'Salary supplements would fix teacher shortages'

Maths and science graduates earn more outside of teaching – let's give them a financial incentive, writes Luke Sibieta

In order to attract maths and science graduates into teaching, and keep them there, we need to offer better financial rewards, writes Luke Sibieta

Last week, we at the Education Policy Institute published a report on the state of the teacher labour market in England. It illustrated a critical shortage of teachers in subjects such as maths, physics, chemistry and languages. As a result, only about half of maths and physics teachers have a degree in a relevant subject – a proportion which gets lower still if you look at poor areas outside London, where 37 per cent of maths teachers and fewer than one in five physics teachers possess a relevant degree. Such figures led us to recommend the extension of salary supplements for early career teachers in shortage subjects. In the US, such schemes have already been shown to significantly reduce teacher exits.

This report generated a lot of debate, with some commentators in favour of our recommendation of salary supplements, and some against. I very much welcome this debate and the attention that has been drawn to such an important issue. Here I want to justify why I still think that salary supplements are an important part of solving the recruitment crisis. 

Some commentators argued that better policy responses would be to address high teacher workloads and improve CPD for teachers. I wholeheartedly agree with this as a good way of dealing with the overall state of the teacher labour market. High workload and a lack of career progression form important reasons for why teacher exit rates have been creeping up and recruitment is down.

However, I disagree that they explain why the problems are so much worse in maths and science subjects. What is different about maths and science graduates is the fact that they can earn more outside of teaching. For example, a maths graduate in their late twenties can earn about £4,000 more than the average teacher, whilst an English graduate earns about £5,000 less, on average. It should, therefore, be no surprise that it's much harder to recruit and retain maths teachers than it is English teachers. In my mind, the problem for maths and science looks to be financial, and a financial problem generally calls for a financial solution.

A second objection to salary supplements is that they would lead to staff in the same school being paid different amounts to teach different subjects, and that this would undermine the sense of teamwork in schools. Although this is a genuine concern, teachers in the same school are already paid quite different amounts based on their years of experience. We rightly reward teachers’ years of experience, partly so they don’t take their skills elsewhere. Why not give rewards to graduates with skills in subjects that are in demand?

The principle of giving different amounts by subject is already in place for bursaries. High-flying graduates in some subjects can get up to £30,000 (tax-free) when studying. However, these sums are not conditional on going into a teaching job, and the National Audit Office has raised serious concerns as to whether these bursaries work and represent value for money. Why not refocus these on maths and science graduates who go into and stay in the teaching profession, especially given the strong evidence base showing that retention incentives work. They could also be tied to or increased for teachers in disadvantaged areas, where maths and science teachers are most in need.

Tackling the shortage of teachers

Paying salary supplements in maths and science subjects need not undermine the sense of teamwork in schools either. At the moment, many teachers who trained to teach other subjects end up having to teach maths or physics because of shortages. This is not a great situation. It can contribute to workload problems, teachers end up taking subjects they didn’t necessarily want to teach, and pupils are potentially missing out on specialist teaching. If retention incentives in shortage subjects helped to reduce the shortage of maths and science teachers, as they have done when tried elsewhere, then this could help all teachers. If they were framed and set as a direct response to shortages (e.g. in annually updated recommendations from the pay review body), this might make them easier to accept, too.

All eligible teachers will receive early-career payments of £5,000 each in their third and fifth year of teaching. 

A third objection is that we are already paying lots of financial incentives, and they don’t seem to be working. I would agree with this where it comes to teacher bursaries. However, the new system of retention bonuses of £5,000 for maths teachers who remain in the profession for three and five years after starting are not in place yet. These bonuses will only apply to teachers who start their training in 2018–19 and no payments will, therefore, be made until 2022 at the earliest. By definition, we therefore won’t see any impact of this policy for a while yet. This leaves a long time for the picture to get worse in maths, and other shortage subjects that aren’t currently down to get these bonuses.  A student loan forgiveness programme is also being piloted. However, as most early career teachers’ salaries are below or just above the repayment threshold of £25,000, this scheme will be of little benefit to them.

There is also a high cost of waiting to see if these new schemes work. A report for the Gatsby Foundation said that had 5 per cent salary supplements for early career maths and physics teachers been introduced in 2010, such a policy would have eradicated shortages in these subjects within a few years. This was based on the firm evidence base from the US that shows that salary supplements of around this level can reduce teacher exits by about 10-20 per cent.

Rather than waiting to see if the new scheme for maths teachers works, which it probably will, we should be going further and faster by introducing such a scheme for all early career teachers (whenever they started training), extending it to more subjects (like physics) and targeting it at the areas experiencing the worst problems (mainly disadvantaged areas outside London). Whilst salary supplements aren’t the only solution to the problems ailing the teacher labour market, they are an important part of the solution.

Luke Sibieta is research fellow at the Education Policy Institute

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