How the DfE has failed to arrest teacher shortages

19th February 2016 at 00:00
New analysis reveals that the strategy to deal with crisis is faltering

Exclusive figures reveal a worrying new picture of the growth of England’s teacher recruitment crisis and the failure of the government’s attempts to tackle the shortages.

A TES analysis of Department for Education statistics shows that massive hikes in spending on bursaries for teacher trainees in maths and the sciences have coincided with significant drops in the numbers of eligible candidates starting training.

And they reveal that big regional differences in the number of teacher trainees per pupil – which the DfE was warned about by the National Audit Office (NAO) last week – have widened substantially over the past two years.

TES has also uncovered a series of warnings from teacher training providers about “bursary tourists” who are taking advantage of the generous sums available to trainees “who have no intention of staying in teaching” (see page 8).

Bursaries tripled

The DfE has made the bursaries – worth up to £30,000 a year from 2016-17 – a centrepiece of its response to teacher shortages. But the department’s own figures suggest that they are having, at best, a limited impact.

Trainees recruited for the current academic year were able to access bursaries of up to £25,000 in maths, physics and chemistry and £15,000 for biology. That compares with a maximum bursary of £9,000 available for the first three and £6,000 for biology in 2011-12.

But since then, despite a near tripling in the value of bursaries, there has been a 16 per cent drop in the number science trainees on courses eligible for the money – and a 15 per cent drop in equivalent maths trainees (see box, right).

Teaching recruitment expert Professor John Howson said: “That doesn’t surprise me. The problem is, if you’re a good mathematician or physicist, the world is your oyster and you can get a starting salary over £30,000 within a year after university.”

Further figures reveal that the extra £16.4 million a year that the DfE now spends on bursaries to entice the brightest maths graduates into teaching – compared with 2011-12 – attracted just 261 extra trainees with a 2:1 degree or better this year.

That works out at nearly £63,000 a year for every extra maths trainee, before they have even begun teaching (see box, opposite).

Yvonne Baker, chief executive of the National Stem Learning Centre, said that research suggested that increasing financial rewards was not the best way of attracting maths and science graduates into teaching.

“Millennials value jobs offering constant learning opportunities, clear career paths and rewarding, enjoyable work,” she said. “I think you can get that from teaching. But we need to be clearer about how we’re going to develop these people and their love of the subject.”

The NAO’s damning report about the government’s record on teacher training, released last week, suggests that the DfE may not have been aware of the failure of the bursaries to attract extra trainees.

The public spending watchdog notes that “the department’s statistical analysis examined only the impact on applications [for training places], without assessing the relationship between bursaries and the number of applicants who succeeded in starting training, subsequently qualified, or took up a teaching job”.

Regional variation

The auditors also warn that the DfE’s teacher supply model doesn’t look “below the national level” and relies on schools to “resolve any local or regional shortages”.

The NAO conducted its own analysis of DfE figures and revealed that the number of teacher trainees per 100,000 pupils was 86 per cent higher in the best served region, the North West, than it was in the worst, the East of England.

TES has used the same methods to reveal that this regional chasm has widened over the past two years as the recruitment crisis has developed (see “By the numbers”, page 9). Since 2013-14, the number of teacher trainees per pupil has fallen by 11 per cent in the East of England, and has risen by 5 per cent in the North West.

The NAO has warned that the DfE “does not systemically model these problems”. And Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, told TES: “The government has lost sight of the key indicators it needs to track teacher supply.

“It needs to improve its model and look at the different challenges by subject and by region. That’s where most of the problems lie. I don’t think it’s got a tight enough grip on the data.”

The news comes only a week after the government shut down recruitment for the majority of primary school-based initial teacher training, leaving schools warning of further potentially “disastrous” shortages for 2017 (

A DfE spokesperson said: “It is disingenuous to suggest that our approach is not working – despite the challenge of a competitive jobs market, the proportion of trainee teachers with a top degree has grown, faster than in the population as a whole, and there are more teachers overall.

