‘The teacher recruitment and retention crisis is in danger of becoming a catastrophe’

Schools are being set up to fail because too few teachers are being trained in the ever-expanding number of shortage subjects, writes one union leader. And the government’s response is risible

Mary Bousted

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We are getting used to Nick Gibb’s "Crisis, what crisis?" response when he is confronted with the mounting evidence that the government’s arrangements for teacher recruitment are not fit for purpose. Last week the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) became the latest body to sound the alarm over the inadequate state of teacher recruitment and supply, publishing its report, Training New Teachers.

This PAC’s weighty tome was informed by an identically titled National Audit Office (NAO) report on the government’s initial teacher training (ITT) policies. The NAO said it could not conclude that the £700 million a year the government spent on recruiting and training new teachers represented value for money.

Damning conclusion

Both the PAC and NAO reports came to the same damning conclusion and neither minced their words. They found that the government had neither the structures nor the information to guarantee an adequate supply of teachers for state-funded schools in England.

I list below, in no particular order, the conclusions from the NAO and PAC reports in their authors’ own words:

  • The department does not understand, and shows little curiosity about, the size and extent of teacher shortages around the country and assumes headteachers will deal with the gaps. (PAC report)
  • The recorded rate of vacancies and temporarily filled positions in state-funded schools has doubled between 2011 and 2014 from 0.5 per cent of the teaching workforce to 1.2 per cent (a figure the department accepts is unlikely to reflect recruitment difficulties fully). (NAO report)
  • The department does not understand the difficult reality that many schools face in recruiting teachers. The department relies on national statistics to tell it whether schools have the teachers they need but this information disguises local variations. (PAC report)
  • The myriad routes into teaching are confusing for applicants and it is the department’s responsibility to end this confusion. (PAC report)
  • Currently, all university providers have been inspected, but 47 per cent of school-centred providers have not. (NAO report)
  • The department’s short-term approach [to initial teacher training] means providers do not have a clear, stable basis on which to plan for the long term. (NAO report)
  • The department has missed its targets for filling training places over the past four years with secondary training places particularly difficult to fill. In 2015-16, there were unfilled training places in 14 of 17 [secondary] subjects, an increase from two subjects in 2010-11. (NAO report)
  • In secondary schools, more classes are now taught by teachers without a relevant post-A-level qualification in their subject. (NAO report)
  • For English Baccalaureate subjects, which include mathematics, physics and languages, the proportion of lessons taught by teachers who are not subject specialists rose from 14 per cent in 2010 to 18 per cent in 2014. The department will find it more challenging to reverse this trend with the introduction of the English Baccalaureate curriculum. Although the department knows the number of hours taught "off-subject" it does not know the qualifications or subject specialisms of teachers who are teaching "off subject"…The department confirmed that there is no bar to a teacher lacking a qualification in, for example, German, physics or computer science, teaching those subjects to A-level standard. (PAC report)
  • The department has not persuaded us that its bursaries are delivering value for money. The department has spent £620 million on bursaries over the five years to 2014-15 and plans to spend £167 million in each year in 2015-16 and 2016-17. It estimates that it hands out 17,000 bursaries each year…It does not track whether the recipients of bursaries go on to complete their training, qualify as teachers and enter the workforce in state-funded schools. (PAC report)

Catalogue of errors

There is little to add to this sad catalogue of errors. This government decided, without any evidence or analysis of whether it was workable, to radically change the routes into teaching. Schools were, ministers crowed, going to train teachers. Higher education institutions, whose quality was commended by Ofsted and which for years had worked with schools in the recruitment and training of teachers, had their training places cut by half. Schools were expected to fill the gap, and while some have risen to the challenge, the picture is uneven across the country.

I disagree wholeheartedly with a lot of what the head of Ofsted Sir Michael Wilshaw says. But he got the government bang to rights last year when he warned that new teacher training courses are mainly opening in parts of the country that already have good training provision and a high proportion of good schools. This is happening, argued Sir Michael, because the current rules stipulate that only strong schools can lead school-led training. In contrast, areas with a high proportion of struggling schools have a shortage of school-led training and, consequently, a shortage of newly qualified teachers. Sir Michael did not mince his words when he concluded: "The prospect of the most successful schools cherry-picking the brightest and best for themselves, creating a polarised system between the strongest and weakest schools, has become a reality."

Disadvantaged schools hampered

The evidence proves Sir Michael’s concerns to be valid. Some 11,000 (57 per cent) state-funded schools, many of which are in rural areas and areas of high deprivation, do not participate in School Direct. Schools in poorer areas, in isolated parts of the country with low academic performance, struggle to recruit good teachers and pay ever greater amounts in recruitment agency fees which puts further pressure on already tight budgets. The government will not, however, commit to capping these fees.

So what of the government’s response to the weight of informed criticism about its teacher supply policies? Nick Gibb assured us that he simply did not recognise this picture. The only response I can make to such unfounded optimism is to ask Mr Gibb where he gets his rose-tinted glasses?

No education system can be better than the quality of its teachers – yet these are in ever shorter supply. School leaders, desperate to put teachers in front of their classes, increasingly have to resort to employing teachers who are unqualified in the subjects they are teaching. Standards of education are suffering because of this mismatch. The government's response – that it is raising standards by imposing harder GCSEs – is risible. Schools are being set up to fail because they do not have enough teachers trained in the ever-expanding number of shortage subjects.

Rather than rejecting the hard evidence in the NAO and PAC reports, ministers would do well to face the uncomfortable truths. The current situation is not sustainable and unless radical reform, underpinned by sound evidence, is taken, the crisis in teacher supply will become a catastrophe.

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL teaching union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedATL

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Mary Bousted

Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU

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