department spokesperson said: "Teacher training bursaries are designed to incentivise more applicants to train in the subjects that are hardest to recruit to. Trainees only receive the bursary in full if they complete the teacher training course.