“But we are determined to continue raising the status of the profession. That’s why we’re investing hundreds of millions in teacher recruitment and backing schemes like Teach First and the National Teaching Service to get great teachers where they are most needed.”


A crisis in the making

The teacher recruitment crisis gripping schools today came virtually out of the blue.

“For years, teacher recruitment was barely mentioned,” says Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union. “Then about 18 months ago it suddenly started to emerge.”

A growing economy and frozen teacher salaries are among the root causes. The expansion of relatively well-paid private sector jobs is attracting graduates who might otherwise have taught.

In a time of stable pupil numbers, this change would take a long time to have an effect. But it has coincided with a bulge in school rolls.

“At the same time as that, the government deregulated and diversified the whole teacher supply and training model, which meant it was harder to understand who was training and where,” Mr Hobby says.

Malcolm Trobe, ASCL interim general secretary, said: “From 2014 we were trying to push to the DfE the severity of the problem. They were saying they knew there were challenges ahead. But they were not really responding.”

In part, this is because it focused too much on raw vacancy rates. Schools minister Nick Gibb told TES in July that vacancies were “very steady at about 1 per cent of the total profession”.

Mr Hobby argues that the government has drawn “too much comfort” from that figure. But he says it is now facing up to the issue. “We are at a stage where everybody has recognised there’s a problem,” he said.

Mr Trobe agrees: “There’s been an urgency from the department since about November or December.”

But the question of what can be done is a tricky one. An obvious starting point would be to raise teachers’ salaries to attract graduates.

But the Treasury is insisting on rises of just 1 per cent per year. And even if schools want to pay teachers more, tight budgets make this very difficult.

Other proposals range from paying off teachers’ student loans to extending the number of teacher training places on offer to launching advertising campaigns – a step that the DfE took late last year.

But according to Mr Hobby, little progress will be made until the heavy workload and high-stakes accountability driving teachers out of the profession are tackled.

Mr Trobe points out that the number of 21-year-olds is set to be in decline until 2022, limiting the pool of potential teachers. Could the recruitment crisis drag on until then? “That’s possible,” he says.


Timeline: the recruitment crisis

September 2013 TES reports fears of teacher shortages, after a third of places on the School Direct training scheme go unfilled.

June 2014 Jon Coles, chief executive of United Learning – one of the country’s biggest academy chains – warns that “we are entering a period of teacher shortage”.

December 2014 As DfE figures reveal a drop in numbers starting teacher training, Professor Chris Husbands says they suggest “the lowest level of teacher recruitment since 2008”.

June 2015 Teach First, the country’s largest provider of new teachers, warns of the worst recruitment crisis this century.

July 2015 DfE figures reveal the overall national vacancy rate has doubled since 2010.

July 2015 Schools minister Nick Gibb tells TES: “I don’t believe there is a crisis. We’re managing the challenge.”

October 2015 The Commons Education Select Committee announces plans to investigate whether there is a teacher recruitment crisis.

November 2015 TES reveals that nearly one in six teachers entering England’s classrooms for the first time last year qualified overseas

December 2015 Research by the NAHT headteachers’ union finds that four in five school leaders are struggling to recruit staff

February 2016 An NAO report on teacher recruitment is heavily critical of the DfE

The limited impact of rising maths bursaries

In 2011-12, there were 1,020 maths trainees with a 2:1 or higher on teacher training routes where bursaries were available. They would have received a £9,000 bursary each, costing the government £9.2 million.

In 2015-16, there were 1,281 maths trainees with a 2:1 or higher on these routes. On a conservative estimate (as those with first-class degrees would have received £25,000), giving each trainee a £20,000 bursary would have cost the government £25.6 million.

There were 261 more maths trainees with a 2:1 or higher in 2015-16 than in 2011-12. But the government spent £16.4 million more on bursaries, meaning that each trainee cost an extra £63,000.

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