"Scaremongering" is the "in" word at the Department for Education (DfE). It is the catch-all term used to describe anyone, and any organisation, who dares to suggest that all might not be hunky dory in the education world.
The latest to be tarred with the scaremongering brush is the Conservative-led Local Government Association, the umbrella body for councils, which has warned that local authorities will not be able to fulfil their legal duty to provide secondary school places for all pupils.
No one should be surprised that there is a pupil places problem. The bulge in primary pupils is now hitting the secondary sector (children grow up, you know) which by 2020 will require over 300,000 additional secondary school places. The problem is that while local authorities have to provide school places for all children, they are prevented by law from building new schools and cannot force academies and free schools to expand their pupil intake.
The government’s solution to this pressing problem is to encourage local authorities to work with regional schools commissioners to create more free schools. A DfE spokesperson said he was “confident that there are enough quality sponsors to meet demand”. It must be a comfort to be so confident in the face of the available evidence which points in the opposite direction: there are not enough pupil places being created to meet demand. One in six mainstream schools is already at or over capacity. In areas of growing population, and in particular in London, the high cost of land and the pressure for housing means it is extremely difficult to find sites to build free schools. Susan Hamlyn, director of The Good Schools Guide’s Advice Service, said recently: “There needs to be a plan so that we have enough schools, enough places and enough teachers in every borough. A number of schools that were guaranteed to London for 2016 still haven’t opened their doors — some haven’t even found a site to build on.”
Not only are more school places required to meet the growth in pupil numbers, more teachers are needed too. But there are simply not enough teachers to go round. The National Audit Office (NAO) has recently issued a report, Training New Teachers, which makes for rather grim reading. The NAO’s final conclusion – “We cannot conclude that the arrangements for training new teachers are value for money” – is extremely worrying, because we are not talking about small change here: £700 million is spent on initial teacher training.
The figures in the report tell their own story. Schools rely on a constant supply of newly qualified teachers to replace the exodus of teachers from the profession. In the 12 months to November 2014 the state sector lost nearly 50,000 teachers – the highest leaving rate for 10 years. Around half of the new teachers at state schools in 2014 were newly qualified – so the provision of clear and well understood routes into teaching is essential if there are going to be enough teachers to replace those who are leaving.
But the NAO found the DfE’s teacher supply model may inaccurately predict schools’ needs for trainee teachers because it has “important knowledge gaps which means that the DfE does not have data that allows it to quantify teacher shortages reliably.” In particular, and amazingly, the model does not aim to resolve pre-existing teacher shortages, including those caused by previously missed recruitment targets.
The DfE has missed its targets for filling training places over the past four years, with secondary training places particularly difficult to fill. In 2015-16, 14 out of 17 secondary subjects had unfilled training places, compared with two subjects in 2010-11. This means that nearly every secondary subject is a shortage subject. In addition to well-known difficulties in recruiting teachers in Stem subjects, there are also shortages in the English Baccalaureate subjects of geography and modern foreign languages, and in creative subjects such as art. Design and technology comes bottom of the recruitment league table with only 41 per cent of its training places filled.
School leaders have been complaining for some time now that the government is refusing to acknowledge their recruitment problems. This is not surprising when the NAO judges that the DfE “has more to do to understand important local and regional issues”.
'Shifting the blame'
Faced with the mounting and compelling evidence of a teacher recruitment and retention crisis, the DfE has resorted to the old tactic of pointing the finger of blame in the other direction. If there is a crisis, said a DfE spokesperson, it’s the fault of those dastardly teacher unions who are talking down the profession and, yes, you’ve guessed it – scaremongering!
And finally, my inbox has been filled over the past two weeks with teachers expressing their disquiet, their despair and their fury at the assessment arrangements for key stages 1 and 2, and, in particular, the late arrival and format of the key stage 2 writing exemplification materials. After I wrote about these pressing matters I was accused, yet again, of scaremongering. So I will finish, not with my words but with those of a primary school teacher who wrote to me last week.
“Having just read the exemplification material (for writing only), I am absolutely shocked and horrified at the expectations for Year 6 pupils. The vocabulary alone that is expected is beyond belief; many GCSE students would not use this language, let alone 10- and 11-year-olds. On top of that is the requirement to use grammar that most adults do not use, do not understand and, quite frankly, is unnecessary.
“I have had enough. I hate my job. As a staff, we are constantly in tears, taking it in turns to buoy each other up and trying to make light of the awful situation that we are currently in. Serious action needs to be taken before the profession implodes.’’
This is a representative example of the type of emails I’ve received from members in the last few weeks. This isn’t scaremongering; it is the profession speaking honestly about the impact of the government’s most recent changes. This is what teaching has become for many, and if the government doesn’t address this reality, the recruitment crisis will worsen exponentially.
Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedATL