The truth about the rise in teacher numbers

23rd March 2018 at 00:00
Shortage of staff in difficult-to-recruit subjects is still a problem, heads warn

New national figures on teacher numbers have this month brought some good news – for a change. Here, we shine a light on the statistics (the publication of which went largely unnoticed) and consider how significant they might be.

Weren’t the annual teacher census statistics published a few months ago?

Yes. The 2017 figures, published in December, showed the first overall rise in teacher numbers since 2010, with an increase from 50,970 in 2016 to 51,513 in 2017. However, not all data is published in December; some statistics are quietly drip-fed online in the months that follow. Among those published this month were figures showing the number of teachers “by main subject taught”.

What do they reveal?

Most subjects had a modest rise in teachers between 2016 and 2017. These included the two subjects with most teachers: English (from 2,466 in 2016 to 2,483 in 2017) and maths (from 2,331 to 2,361). One of the biggest proportional rises was in chemistry, with the 982 teachers marking an increase of 40, or 4 per cent, on the previous year. Overall, there was a net increase of 179 secondary subject teachers, from 21,526 in 2016 to 21,707 in 2017.

Which subjects didn’t have a rise?

A minority, and they tended to be subjects with well-publicised recruitment problems, including biology, computing studies, Gaelic, German, home economics and music. Biology lost the most teachers – 30 – and had 1,153, although this was still higher than chemistry (982) and physics (826). The number of PSE/guidance teachers stayed the same as in 2016, at 515, although back in 2008 only 300 recorded guidance as their main subject.

What is the longer-term picture?

The figures for all subjects go back to 2008, and show that there was steady and almost uniform decline in numbers across the subjects before the 2017 upturn: the number of secondary subject teachers had fallen by 2,890, or nearly 12 per cent, between 2008 (24,418 teachers) and 2016 (21,528).

What do schools say?

Jim Thewliss, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, which represents secondary headteachers, says: “At a basic level, the increase in numbers across the subject areas is good news.” However, he stresses that these are already “historic figures” and that difficult-to-recruit subjects – such as computing and home economics, but also some that saw increases, including maths, chemistry and physics – “continue to be a worry”. He adds: “It will be interesting at this point next year to evaluate the impact that the alternative routes into teaching are having on this.”

What has been attempted to increase teacher numbers?

The SNP Scottish government has come under fire for falling teacher numbers since it came into power in 2007 – although it has argued that pupil-teacher ratios have not changed dramatically over that time – and has come up with myriad ideas for addressing recruitment, as have local authorities, particularly in more rural and northern areas. These initiatives have had varying success – it is too early to gauge the impact of all of them – and have included attempts to get redundant oil and gas workers to retrain, recruitment drives in Canada and Ireland and, most controversially, the tendering process for a new route into teaching that could have opened the door – but ultimately didn’t – to the Teach First fast-track training programme, which has long been resisted in Scotland.

What about measures to retain existing teachers?

The Scottish government has in recent years threatened to withhold a large chunk of funding from councils if their teacher numbers dropped, but in certain subjects there were just not enough people being trained.

In November, Tes Scotland reported that English and maths were among several subjects struggling to attract enough student teachers in Scotland. The worst-off subject was Gaelic – it had recruited no student teachers, despite a target of only five.

Do the new figures show anything else?

Yes – they are broken down by gender. In 2017, there were a total of 13,923 female subject teachers (64 per cent) and 7,784 male subject teachers (36 per cent).

The biggest gender disparity was in home economics, where 96 per cent of teachers were female, but there were also large gaps in business studies (77 per cent female), art (76 per cent female), speech and drama (76 per cent female) and biology (74 per cent female). Only four subjects out of 35 had more men than women as teachers: computing, PE, physics and technical education.

Weren’t other, less positive, figures on teacher numbers published this month?

Yes. The Scottish Children’s Services Coalition, a group of private and charitable organisations that work with vulnerable children, last week called for more resources, after highlighting that the number of teachers trained to support pupils with additional support needs (ASN), including dyslexia and autism, fell from 3,248 to 2,733 – or 16 per cent – between 2012 and 2017. This fall came despite the number of ASN pupils increasing by more than 55 per cent since 2012, from 118,000 to 183,000.

Scottish Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said the “plummeting number of support teachers is a national disgrace”. A Scottish government spokesman said that all teachers were expected to provide support for vulnerable pupils, not just support-for-learning staff.


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