The Department for Education expects to fail in its bid to overturn an immigration clampdown that will lead to schools losing thousands of teachers, TES can reveal.
The Home Office is about to explore the possibility of exempting teachers from restrictions on non-EU workers amid warnings that this is a “disaster waiting to happen” for schools struggling to recruit staff.
But sources within the DfE have told TES that, despite the review, it is “highly unlikely” that the profession as a whole will be included on an official “shortage occupation list”.
“There will be certain subjects where we are identifying there is a challenge in recruiting, but there is not going to be, across the board, every single teacher included,” a high-level source said. “We will be fighting our corner, of course, but in reality it is highly unlikely that teaching will be placed on the list.”
Unions have warned that schools will lose thousands of teachers because of controversial reforms introduced by home secretary Theresa May in April. The new rules prevent any non-EU worker from staying in the UK for more than six years unless they earn more than £35,000 a year. The change has sparked uproar among schools trying to cope with the worst teacher shortages in more than a decade.
Geoff Brown, managing director of Hourglass Education, which specialises in bringing teachers from abroad to work in the UK, said: “It is a disaster waiting to happen unless somebody, somewhere, starts to investigate the impact of this rule on education.
“We have teacher shortages and the government is finding ways of getting rid of people. Teachers who have been here for four or five years – they are sending them packing when they have that valuable experience.”
Unions are blaming education ministers whom, they argue, are failing to make an adequate case against the new rules because of a desire to play down teacher shortages.
Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, warned that the longer ministers denied there was a crisis in teacher recruitment, the “greater the crisis will become”. She added: “If they are going to delude themselves when giving evidence, all they will do is exacerbate the problem, particularly in schools in London and the South East that are the most reliant on these teachers [from non-EU countries].”
If DfE officials didn’t admit that there was a problem, “they would be cutting their nose off to spite their face”, she added.
Secondary maths, physics and chemistry teachers are already exempt from the new rules. But the NASUWT said that the change would still lead to “several thousand” teachers having to leave the UK.
The Migration Advisory Committee – which is sponsored by the Home Office – is calling for evidence as part of a consultation on exempting the teaching profession as a whole.
The DfE source said that the exemption could be expanded to include modern foreign language teachers, but there would be little change beyond that. This news will be a significant blow to headteachers’ and teachers’ leaders, who have been pushing for teaching to join nursing on the shortage list.
The Home Office said that its clampdown would result in 37 per cent of primary and 9 per cent of secondary teachers working in the UK on Tier 2 visas for non-EU skilled workers being forced to leave. However, it refused to provide figures showing how many teachers this would amount to.
The DfE was also unable to produce these numbers. Earlier this year, it was criticised by the National Audit Office for failing to assess the extent of teacher shortages.
A DfE spokesperson said that it was considering its response to the Migration Advisory Committee’s review.
“We want all schools to be able to recruit the teachers they need, but we recognise that there are challenges in some subjects – that’s why we are investing over £1.3 billion up to 2020 to attract new teachers into the profession, including generous bursaries in key subjects.”
The new immigration rules
Previously, skilled non-EU workers who had lived in the UK for five years could apply for “indefinite leave to remain”, regardless of salary.
Under the new rules, as of April this year, only those earning more than £35,000 will be able to apply for this status.
PhD-level positions and jobs included on the “shortage occupation list”, such as nursing, are exempt from the change. At the moment, this includes secondary maths, physics and chemistry teachers but not the rest of the profession.
Workers who cannot show that they earn more than £35,000 will not be allowed to remain for longer than six years.
‘We’re being punished for doing what we think is right’
Kate O’Neil, from Milwaukee in the US, is a French and German teacher at a school in Berkshire. She arrived in England in 2012 to do a master’s in applied linguistics, having qualified as a teacher in the US, and began teaching here in 2014.
Ms O’Neil (pictured, below) earns just over £31,000 and, under the new Home Office rules, must boost that to £35,000 within three years.
“I’m a highly qualified teacher with two master’s degrees, one in teaching and one in linguistics,” she said. “I am fluent in two languages and have 10 years of teaching experience. There is a teacher shortage. I’m willing to stay and they are threatening to kick me out. I find it absurd.
“There is a moral issue. People in the more upper-middle-class professions are able to meet the threshold without any problem.
“People who take lower salaries and work hard in a job they think is important – charity workers, teachers – are being punished for doing what we think is the right and important thing for society.”
‘I can’t put down roots’
Grace Rawlinson, 27, teaches English and history at a secondary school in Surrey. She moved to England from Australia three years ago and currently earns just under £27,000.
Since the new rules were introduced, the emotional impact of living with uncertainty has been difficult for Ms Rawlinson.
“I cannot put down roots or start a relationship as I don’t know whether it’s worth investing the time in things,” she said. “I live very minimally and without possessions in case I have to move at any moment.
“However, I took out a car loan because I need a car to get to my current job. If I have to leave, I won’t be able to pay that off.”
She added that the schools she has worked in have been very supportive: “They can’t afford not to be, as the plain fact is, if I was appointed in the school, it was because they couldn’t find anyone else.
“I don’t think the UK can afford to lose teachers like me who are still willing to teach in this system.”
‘Stagnant’ pay will leave overseas teachers with no choice
Unions have argued that the Home Office clampdown is unfair on teachers because their pay has “stagnated” since 2011. It was now “highly unlikely” that an immigrant teacher would progress up the pay scale to more than £35,000 within six years, they said.
NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates (pictured) said the Home Office had not expected teachers to be affected by the new laws clamping down on non-EU workers because it believed Department for Education “propaganda” that the profession was “highly paid”.
“Too many departments have no clue how uncompetitive teachers’ salaries have become and that there is no guarantee of salary progression since the government has allowed schools extensive pay discretion,” she added.
Her comments were backed by Valentine Mulholland, policy adviser at the NAHT headteachers’ union, who said that teachers’ pay had become “sluggish”.
“At a time of restricted budgets it will be very difficult for most [teachers] to get to that stage [over £35,000] in that amount of time,” she said.
Ms Mulholland added that her union would be making a “strong case” for teaching to be included on the shortage occupation list, but said that much would hinge on the DfE’s own arguments.
“It will be interesting to see what their evidence will be and if they will acknowledge there is a significant problem,” she said. “If they want to see overseas teachers being exempt then that is acknowledging that [teacher supply] is a bigger problem.”
For more on teacher pay, see pages 12-13