How statistics hide ‘harsh reality’ of recruitment crisis

16th October 2015 at 00:00
Vacancy rate is based on flawed reporting system, experts warn

How can there be a crisis in teacher recruitment when the official figures show a vacancy rate of just 1.2 per cent?

It’s a question that has become increasingly common in recent months. As headteachers try to tackle the shortages, ministers are keen to show that the issue is under control and point to a seemingly negligible headline national vacancy rate. They will not use the word “crisis” to describe a 33 per cent rise in vacancies during a year, but admit it is “challenging” to find enough high-quality teachers for schools at the moment.

Meanwhile, heads are less concerned about the semantic differences between a “crisis” and a “challenge”, and just want to find a science teacher by Wednesday.

This is far from the only discrepancy when it comes to teacher recruitment. A dig into the data underlying the headline figures reveals some striking inconsistencies.

Most puzzling is the published teacher vacancy rate in Plymouth. At 8.5 per cent, this is not only well above the national average of 1.2 per cent but it is also much higher than the second highest vacancy rate of 2 per cent in Croydon.

The Department for Education has recorded 162 vacancies in Plymouth. But individual school records for the city, published by the DfE, show just one vacancy in one school. “We rely on schools reporting their own data relating to vacancies,” a DfE spokesman says. “In some rare cases, schools make mistakes.”

The fact that errors are made is not surprising. The guide to filling in the workforce census is 90 pages long and the section on teacher vacancies shows several definitions of a vacant post. As well as being a post that is not filled, a vacancy could also be a post covered temporarily by another member of staff, or one covered by a teacher on a contract of at least one term but less than an academic year. TES has also been told by schools of concerns about “software glitches” leading to incorrect figures.

Then there are issues surrounding the fact that the vacancy rate is recorded on a single day in November. The guidance states that if a teacher is not there on the day but has been appointed and is due to start, the post is still vacant. Similarly, if a teacher is present on the day but they are serving their notice, their post is not considered vacant.

Census is only a snapshot

Professor John Howson, a teacher workforce expert and honorary research fellow at the University of Oxford, warns that the current method of collecting data can hide staff turnover.

He points out that schools can be fully staffed in November each year but face multiple vacancies between census dates. His TeachVac company records the number of vacancies that a school advertises during the year. He has found that schools in the East of England are having a particularly hard time, with an average of 6.7 vacancies per school over the year.

“I’m doing it cumulatively, rather than measuring the workforce on a day and getting a total number for the year,” Professor Howson says. “If a school has advertised five vacancies through the year, which have all been filled by census day, that is still five vacancies that needed to be filled.”

Concern also exists about the timing of the census, which was moved from January to November in 2010. Allan Foulds, president of the Association of School and College Leaders and headteacher of Cheltenham Bournside School, says: “Moving the date to the autumn term is likely to reduce reported vacancies in schools because they will have successfully filled them at the beginning of the year.

“There are initiatives that try to solve the problem, but in our view the situation is worse than ever. These things will help, but don’t add up to enough help.”

Why the discrepancies?

Schools are most likely to be fully staffed in the autumn term. Collecting the data in November means vacancies occurring after the first term are not counted.

Fat-finger syndrome. The numbers recorded are single returns from around 21,000 state schools. Human or computer error does happen.

Figures show a fall in the percentage of maths and English lessons taught by teachers with a relevant post-A-level qualification, giving an indication of staffing pressures. But if schools drop or reduce subject time to cope with staffing pressures then that is not recorded.

Most of the vacancy rate is made up of temporarily filled posts. It is hard to tell whether heads want to employ staff on short-term contracts, or feel forced to because of concerns about budgets or staff quality.

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